Many of the varieties we might consider alt-California have a history in the state that long predates the rise of cabernet and chardonnay. Look no further than the work of Eugene W. Hilgard, one of the great agricultural scientists of the 19th century, who planted and recorded dozens of grape varieties across the state prior to Prohibition: the Jurassic duo of trousseau and poulsard, mondeuse, veltliners of various sorts, vernaccia and so much more. Even after Prohibition wiped out most of the state’s vineyards, there was ample interest in working with many of these varieties. No one really knew what California wine should be, so why not plant lots of everything?
Of course, it’s clear today what California’s a-list grapes are—and no worry that alt-California is going to take away any of their thunder; there will be plenty of cabernet and pinot noir to go around—and the alt-roster isn’t going to stage a coup.
But these wines are crucial in helping to redefine what California is, and what it might be. Today we drink a rainbow of wines from all over the world, and what was obscure not long ago is common fare today. So if alt-California allows us to consider what might be, or what might have been, all the better. Progress never followed just one path.
Fast Facts: While there’s lots of interest in Italian-inspired whites, many native Italian grapes have been in California for a while in part because of the Cal-Ital movement 30 years ago, which tried to make a case for things like sangiovese and barbera, even spurring big-name efforts like the La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi label.
The alt-California darling ribolla gialla is a recent arrival, and a rarity—smuggled in by a retired wine executive named George Vare and grafted in 2001 in a single vineyard in Napa Valley. Vare loved the grape, and turned his vines into an incubator of sorts for the who’s-who of New California: Scholium’s Abe Schoener, Steve Matthiasson, Massican’s Dan Petroski and so on. Today, a handful of other plantings exist.
The Essential Producers: Massican: When not crafting cabernet for Larkmead Vineyards, Dan Petroski has helped pioneer Italifornia—the (more successful) 21st-century iteration of Cal-Ital. Massican made its name on blends inspired by the region of Friuli, although more recent efforts have expanded to use pinot grigio and greco.
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– Jon Bonne