John Harley is our guest this week on California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger. His label is called Inizi Wines and he specializes in growing and producing Italian varietals in California which are rarely found in the United States. Inizi Wines was founded by two couples, A.J. and Jen Filipelli and John and Kirsti Harley, in 2012. John and A.J. became friends when they were studying Enology and Viticulture, respectively, at Fresno State, and their wives are also partners in the company. The word “Inizi” means “beginnings” in Italian.
Their first vintage was 2012, a Charbono. It’s an Italian variety that was known for a while in the Napa Valley. It is known for its acidity, dark color and beautiful aromatics. It was known as a good blending grape in the age before the Judgement of Paris, when blends were more popular, and before Cabernet Sauvignon took over.
Next they taste a 2018 Tocai Friulano, a crisp white wine very popular in Italy. It is usually grown on steep, rocky hillsides, in Friuli, the region of north-eastern Italy.
“You can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take the Italy out of the grape.”
After they started with Charbono, they continued to plant and produce unfamiliar wines. The four of them have jobs in other parts of the wine industry and they were surprised at how much success they have had. They have a tasting room in Guerneville.
They also make three blends, a white, red and rosé, from their Italian varieties. They make a Sagrantino, which is ultra-rare. They also make Montepulciano. Their red blend is their most popular bottling, it has Montepulciano, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Barbera and a little Cabernet Sauvignon.
Dan Berger notices that the 2015 Charbono is dark but has low tannins. John compares it to a cool climate Syrah. John explains that they don’t own their vineyards but they work closely with the vineyard owners. They have ancient Charbono vines. There are only about 70 acres of Charbono in the US. They grow Charbono in Argentina, where it is also called Bonarda. (The name Bonarda is also known in Italy.) In Argentina, they use it for blending with their Malbecs.
Dan Berger explains that it is not easy to find these plantings of old Italian varieties in California, you have to go out and hunt for them.
John tells about his Italian grandfather who started selling grapes in New York on a small scale and eventually grew to a nationwide business and he became known as The Juice King of the US.
They also taste a Sagrantino that Dan says is so extraordinary that he would cellar it for 30 or 35 years. Sagrantino comes from the south of Italy and is one of the most tannic wines in the world. It has to be a year in the barrel and two years in the bottle, by Italian DOC standards. His friend Dick Handel has an acre and a half of this on a hill in Dry Creek. “You can take the grape out of Italy but you can’t take the Italy out of the grape.”
Dan compares it to a walk in the forest in the summertime. Sagrantino is the Barolo of the south, says Dan, quoting friend of the show Don Chigazola. John says it could be compared to a Cabernet Sauvignon. Dan suggests having it with roast lamb with garlic. There are only about 10 acres of this grape grown in the US. Dan says it is a hard fruit to work with, you have to use small quantities of fruit and make it gently. John says they had about a ton and a half. They had it in a large open topped container, they de-topped the fruit, it has about 10% whole cluster, to give it a softer structure and aromatics, and that helped kick off its native ferment with its indigenous yeast. They gently extracted the wine, a couple of punch-downs per day. The yeast produces CO2 and ethanol. The skins float to the top. That’s where the c0lor, flavors and tannins are, so you want to mix that back down into the juice, 2 or 3 times per 24 hours. This they do manually. The vines struggle on the hillside and that produces really concentrated fruit. You can’t wait too long to harvest if you are to keep the concentration of flavors.
Dan Berger commends John Harley for having not only the knowledge of Italian wines but also the technique to handle them correctly. One thing he suggests is that it be decanted the day before and held overnight, covered. “What’s there is twice the wine that was there at the beginning,” says Dan Berger.