WE: Bryan Harrington on Obscure Varieties

As linked on WineTerroirist, terrific article by MattKettman in WineEnthusiast:

on BryanHarrington’s project to bring in obscure European varieties last Spring. Prima facie evidence that, indeed, Bryan has gone off the deep end and renounced any thought of running a profitable winery.

Did I mention that I’ve followed Bryan Harrington from the very start?? Alas, though, not afore KenZinns.

So he’s bringing more varietals to an already inundated varietal market, and one that has continually proved that Italian varietals don’t grow all that well (and sell even worse), and bringing varietals that aren’t making any one filthy rich in Italy? Got it.

Well, Ian…I would quibble with that second point, Ian. I would claim that the Idlewild Cortese is as good, nay, better, than any grown in Piemonte.
And the Ryme Vermentino as good as any from Corsica or Favorita from Piemonte.

As for “inundated”…have you counted the number of varieties grown in Italy or in Georgia/Armenia?? Calif’s a slacker in that regard.
If you’re only interested in drinking Cabernet and Chard, than this other stuff is irrelevant.

As for “filthy rich”… it’s not always the big $$$'s that motivate people to get into the wine biz. Some folks do it for the creativity
and the intellectual challenge. Sure you can buy a plot of land in the NapaVlly, plant Cabernet, hire a name winemaker, and become “filthy rich”. Plenty
of folks have done that. But some people, Bryan and many others, want more out of life than that.

You and I will not see eye to eye over the quality. I don’t think the best of what Cali makes matches what the best of what Italy does. I do find that quality is all over the map in Italy, but I have never been overly impressed by Cali-Italian wines, and it’s not from a lack of trying either.

Sure, the pure number of varietals falls way short, but I recall the early 2000s boom of everyone taking a stab at Sangiovese. I’m not only for drinking Cab and Chard, no question. I think California is doing a significantly better job with Cab Franc these days, and have been consuming more and more of it.

I love pet projects, I’m all for them. I want to see them succeed too, but the quality has to be there. That costs $$$ to do right. I didn’t really explain that well in the first place.

But Ian, it’s only going to be through guys like Bryan that CA will ever be able to realize more than Cab and Pinot Noir. The fact that a lot of people planted Sangiovese, treated it like Cab, and gave up doesn’t mean that it won’t ever work anywhere in CA. They didn’t know about Cab at one point either. And while people have been trained to think that’s the only grape to buy, look what happened over the past 10 years to Pinot Noir - people have been trained to think that crappy, sweet, thick Pinot Noir is somehow superior to Cab.

To the degree that it’s about fashion, Bryan is ahead of the game. To the degree that it’s about high-quality alternatives to Cab/Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, he’s already contributed.

If CA were starting out in the wine business now, what’s the likelihood that they’d focus on Cab and Chardonnay? Back when they were starting in the early 1970s, Italian cooking was still checkered tablecloths and straw bottle Chianti and France was where you looked for fine dining and good wine. Good luck finding a French restaurant anywhere in major restaurant markets today. We have high-end pizza places and pseudo-Italian places all over, as well as molecular cuisine and locavores and everything else, just not too many French bistro places, much less high-end Frence restaurants. And given that most of CA is more akin to parts of Italy, Greece, Spain and Croatia than it is to Bordeaux, I don’t see why anyone start out with Bordeaux cultivars.

I was in Livermore a few days ago and it was 116 and some lady had ripped out her Grenache to plant Pinot Noir! Because that’s what CA does best? Maybe in some places, but not in the desert.

It’s great that Bryan’s doing what he’s doing. Maybe he won’t make a fortune, but one thing is for sure - he makes damn good wine.

I guess I’ve yet to have a Primitivo from Apulia that is even close to an average to good, not to mention great, Zin from Calif.
But I’m open to suggestions.

There was a lot of excitement in Calif for Sangio early on. Part of its fall from grace is that they didn’t taste exactly like Tuscan Chianti, and were,
therefore rejected for that flaw. But I’m seeing an increased interest in Sangio in Calif these days and finding some that are pretty good. True, they still
don’t taste like Chianti.

I wouldn’t get too hung up on better / worse, unless we believe wine critic points are a precise indicator of quality.

Primitivo / Zinfandel is a good example. I rather like the 13% alc Puglian wines, though they’ve started trying to ape the US high octane style now. For me the Puglian wines hold more interest. Others will see it differently.

We’ve seen with NZ Sauvignon Blanc, Argentinian Malbec, Hunter Valley Semillon, etc. that grapes can be a success by being their own thing, not some cut-price tribute act. It does take experimentation and a little luck, plus once you’ve settled on the right grape to vineyard match, the vines have to mature and you have to learn afresh the seasonal effects.

For years, decades even, Pinot grown in California was of little interest. Now it is.
You have to start somewhere.
I do think Portuguese varieties might do better in California than Southern Italians ones however.

Thanks for posting the link, Tom. Bryan brought back a bunch of cuttings from northern Italy this spring (mostly Piemonte and Veneto). FPS in Davis was able to successfully propagate most of the varieties but it will take a little time to see how virused the cuttings may have been and how long it will take to clean things up.

As mentioned in the article, the Nerello Mascalese and Carricante that Bryan brought back a few years ago have now gone through the FPS quarantine and were both grafted at Sumu Kaw Vineyard in El Dorado County this spring, so we may get some fruit from the vines there next year. Frappato is taking a bit more time to be released by FPS and hopefully it will be ready to graft next year.


As noted in the article, some varieties have been brought into the US through “suitcase” cuttings, but that presents risks of spreading viruses from that material to other vines. Some of the varieties mentioned above have been brought into California that way and from what I’ve heard, they ended up being badly virused and were not successful. Some have also been brought as proprietary rather than through the open source route that Bryan is using, meaning that the varieties that he’s brought in will ultimately be available for others to plant or graft. Bryan is the first one to have brought these particular varieties into California in that way, which is why FPS is working with him.

Bryan is such a great guy.

I am excited to see what lessons can be learned through Brian Harrington’s experiments with these grapes.

Who knows? Perhaps the most compatible match for California winemaking hasn’t even been discovered yet! :slight_smile:

Exactly. The journey of discovery is half the fun, although not necessarily lucrative.

Loving the conversation and the back and forth. On the one hand, it’s certainly ‘risky’ to do what Bryan is doing - on many levels. On the other hand, it’s ‘ballsy’, and there’s always room for those who are willing to take these types of risks.

At the end of the day, if winemaking was only about ‘making money’, ALL of us small guys would be making red and white blends using cute names, heavy bottles, and a good dose of RS. Luckily, that’s not what it’s about for many of us :slight_smile:


And for the above, we are thankful champagne.gif

Thank you, and cheers to that! [cheers.gif]

Probably hasn’t. but I think you need Christian monks to best suss it out.

Sorry for the late reply, I was enjoying our discussion!

You hit on something that kind of adds to my head scratching, which is if the Italians struggle to get it right, how can the Californians?

BTW, if you want some really good Primitivo, check out Felline (dirt cheap and awesome) Chiaromonte (more, but exceptional). These are of the other elegant, terroir driven style. If you want something that more bold, and intense, I would recommend Feudi di San Marzano Sessantanni and Polvanera 17. I haven’t had the Polvanera 14 (as you can probably guess, it’s number is roughly the alcohol) in a while, but last time I had it was overly reduced and hard to drink.

Having recently had two mature Clendenen Family nebbiolos (2003 and 2005) and their tocai friuliano (2010), I would take issue with the bolded part. I’m also a big fan of Unti’s montepulciano-dominated Sagramigno.

I’d love to try nerello mascalese grown on volcanic soils at high altitude in the Foothills.

As for the merits of propagating obscure European grapes more generally, I’ll see you and raise you: I had a Clendenden Family mondeuse rose and an Arnot-Roberts trousseau last night that were both excellent.

As for sangiovese, there are those of us who think that most sangiovese grown in Italy isn’t very successful. [stirthepothal.gif]

Oh, I think it is very SUCCESSful there: the most successful ones there are richly priced! [snort.gif]

That’s why they created the new designation in Chianti - to charge more!

But here’s the dif - they’re only growing it in a small area of Italy. California is bigger than Italy. Why shouldn’t they get it right somewhere in CA? Also, one might argue that since the 1970s it’s changed entirely in Italy, all over Tuscany, so why not the same in CA?