2003 Bacio Divino ” Pazzo” Red Wine, Napa

I’ll just get this off my chest right away. Most California Sangiovese is crap. I’m convinced that this is a really difficult climate to grow it in — while California may be a Mediterranean climate we just don’t really cut it when it comes to Tuscan varietals. The few places that I think it might be reasonably to grow Sangiovese — Amador County or Lodi — have a history with other Italian varietals such as Barbera, but very few people, it seems, have tried to grow Sangiovese. All of this by way of saying that anyone who tries to do it well in Northern California has got a long hard road ahead of them, and they’ve got to be very good to make something worthwhile.

Despite its lousy track record in my neighborhood, I always jump at the chance to try California Sangiovese, and sometimes I end up with decent wines. None that are truly amazing yet, but some that I’d be happy to drink with dinner without a second thought.

This brightly colored bottle is a good example of that category of wine, and its winemaker is a good example of the stubborn perseverance that is required to make something of Sangiovese in this climate.

Claus Janzen started his venture into the world of Sangiovese nearly on accident. The first time he knew the grape was grown in Napa was when it showed up in crates at the winery where he was working at the time. The grapes had come from Showket vineyard, and were mysterious and compelling. A little investigation over the next few years and along came 1993 and a contract for a few tons of Sangiovese, but not much of a plan beyond that. Taking inspiration from the then renegade French and Italian winemakers who were blending all sorts of non-standard grapes with Cabernet Sauvignon, Janzen set out to see what he could do with Cabernet and Sangiovese. The result was Bacio Divino (‘the divine kiss’ in Italian) one of California’s first “Super Tuscan” styled wines which has proved to be a striking commercial success, to the point of near cult status.

Of course, that initial wine was (and still is) mostly Cabernet (around 85%). Over the years, Janzen hasn’t lost the hankering to see what he could do with the finicky, tannic Sangiovese grape that can work so much magic when treated right. So in what he might describe as a fit of madness, and with a little help from winemakers Nils and Kirk Venge (of Robert Keenan winery, among others), Janzen created Pazzo, which literally means “crazy.”

Janzen’s winemaking orientation and process centers around blending in the classical old world style, and Pazzo is perhaps a better example of this than his Bacio Divino. Janzen practices what the French call “assemblage” — where each of the lots of grapes are fermented and aged for a time separately by varietal, each with their own tailored oak regimen and treatment. After some time, these lots which can remain separate for more than a year, are tasted individually and then blended together in what can only be described as mad scientist fashion: a little bit of this, a drop of that, a dash of the other.

Janzen says this wine was borne primarily out of experimentation, and it’s not hard to believe, especially when you learn that in addition to Sangiovese (60%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (23%), the wine also has 7% Petite Sirah and 4% Viognier in it.

Viognier ???? What is this, some sort of twisted Australian/French/Italian Frankenstein? Actually it’s just a very nice medium bodied dry red that has a unique character and is an excellent food wine. I won’t go so far as to call it genius — Janzen may have to do a bit more meddling with his chemistry set before it gets there, but it can’t be considered anything other than an unqualified success.

The wine stayed in various types and ages of French oak barrels for about 2 years before bottling. 3000 cases were made.

Tasting Notes:
Medium ruby in the glass with hints of bronze, this wine has a soft nose of dried cherries, vanilla, cedar and the barest hint of dried strawberries. In the mouth it is medium-bodied, with dusty dry tannins which envelop flavors of cherry, raspberry, cranberry, and redcurrants threaded with a slight hint of sweet oak and bittersweet chocolate which fades nicely in the moderate finish.

Food Pairing:
This wine would be a great match for short ribs braised in coffee and ancho chile sauce.

Overall score: 8.5/9

How much?: $25

This wine is available for purchase online.