Wine trade legend had it that the word fiasco entered the English language when the Italians flooded the American market with mediocre wines after the war and destroyed their reputation for decades. The fiasco was the the name of the straw wrapped around those bottles of cheap Chianti, which became the symbol of Italian wine in the United States. Cheap, innocuous or worse -the straw covered bottles were omnipresent on tables covered with red checked table cloths and provided romantic light, covered with candle wax, in dorm rooms in the 60’s and 70’s.
Of course, Italian wines long ago recovered from that debacle and are sold at prices on par with the the worlds finest. However, there was a second Italian wine fiasco. The first was them sending bad wine here, the second was our fault. We imported Italian varieties and proceeded to make some very boring wine from them. In the eighties there were a lot of high profile efforts to make expensive wines from Italian varieties in California and the category was even given a name: Cal-Ital. There was a lot of hoopla, but the wines were mediocre and expensive – not a good combination. Even today all too many American sangiovese and barbera wines look ridiculous when compared to Italian wines (or other American wines) selling for half the price. Those that deigned to attempt nebbiolo fell far shorter than ridiculous. What could the possible reason be to buy these American wines at $40, $50 or more when you could buy better Italian ones at $20. What made these Americans even worse is that they had no varietal character. They could have been made from zinfandel, merlot or cabernet, but were not as good as the wines made from those varieties. Why buy an expensive sangiovese when a zin or cab that tasted better cost less? As you might expect, the Cal-Itals soon went out of fashion.
Is this second fiasco over? It may well be as some exciting wines from Italian varieties are finally being made up and down the west coast. They are distinctly New World, as they should be, while maintaining true varietal character. Cabernet from Bordeaux and Napa may not taste the same, but the family resemblance is unmistakable. Finally you can now say the some thing about a few wines produced from varieties like barbera, sangiovese and even nebbiolo. While most of the better examples seem to be coming from Washington there are a few Californians producing some exciting wines too.
I can think of no more stunning example of this new trend than the 2004 Palmina Nebbiolo, Stolpman Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley. This is a gorgeous wine that is true both to its variety and its vineyard. First of all it is perfectly pale, with a radiant garnet color. Dark purple nebbiolo, like pinot noir, is not to be trusted. On the nose it is powerful, yet elegant and laced with all the classic tar and roses you could want. However, it also shows its pride in its American birth with a round, warm spiced fruit forward personality. The firm classic tannins, that are a hallmark of fine nebbiolo, are very present suggesting that those that age this lovely wine will be well rewarded.
The second Italian wine fiasco is coming to a very happy ending.