Should California barbera be your new favorite wine?

Barbera doesn’t get much respect. Even in its traditional home, the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy, it takes a back seat to the pricier wines made from nebbiolo. There are indeed some top-notch Piemontese barberas made with care from grapes grown in excellent vineyard sites. But most of the wines are for everyday drinking. They’re friendly and affordable but not particularly profound.

The grape gets even less respect in California, where most of it is grown in the Central Valley and used in inexpensive red blends. Its high acidity, ample fruit and smooth tannins make it an attractive component in those blends. But those same qualities also make barbera very enjoyable on its own. It’s a great companion to any Italian dish with a red sauce or with hearty meats.

Enter the Barbera Festival, held recently in Amador County. Founded in 2011, the festival aims to win new fans for the versatile barbera – “your new favorite wine,” the festival program proclaims.

Barbera reportedly was first brought to California, specifically to Sonoma County, in the 1880s. (Today, there are only about 50 acres of the grape in Sonoma County; I tasted a good one from Unti Vineyards at the festival.)

In the early 20th century, the University of California identified barbera as a variety well-suited for California’s interior valleys. Acreage peaked around 1980 at about 21,000 acres, mostly in those interior valleys. Today, according to the organizers of the Barbera Festival, there are about 7,000 acres planted in California, although the state grape acreage report lists about 5,100 in 2016. More than half of that is in Fresno County.

Winemaker Jim Moore, who makes Lodi barbera for his Uvaggio label, likes the variety for its “vibrant berry-cherry fruit expression, plus a palate-cleansing and renewing acidity, with hardly any tannin.” There’s also a “pleasant hint of earthiness,” he says.

Moore says that, while nebbiolo and sangiovese, two other Italian varieties, “seem to be quite site-specific in California … barbera is malleable.” That said, he thinks that the Sierra Foothills, particularly Amador County, “are in today’s barbera vanguard.” He adds that he’s been working with barbera from El Dorado County for several vintages but uses it in a proprietary blend.

The grape definitely has gained a following in the foothills, with more than 200 acres in Amador County and more than 100 in El Dorado County. Among the more than 80 California wineries represented at the Barbera Festival, there was a preponderance of producers from the foothills.

One of those producers is Jeff Runquist, whose winery is in Amador County. The 2015 Jeff Runquist Barbera ($25) is full-bodied and approachable, with juicy berry and some spiciness. (There’s also an excellent 2015 reserve barbera that has more weight and concentration.)

Vino Noceto, also in Amador County, is better known for sangiovese, but its 2013 Linsteadt Barbera ($28) is bright and lively, with berry fruit, a hint of licorice and fine tannins. Another Amador winery, Bella Grace, poured two very good barberas. The 2014 Bella Grace Barbera ($32) is smooth and flavorful, while its 2013 reserve ($49) is more concentrated. Other Amador barberas included the 2014 Scott Harvey Mountain Selection Barbera ($25), which offers ripe berry, some spiciness and fine tannins, and the 2012 Yorba Wines Shake Ridge Vineyard Barbera ($32), which is rich and lively with blueberry fruit.

From the broader Sierra Foothills appellation, there was the 2014 Rucksack Cellars Barbera ($24), which is easy to drink and a little smoky; the spicy 2015 is even better.

The aforementioned 2015 Unti Barbera ($38) from Dry Creek Valley is a juicy wine with bright berry and a hint of licorice.

I asked Uvaggio’s Moore why he thinks consumers have been slow to embrace barbera. He says it has “an often secondary status as a zin surrogate, in conjunction with a general lack of familiarity and appreciation.” He also thinks that some earlier, less-than-stellar California efforts with sangiovese may have resulted in a “Cal-Ital stigma” that was applied to any domestic wine made from Italian grape varieties.

One more obstacle I see to California barbera’s popularity is price. There are plenty of good Piemontese barberas to be had for less than $20. That could make $40 California barbera a hard sell.

In addition to the more modestly priced wines listed above, I tasted three affordable bottlings made from Lodi and Mendocino County grapes. Moore’s wine, the 2014 Uvaggio Barbera ($24) – made from 50-year-old vines in Lodi – is bright and flavorful, with some structure and a long finish. From Mendocino, the 2012 Peterson “La Stupenda” Barbera ($19) is bright, spicy and structured, while the 2012 Enotria Barbera ($19) is made in a fruitier style, with a smooth finish.


9 thoughts on “Should California barbera be your new favorite wine?

  1. Laurie
    Good essay! And Barbera rocks, it’s true. We are also quite successful in more limited way up here in WA. Wineries like Walla Walla Vintners, Saviah Cellars and others are making extremely good Piedmont-style Barbera; juicy but fresh.
    I think it an ideal red wine for the reasons you noted; deep color, intense fruit, no tannins and solid acidity. Plus, done right, it can take aging in some new oak, which can provide the tannic ‘lift’ for those who need that to feel like they are drinking real wine.
    From a retailer’s POV, however, I concur with thought that part of the problem is price. There are still more good Barbere available from Piedmont for more reasonable prices than in CA or WA. The cost of doing business here is a difficult one to get around, but in the end, West Coast Barbera is THE MOST successful Italian transplant in America!

  2. Louis Martini made excellent Barberas in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s from Monte Rosso fruit that were perfect food wines for just about anything calling for red wine plus spot on for tomato sauced Italianeseque dishes. But in Louis’ words, “The less Barbera you put in Barbera the better Barbera you get!.” Besides being lower in alcohol overall (in the 12 percent range), Martini used the old fashioned techniques of early pressing (pressing sweet) and also added Zinfandel skins to the fermentation. Finished versions included good-sized portions of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, too. He said the wines were best at around 50-65% Barbera and he didn’t think they were as good after label regulations required a minimum 75 percent of the variety. Those wines often aged spectacularly well, still doing surpassingly well at 30-plus years. They were one of the best dinner wines ever made in California. And they originally sold for $1.79, an old price tag showed, increasing to $2.25 in the ’70’s.

    1. I’ve had some of those old Louis Martini barberas, including from the ’50s, and they were amazing. And I’m aware of what you’re talking about re zin and petite sirah. A winemaker who worked there told me that they would ferment the barbera on the petite sirah skins when he was there.

      1. Hi, Laurie — LTNS! The way I remember our Barbera was that we fermented it over Petite Sirah and Ruby Cabernet skins. If the tag read “Ruby Cabernet II” or “Petite Sirah II,” it was really Barbera. IIRC, I’ve had Martini Barbera every vintage from 1968 through 1978, plus a handful from the ’50s. I agree: truly amazing wines!

        1. I’ve also had Martini Barberas from the 60’s onward and the peak, to me, was in the mid 60’s or so. (If I’m repeating something posted here before, apologies, but I can’t see those.)
          Anyway, had 1960’s Barberas in the 20-teens that were still interesting. Our younger daughter was a close friend of a granddaughter and spent time at the Martini home and we were fortunate to sit with them at dinners, as well as with Mike Martini. Asked the secret of his Barbera, Louis smiled and said, “The less Barbera you put in Barbera, the better Barbera you get.” He said he co-fermented it with Zinfandel skins and Petite Sirah – one reason for the longevity. Family “joke” was our daughter almost co-fermented with it herself when she was at the winery, goofing around on the rails around a the top of a concrete fermenter and almost slipped in…

    2. Michael, we didn’t use Zinfandel skins…Petite Sirah and Ruby Cabernet were what we used in the years I worked there.

  3. In two intense days of judging flight after flight of California wines at the State Fair last summer, the big winners for our panel were the Barberas (which we later discovered to be mostly from the Sierra foothills). We gave more gold medals to those two flights than to any other varieties. Thanks, Laurie, for shining a spotlight on deserving Barbera!

  4. Petite sirah is the story I always heard. (I won’t reveal my source to protect the guilty.) Hey, Jason, great to hear from you!

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