Warm Up: The Italian Influence in California

Grape harvest in California’s Central Valley 1898
Courtesy of USC Libraries, Special Collections. CA Historical Society Collection

Over the last couple decades, Italian varieties have become more popular in California. They have such momentum now that several up-and-coming producers have been able to stake much or all of their production on Italian varieties.

Italians, and thus echoes of Italy’s wine culture, have been a part of California for quite some time, and Italian influence gained serious momentum during the California Gold Rush. In a period of less than a decade, the gold rush brought thousands of ’49ers from around the globe, and San Francisco grew from a town of 200 to a city of over 35,000 people. This growth brought infrastructure, trade routes, a market for California’s early wine era, and helped create an environment of cultural exchange.

After the 1906 earthquake and amidst heavy looting, the Italian founder of the Bank of Italy (which is now Bank of America) hid the money in his bank under trash and vegetables, and spirited it away to a safer location. At a strategic wharf, he set up an “office” made of a plank laid over two barrels– might they have been wine barrels?– to make some of the first loans that helped rebuild the city.

The San Francisco Opera was founded by an Italian who originally helped produce traveling shows for San Francisco’s post-Gold Rush population.

Some of California’s earliest winemaking families were Italian.

And Italian grapes made a difference as well, but many of them came much later in California’s recent post-Prohibition Era. Grapes such as Grignolino, Barbera, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, and Friulano are becoming more and more prevalent in the palates (and palettes) of California winemakers. A few other Italian varieties merit some additional mention: Ribolla Gialla, Aglianico, and Vermentino.

California Ribolla owes its renaissance to the late George Vare. After a life-changing visit to Friuli, Vare returned to California with Ribolla Gialla on his mind, and after several more visits to Friuli he acquired some Ribolla from Gravner and began to graft over his Pinot Grigio. Vare’s passion for Ribolla spread to a small group of friends, and today you can find various styles among several pivotal California producers.

Aglianico from southern Italy has also made its way to California, and is making some beautiful wines. Ryme Wine Cellars started their winery with Aglianico, and works with some Paso Robles fruit planted in 2001.


California Aglianico by Levi Dalton

Vermentino has some serious plantings in California, and producers vary in their treatment of the grape.

With the abundant and clear Spanish influences over California culture, it is interesting to see the enduring impact that Italians and Italian products have made– and continue to make– on California.

This Warm Up from Erin Scala was featured on I’ll Drink to That, Episode 273.

About Erin Scala: Originally from Virginia’s wine country, Erin Scala’s earliest memories of wine include picking and crushing grapes as a child. Scala moved to Manhattan in 2008 and had fun working at PUBLIC, a one-Michelin star restaurant in Nolita, and their adjacent bar, The Daily. She was inspired by the restaurant’s Australian and New Zealand-focused wine list, and in 2013, was honored by Wine Enthusiast in their “40 Under 40” feature for the depth of her selections from the region. After a stint at The Musket Room, Erin moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to run the wine program at Fleurie Restaurant and Petit Pois Bistro. When she’s not working on a Warm Up for the podcast, Scala is off in search of a vineyard, drumming, or writing her blog www.Thinking-Drinking.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.