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Italian Passion, California Sunshine

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Vino Noceto Tasting Menu PicmonkeyTasting menu pairs foods with Sangiovese and other varietals

by Dan Clarke

Sangiovese has disappointed many California growers and vintners. Once hoped to be the next viticultural success in a state that can grow most anything, this variety hasn't reached the broad success here that it has enjoyed in Tuscany. Were there more growers devoted to the cause like Jim Gullett, the story might be different.

San Francisco Bay Area natives Jim and Suzy Gullett purchased 21 acres in the Shenandoah Valley of California's Amador Country in the fall of 1984. Zinfandel and Barbera had long history in Amador County and some newcomers were planting the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that were so successful in Napa and Sonoma. Why choose Sangiovese? “We wanted to do something other than Zinfandel,” Gullett explained. “Barbera? Yeah, we could have done that,” he reflects, but that prospect obviously didn't excite him. “We wanted to do something different and we thought that it (Sangiovese) could work here. I'm a bit of a contrarian and sometimes look for things to do differently.”

The computer scientist who was turning farmer chose to go to Sangiovese's historical source. “I believe that wine is first made in the vineyard,” Jim explains. In the fall of the year after they purchased their property, Jim, Suzy and their two and five-year-old boys traveled to Tuscany “to make sure that we wanted to do this.” They made the acquaintance of men prominent in the world of Sangiovese—people like Paolo di Marchi of Isola e Olena and Alceo di Napoli of Castello dei Rampolla. On returning to California, further investigation followed and the Gulletts observed the progress people like Bob Pepi and Dick Peterson were having with the variety. “Things we saw in Italy, we could see in this winery Caporone in Paso Robles,” Jim recalls. When they acquired their Shenandoah Road property about half its acreage was fallow, but was likely a grain field at one time according to Gullett. The other half of the property was planted to walnuts. Noceto is Italian for walnut and Jim's wife, Suzy, grew up in Walnut Creek, California. So was born Vino Noceto, the wine estate said by several experts to be home to California's best Sangiovese.

Vino Noceto Tasting Bar Jim G PicmonkeyJim Gullett, a self-described contrarian

In the spring of 1987 the couple acquired an additional 18-1/2 acres adjacent to their original parcel and began planting grapes the following year. Of their twenty-four planted vineyard acres in Amador County, about 23 are devoted to five selections of Sangiovese. “There's a bit of Canaiolo Nero, Trebbiano and Malvasia, too, and two rows of Aglianico, one row of Petite Sirah, one row of Alicante Bouschet and one row of Syrah,” Gullett says. He likens these additional varieties to seasonings in the kitchen. “With Sangiovese a very little bit added will change the wine,” he explains. Vino Noceto has several bottlings of Sangiovese, one of these labeled “Misto” contains 87% Sangiovese, 3% Canaiolo Nero, 4% Malvasia and 6% Trebbiano. In all, Vino Noceto produces 4-5,000 cases of Sangiovese annually and 400-500 cases each of Pinot Grigio, Zinfandel and Barbera.

Though Jim Gullett is intimately involved in all aspects of the Vino Noceto vineyards and winery, he has help. Dave Brown is responsible for most of the orchard and vineyard work on the property. He's a fourth or fifth-generation resident of Amador's Shenandoah Valley and his family farms a nearby vineyard. Rusty Folena, who also has deep roots in this area, handles the day-to-day aspects of the winemaking.

Jim and Suzy Gullett have three adult children; Randy is 33 and works as a project manager for a Silicon Valley computer company. Bobby is a couple of years younger and is taking a sabbatical after several years working for the winery. Daughter Lindy, 27, is finishing her Ph.D. in psychology at NYU.

Prominent as Vino Noceto is among American Sangiovese fans, it's still a small, family-run operation. About 80% of its sales are direct-to-consumer. These come from their tasting room and a 1700-member wine club. Though the vast majority of the remaining 20% goes to wholesale markets within California, Vino Noceto wines can also be found in about 10 other states.

A sign in the tasting room at Vino Noceto reads, “Italian Passion, California Sunshine.” Speaking of his commitment to Sangiovese, Jim Gullet explains, “This is a long-term procedure. If you don't have focus, fortitude and finances to go for five, six or even 10 years, it's irrelevant. It takes that long.” Vino Noceto has been “a 25-year project to get us to a certain point,” he says. After a moment, he adds that the 25-year mark was 2009. One could conclude that at Vino Noceto Sangiovese has benefited from a good deal of California passion, too.

Editor's note: If you're planning a visit to this colorful wine-growing region east of Sacramento, you may want to check out the Gold Country listings in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of Sierra Foothill Wineries, as well as the sites of Lodging and Dining options and even nearby craft Beer purveyors.

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