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Que sera Sangiovese: Lessons learned from a failed experiment

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For a classic example of a fad that fizzled, you need look no further than California’s brief, disastrous experiment with Super-Tuscans.

It started when Piero Antinori, of Tignanello fame, bought a chunk of land on Atlas Peak and planted what was then the biggest Sangiovese vineyard in California. (Seghesio, and maybe a few others, had planted Sangiovese long before that, but it was off anyone’s radar.) When people heard that the Titan of Tuscany was planning on producing a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend — a “Super-Tuscan” — in Napa Valley, the wine media’s collective head exploded, and Cabernet producers looked nervously over their shoulders. Was this where the industry was going? Nobody wanted to miss that bus.

So everybody put in a few rows of Sangiovese. But a funny thing happened: California Super-Tuscans came, they saw, and they flopped. It turned out that Sangiovese by itself wasn’t very interesting, so there was simply no point in dumbing down a perfectly good Cabernet with it, except for the purpose of creating a novelty. Besides, there was something vaguely un-Californian about mixing Sangiovese with Cab. We had worked so hard at perfecting Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; it was as if Napa’s heritage were being disrespected, or even deliberately compromised for marketing purposes.

In Italy, some people in Tuscany had always felt the same way about Cabernet. They thought Sangiovese and Chianti should be made the traditional way. But there was no denying the money and fame that Tignanello was getting, so copycat Super-Tuscans began rolling off the assembly line.

But even in Tuscany, Super-Tuscans may have had their moment in the sun. A recent article in the World of Fine Wine magazine is headlined Rebels Without a Cause? The Demise of Super-Tuscans. It explains that “consumers are apparently turning their backs on these once trailblazing wines,” even in Italy. Why? Because they’re so muscular and powerful, “they’ve become less and less Tuscan,” the article quotes a Tuscan winemaker as saying. In other words, they could be from anywhere.

This argument is essentially the same one you hear in California: that Cabernets, Syrahs, Pinot Noirs and other (mainly red) wines have become so big and ripe that, luscious though they may be, they define an “international style” rather than one reflecting a particular terroir. In recent years there’s been some critical speculation that the pendulum is swinging back to more nuanced wines; in part, this may be due to relatively cooler vintages. But I can’t say that California wines are particularly nuanced. Barolo is nuanced. Bordeaux is nuanced. Young Burgundy is nuanced. The best California wines are explosive and fruity, which is what we like about them. Europeans can criticize them for being “international” in style, but you know what? California invented the international style. “International” is just another word for “Californian.”

When you think about it, California Super-Tuscans were the only ambitious wine experiment California ever tried at and failed. Are there lessons to be learned? I thought about this for the better part of a week. Don’t do something just because Antinori did? Make small, experimental lots before you jump off the cliff? Don’t always be thinking you have to seize onto the “new hot variety” train before it leaves the station? Stick to what you know you do well? I couldn’t come up with anything specific. Maybe the lesson is that there is no lesson. The development of wine in a new region like California is like Darwinian evolution: some branches led to us, while others led nowhere.

  1. Good questions Steve.

    I would add one more: “If one person failed at an experiment, does that mean it should not be re-attempted by others?”

    I appreciate the logistics and costs involved, but maybe the formula needs to be tweaked a bit. Perhaps the Super-Tuscan paradigm needs to be expanded for California? A different location? A touch of zin? A splash of syrah? Petit verdot? Petit Sirah?.

    I also think it’s pretty hard to dumb down cabernet. It’s singular and not the most complex variety to begin with and does better when blended with other varieties. So the concept of “dumbing down cabernet” is a bit of an oxymoron to me.

  2. Steve said:”The development of wine in a new region like California is like Darwinian evolution: some branches led to us, while others led nowhere.”

    What?? I thought god had created all the grape varieties in the world and Noah took them all with him in the ark.

  3. In early Paso Robles, Dave Caparone and the late Tom Martin substantially pre-dated the Antinori California experiment and, I think, came to the same conclusion as you have. The really good California Sangiovese blends (and there certainly are a few) are probably not so because of the Sangiovese component. I can but applaud these folks who are willing to put their money and time into their dreams.

  4. Carlos, we know God did not create all grape varieties, because some were developed at U.C. Davis. However, God did create U.C. Davis.

  5. I’m with Arthur. Unique blends hold the future of appealing reds, but not at the prices charged by Antinori, though Chris Dearden makes such a wine at Benessere and easily gets $60/bottle. Sangio will be folded into all sorts of special combinations producing “mongrel” wines that appeal to more core wine consumers who don’t get hung up on categories (which is asking a lot). The economics of Antinori’s property on Atlas Peak dictate that he stick to Cab and Chard. Sangiovese just doesn’t command the bucks based on what discriminating consumers will pay for it.

  6. Steve, this is Darren from Atlas Peak (Winery). A few comments about the great Sangiovese experiment in the Atlas Peak appellation. I think that it is important to point out that while a seemingly large amount of Sangiovese was planted up on the Antinori Vineyard, it represented only 25% of the plantings up there. When the vineyard was finally fully planted, there was 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Chardonnay, 20% Merlot, and small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec. Now as a winemaker for the Atlas Peak winery since 2002, I think that we can now admit that Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is truly king in the appellation. If you are not convinced, you only need to look across the Foss Valley to the Stagecoach Vineyards under the care of Jan Krupp, where more than 20 Napa wineries are purchasing Cabernet Sauvignon. Sangiovese was an experiment, that is true, and I am not sure it was Piero, that wanted that much Sangiovese planted up there. Although I was just a babe in the wine industry, I do recall a conversation that Piero felt that the then, majority owner of the vineyard, (Whitbread, The Wine Alliance, Allied Lyons), was over planting Sangiovese. And with 600 years in the wine business, this new wine company was moving much quicker to plant Sangiovese than Pierro would have preferred. And finally, I will conclude with the memory that there was a time when the Napa Valley was planted to Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, White Riesling, ect.

    It may not have been the best place for Sangiovese (that is now part of the past), but I believe it is going to be the next great appellation for Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Long live Cabernet in the Atlas Peak appellation.

  7. I would also point out that there are some good exceptions to the “nearly good sangiovese” dictum offered here.
    Kris Curran does a nice job with it as a straight varietal under her eponymous label.

    Reggie Hammond, taking the Ventana baton from Doug Meador, makes a nice cab-sang blend called Due Amici out of Arroyo Seco fruit (it’s not cough syrup, but it is quite nice) – even though he gets more attention for his Rhone reds.

    In the Santa Ynez Valley, Koehler Winery has been making a wine called Magia Nera – which (over the tenures of three or four different winemakers) has had a backbone of estate cab and sangiovese, plus/minus syrah.

    In the SYV/Los Alamos area, Louis Lucas grows sangiovese, as does Dr. Hallauer and various labels (Lucas& Lewellen, Presidio and others) have created elegant (again, not cough syrup) straight varietals and Super-Tuscan styled blends from this fruit.

    Paso Robles, of course, breaks every existing rule and there have been all kinds of “sangiovese-and-…” blends from there, some better than others.
    Maybe its time to reconsider this experiment and the judgment that it “failed”
    These blends may not be thunderous wines with decades of longevity ahead of them, but they have merit, they have a place, and (generally) they have an appealing price point.

  8. Steve

    Your Darwin analogy is a good one. Even with 150 years of wine in California, we are still centuries behind Europe…we’re still looking for what does best in a given area.

    Too, with as many brands as there are, even a truly great producer of Cabernet has a difficult time carving out a niche for itself.

    We planted 1.1 acres of Sangiovese in Livermore on our estate site in 1996. Experimenting with other grape varieties and blends is a way for us to focus the brand picture a bit for our small, but growing. audience. If they are already predisposed to trying our Cabernets, perhaps we can strengthen our relationship with them through Vincere, our Sangiovese/Cabernet blend.

    All this being said, I’m glad it was just an acre!

    Steven Mirassou
    Steven Kent Winery

  9. Steve,

    I agree that the Cali-Super/Tuscan venture is a failure. But, some winemakers and growers make killer sangiovese in our state. I believe that they know how to plant and grow the varietal correctly and blend the right grapes, or none, with it.

    Unti, Duxoup, Miner, Sunce, Peterson, Noceto and Seghesio make dynamite sangiovese from many different places within California. All of their styles are different, but most are great food wines.

    Cheers,
    Derek

  10. Their Sangio might not have been interesting, but as previous posts have already stated, there are some great Sangios in California. Not Italian at all in their style (maybe why the same Cab/Sangio blend didn’t work like it did in Italy), but fantastic.

    I still remember the first Noceto I had – it was a perfect, beautiful, singular note of cherry. There was triumph in its simplicity.

  11. What about Stolpman and their big money consultant they hired and I think Bruno D’Alfonso’s Sangiovese is alright. Question, What is the age of typical Italian sangiovese vines compared to California? Are they own rooted? And how many different clones do we have registered over here?

    I think back to how bad CA Pinot was and I atribute its current success to pioneers who kept making it better with better methods of growing it and making it.

    All that being said I always pass on sangiovese. Sorry.

  12. Early experiments in California with Sangiovese have been hampered by poor clones and a misapprehension of farming techniques needed to produce quality fruit – heavy thinning, strict canopy control and properly-timed irrigation are necessary. In the winery the grape needs to be treated more like Pinot than Cabernet. In evolution, new forms evolve as conditions change.

  13. Steve, you brought out a critical point of how things seem to phase up to an extreme before they return to the opposite end of the spectrum, which is then bounced back again. With wines becoming indistinguishable from any specific terroir expression there will be a trend to focus on more wines which do this. And sure enough, once everyone is creating wines distinct to terroir, there will be newcomers looking to push the boundaries. I feel the same will happen with technology–we are moving at such a fast pace incorporating tech into our lives and becoming constantly connected. Sure as the sun will rise expect for there to be a movement some point later down the line to get away from technology. It’s a natural force of balance between extremes.

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