You can take the boy out of Friuli, but you can’t take the Friuli out of the boy. One quick flash of his boyish smile and it’s easy to understand the bright conviviality that you taste in Enrico Bertoz and his wife Letizia’s wines. Like the man, they are positively brimming with big love — a zesty, sunny cheer that is, like his smile, quite infectious.
Bertoz, 37, spends his days making wine for Flora Springs Winery in Napa (and as a brief aside, seems to have made a wonderful improvement to the wines in his recent years there). Look carefully in the corners of the modest Flora Springs winery in St. Helena, though, and you’ll see a crusty old barrel or two with the words “Arbe Garbe” scrawled on them. While all the wine that surrounds them is also the product of Bertoz’s passion, these other barrels, and the roughly 600 cases of wine they yield each year represent a connection to Bertoz’s personal terroir, and a bridge between the two worlds that he loves.
“I grew up in a small town called Pavia in Friuli,” explains Bertoz as we sit on a terrace overlooking the vineyards of St. Helena basking in the mid-day sun. “It’s across the river from Butrio. I was born there and raised there. In Italy, I went to technical school for science and Enology.”
“My great aunt — my grandmother’s sister — after World War II, she married an American, and they went to live in New York City. When I was eight years old, they took me to visit her. I stepped out on to Jamaica Avenue in Queens, and said to myself ‘No matter what happens, one day I’m going to live in this country””
“I learned to run away from the Puerto Ricans at a tender age” laughs Bertoz. “I went back again when I was sixteen. Instead of going to the beach like all my friends, I wanted to go to America.”
Starting as a teenager, Bertoz began to save his money for the move he knew would come eventually. After years of pestering, his father took him for a few trips that included a grand tour of South, including Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee.
“I don’t know why it always appealed to me. It was just somewhere I thought I should live,” muses Bertoz. “When I’d go back to Italy for the school year, I’d always have to defend my love for it. I always liked it here.”
In his teens, Bertoz met Letizia, the woman that would eventually become his wife.
“We both used to go work at [Friulian producer, Silvio] Jermann’s for pruning and harvesting, and that was a big chunk of change right before school started. I was saving, always saving.”
“Finally, when I was twenty-three, I decided I had to make the move,” recalls Bertoz. “At the time I was working for the Nonino family, the grappa makers, and they had ties around the world. I went to the owner one day and told him ‘You have to help me get to the USA, actually to California.’ I was also sending résumés and letters but no one was responding.”
“Finally, they got me in contact with [California restaurateur] Piero Salvaggio,” continues Bertoz. “It’s not like I wanted to work in a restaurant, but I wanted to work, and I wanted to get to the US. He needed help in the mornings in the wine cellar stocking and restocking. I said ‘It’s perfect,’ and took the job.”
Bertoz got the kind of instant education that anyone does working a California restaurant wine cellar. “I got exposed to all these amazing wines,” recalls Bertoz. “Kistler, Marcassin, Alban. I was tasting these amazing wines and it finally connected for me and I thought, ‘why the heck am I not doing here what I was doing in Friuli?’
“Then one day I stumbled across these bottles with really weird labels that were amazing. I asked my boss what was the deal with these wines, and he told me they were made by this other guy who used to be in the restaurant business. I asked if he could put me in touch, but he just shook his head and said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to be interested.’
At this point Bertoz flashes one of his smiles, and it’s hard not to laugh as he describes the campaign of cheerful terrorism he waged on Sine Qua Non owner and winemaker Manfred Krankel. “Basically, I bugged the crap out of this guy until he gave me an audience,” admits Bertoz. “And so I got to work a little with him.”
“This opened up the whole wide world,” says Bertoz. “The wines were what they are. Huge but not clumsy. Monsters. But his dedication is really what got me. This is a guy who’s a millionaire, and sold this bakery and he’s there during harvest before everyone else unloading the forklift — one time with fifteen stitches still in his head — and standing on the sorting system all day hosing stuff off. He would take me around his vineyards. We would meet at 4 AM, sample grapes until 6 AM, and then work until 10 PM or Midnight. It was seeing his dedication, his quirky ways, his warehouse operation, that really taught me a lot.”
“I remember this vineyard he showed me once, called White Hawk, and there was basically a dune of sand with grape vines growing in it,” remembers Bertoz. “This vineyard represented everything about America for me, this pioneering spirit that is embedded in American culture. I never would have thought of planting a vineyard there. And from there we would go up to the vineyards at Alta Mesa that are basically touching the heavens. It was all an epiphany for me.”
Bertoz worked a single harvest with Krankel, got his green card, and then, in his words “was standing on the shoulders of giants.”
“I moved up north, and thanks in part to my time with Manfred, I could basically work everywhere I wanted. I settled in Napa, and started working with Marco DiGiulio at Girard for three years.”
During his second harvest with DiGiulio, Bertoz got access to a half ton each of Pinot Blanc, Viognier, and Malvasia.
“It wasn’t even enough to fill the press, but I started messing around with it,” recalls Bertoz, who couldn’t resist a chance to play with some of the grapes he was used to from back home.
“I had to make my own wine, because there was a chance. I wanted to do this. It is something I was brought up doing. I had this idea in my head: how can I express who I am and where I come from and where I live now. And when that fruit came in, it just clicked. Back then I was doing a lot of vineyard sourcing for Marco I used to drive from Mendocino on down to San Francisco, and one day I came across Saralee’s Vineyard.”
It was the reliable access to fruit that turned Arbe Garbe from an experiment into something real.
Around about the same time, Bertoz got a call from Flora Springs Winery, who were looking for an assistant winemaker.
“I did a little research and found out that they were the second largest growers in Napa — they sell to almost everyone — and I said yes because I knew that would give me control of the fruit.”
“I’m very particular about my fruit,” Bertoz says, almost sheepishly. “I have my own ideas as far as viticulture goes. Canopy management and fruit load are very important, and the right pruning is very site specific,” he explains when I raise my eyebrows for explanation. “It takes me about six years to get a vineyard where I want it to be. School gives you the frame and the tools, but you need to do everything by what the site needs specifically.”
When I ask what his wife has her own ideas about given their time spent working for Jermann, Bertoz grins. “She does the blends. She is the one who always has her finger on the blends. She does a lot of work for me — the stuff I can’t do because of harvests here. She pulls samples and then chastises me when things aren’t right — too much of this or too little of that. The imprimatur is always hers.”
“She went to language school,” he adds, almost by way of apology.
The wines are fermented with native yeasts, and sometimes include extended skin contact, or batonnage if appropriate.
Arbe Garbe is the Friulian term for the jumble of flowering weeds most often used as cover crops in the vineyards. “When you go to Friuli and you see the vineyards,” explains Bertoz, “there is always this carpet of green. It’s an ancient practice. What the plants are depends on the vineyard and the season, but you’ll find wild peas and clover and mustard, which are all essentially homeopathic remedies from a vigor standpoint, and cures for nutrient deficiency.”
When I ask if this means that Arbe Garbe is biodynamic or at least sustainable, Bertoz laughs again. “Sustainable is a word that is very fashionable. The beauty and curse of what we do is that it takes a year to see the results of what you do. And then of course, the alcohol helps you forget and endure.”
Occasionally Bertoz will bust out with a saying like this that makes him sound like an old Italian grandfather in the body of a thirty-something. His joviality makes it easy to overlook the deep thoughtfulness that he brings to his work.
I ask him about his bottles and labels, which are quite striking.
“Every year I change the the bottle shape and the labels,” he explains, “not because I think I’m some quirky guy, but with the 2010 so structured I felt like I needed a bottle with shoulders and a label that was somewhat austere. That was the nature of the vintage and the wine. With 2011 with a floral tone, and being a lighter year heading towards the flowers, it was a vintage of nuance rather than substance, so I picked the long ethereal bottle and the flower motif.”
I ask him who is label designer is and he just shrugs. “I do it all,” he says. “I’m into botanics and herbs. I have a bunch of old botany books from the 17th, 16th, and 15th centuries at home. That was where I got inspiration for the label prints.”
It takes me a moment to realize that he’s saying that he actually created woodblocks to print the labels himself.
“It gets pretty boring around here in January and February,” he laughs. “When you have a four year old and a newborn and it rains all day between diaper changes and ‘let’s play legos!’ when the house is quiet I just start carving away.”
The labels and bottles, like the wines, are an intensely personal expression of Bertoz and his wife, and are more interesting for it. With a 600 case production, the wines aren’t plentiful, but their quality and distinctiveness have made them somewhat of an under-the-radar favorite of the wine geek set, who hold the wines of Friuli in high regard.
Not every wine, when tasted, can be said to easily reflect the hand that made it. We make much, after all, of the need for the wine to have a certain transparency to place, most of all. But terroir exists at least as much in the people who produce a wine as the soils in which it grows, and for that reason something of the maker can shine through a wine. The wines of Arbe Garbe, appropriately enough, leave you with a tell-tale grin.
2011 Arbe Garb Malvasia Bianca, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass this wine smells of wintersweet blossoms, wet chalkboard, and a hint of wax. In the mouth, tart lemon and melon flavors have a light tannic structure and a smooth, silky texture. Great, stony acidity makes the wine quite easy to drink. Notes of grapefruit linger in the finish. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.
2011 Arbe Garbe White Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of honey, melon, and exotic blossoms. In the mouth the wine is beautifully round, with flavors of melon, honey, and lychee swirling amidst a wet concrete minerality that is quite tasty. A lightly bitter citrus pith quality lingers on the finish and puckers the edges of the mouth. A blend of 50% Pinot Grigio, 45% Malvasia Bianca, and 5% Riesling. Alcohol unknown. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.
2010 Arbe Garbe White Blend, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and peaches. In the mouth the wine has a broad, round silkiness and a gorgeous waxy complexion of yellow melon, apple, honey, and white flowers. Fantastic acidity and wonderful luscious floral quality, yet at the same time deep and stony, like the bottom of a well. A blend of 45% Pinot Grigio, 45% Malvasia, and 10% Ribolla Gialla. Alcohol unknown. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28. click to buy.
The 2012 wines are also on the market. I had a chance to taste them out of barrel last year, and they are exceptional. The Malvasia is bright and fresh, but also with some of the depth that comes with extended skin contact, and the white blend includes Gewürztraminer, and has a nice richness to it.