Mention Mendocino wine these days, and most aficionados will think of pinot noir. That’s hardly surprising: Pinot noir still is hot in the wine world, and Mendocino’s chilly Anderson Valley produces some outstanding examples.
But Mendocino County encompasses much more than Anderson Valley. Less than 15 percent of the county’s 18,000 acres of grapevines are in the Anderson Valley; the rest are in the warmer, inland valleys and hillsides. And there’s more than pinot: Mendocino County grows a little of almost everything, from aglianico to zinfandel. Some of the most interesting wines produced in the inland areas are made from Italian grape varieties.
Winemaker Greg Graziano is the county’s leading proponent and producer of these Italianate wines, both red and white. He makes a huge array of wines — not all of them from Italian varieties — and has four wine brands. I tasted a number of his wines recently, when I was a judge at the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition.
Some of the wines showed very well at the competition, which made me wonder why more people aren’t using Italian wine grapes in Mendocino County. (I’m not including zinfandel, the fourth most planted grape in the county. Zin probably originated in Croatia, but it has Italian connections, because it’s genetically identical to primitivo.)
So I called Graziano to ask about the state of Italian grapes in Mendocino and why these varieties seem to do so well there. Graziano has made a wide range of wines in nearly 40 years as a winemaker, but the Italian grapes are in his blood. His grandfather, an immigrant from Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, planted barbera and moscato in Mendocino County in 1918.
Graziano lived through the “Cal-Ital” boom of 15 to 20 years ago, when Italian varieties like sangiovese and barbera were touted as the next big thing. Unfortunately, a lot of people who rushed to plant these grapes discovered that they were surprisingly difficult to grow and vinify. And the wines can be difficult to sell, especially when they’re priced higher than their Italian counterparts. But Graziano has soldiered on. “I don’t bail on anything,” he says. “I’m so hard-head ed, I don’t give up.”
Graziano notes that the growing conditions in Mendocino are very diverse, even in the inland areas. There are hilly sites with rocky soils, good sun exposure and warm days that are good for red grapes. Cooler spots, like Potter Valley, work well for the whites; that’s where he grows his.
Among the reds, I was most impressed by his full-bodied 2011 Monte Volpe Negroamaro ($28) and the peppery 2011 Monte Volpe Aglianico ($28).
I haven’t tasted Graziano’s sangiovese, but there are some other good examples from the area, like the 2012 Barra of Mendocino Sangiovese ($18), which is quite Italian in spirit.
The Sierra Foothills are another good source of wines made from Italian varieties, especially reds, and there are some good bottlings made from elsewhere in the state, including Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County and Lodi.