Cal-Ital wines have mushroomed in popularity during this decade.
If anyone can claim title to “Cal-Ital King” (short for Cal ifornia grown Ital ian varietal wines), you’d have a hard time denying Monte Volpe owner, Greg Graziano. His Italian ancestors have been grape growers and winemakers for generations. And with the establishment of Monte Volpe Winery in 1991, Greg has not only continued his family’s legacy of Italian winemaking but in the process has earned immeasurable praise and top medals for his wines. In fact, he just may be the single most important reason that Cal-Ital fever is rising so quickly.
“It just kind of hit me,” recalls Greg Graziano who in 1982 visited family in Italy where his roots go back hundreds of years. “All of a sudden it made sense that I should be making Italian wines. It’s a big part of my heritage.”
Greg remembers well the stories of his grandfather, Vincenzo, who immigrated to the United States in 1908. Vincenzo left behind famine and depression in Italy in search of a better life, like so many who passed through Ellis Island in that era. His goal was to work his way to California’s Mendocino County where he heard the climate and terrain was much like that of his native land in Piemonte, Italy. Vincenzo worked the Pennsylvania coal mines for several years before finally heading out west. He landed in Sausalito where he worked as a gardener for several more years, saving enough money to allow his fiancée, Angela who was still in Italy, to join him.
In 1918 Vincenzo and Angela’s brother Frank, who immigrated also, bought 100 acres of land near the town of Calpella in Mendocino County. They immediately started planting a vineyard on the property to Italian varietals, Muscato, Barbera and Carignane. In 1920, Prohibition hit the U.S. but many grape growing operations, including Vincenzo and Frank’s, survived the period. They were able to dodge the restrictions by selling to buyers back east who purchased the grapes for “medicinal purposes.”
Vincenzo’s son, Joseph (Greg’s father), literally grew up in the vineyards and dutifully followed the same path of grape growing and winemaking. In 1940, Joseph and his dad founded the Mendocino Grape Growers Coop, creating an important entity among grape growers in the area. Also that year, they purchased 100 more acres two miles down the road at Redwood Valley Ranch.
“I grew up working in the vineyard just like my father and his father,” says Greg recalling some tough days of hoeing and pruning. “My dad was proud of the work he did but at the same time wanted my brother Marcus and I, to try something different. I think he wanted us to study law or medicine,” he continues. “I remember we had basically three choices while growing up—play sports, work on the ranch, or get a job. I chose sports,” Greg quips.
In the early 1970s, not unlike most kids fresh out of high school, Greg went off to college with no clear sense where his life was heading. It finally dawned on him that it made perfect sense to continue his family heritage of grape growing and winemaking. He quickly transferred to wine super-school, U.C Davis to learn the textbook side of the business. After all, he had already grown up with a lifetime of practical experience.
After a year at Davis Greg was ready. He and a school buddy boldly started a winery of their own which they named Milano Winery. Conveniently, “Mil” and “ano” was a shortened combination of their last names plus it had an Italian flair to it. A half-dozen successful years later, Greg was ready to move on to other challenges. In 1982, his partner’s dad bought out Greg’s portion of the business.
During the 1980s, Greg continued making his mark and building his reputation within the wine industry. As a consulting winemaker, he helped establish several wineries, including, Baccala, Tyland and Olson. It was during this stretch of time that Greg decided to visit his grandfather’s Italian homeland. While discovering his roots, he made a startling revelation that he too, should be making Italian wines and furthering his family’s legacy. However, the idea met with great skepticism upon his return to California. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he remembers. “First of all, virtually no one is growing Italian varietals in California and secondly, who’s going to buy them?” they all said. So, logically he put the thought aside for the time being and continued on with his career.
Years later, Greg was driving by a vineyard near Ukiah in Mendocino County, where he spotted a small patch of the Italian varietal, Nebbiolo. It was growing on a tiny outside portion of a 40-acre vineyard called Fox Mountain, owned by local grower Lowell Stone. Sensing an opportunity to finally pursue his Italian wine concept, Greg convinced Lowell to let him use an old abandoned hop kiln on the property as a makeshift winery. It was perfect. There he could start a new winery and be right at the source of the grapes he needed.
As it turned out, the Nebbiolo grapes needed a few years of care and attention before they up to the standard of quality Greg wanted. As he was bringing the Nebbiolo vines up to speed, Greg pursued another direction using the old hop kiln facility to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with fruit that was also growing on the Fox Mountain property. He labeled the wines under the name Domaine Saint Gregory—a Burgundian sounding name with the strategy of keeping the production focus on Burgundian-style wines.
As Domaine Saint Gregory was getting off the ground, Greg also searched for additional sources of Italian grapes to supplement what was on the Fox Mountain property. By 1991, the timing was finally right to launch his line of Italian style wines. The first vintage produced a thousand cases of two varietals, Nebbiolo and Muscato which he labeled “Monte Volpe,”—Italian for Fox Mountain.
“It was tough starting out back then,” Greg admits. “We knocked on a lot of doors until things finally started to gel,” he adds. Whether Greg was a catalyst or if it was simply fortuitous timing in the marketplace, Cal-Ital wines have mushroomed in popularity during this decade. “Consumers are getting tired of the mainstream Chards, Cabs and Merlot,” Greg states, trying to explain the Cal-Ital movement. “They’re discovering too, that the Italian wines are more food friendly.”
Currently, Monte Volpe Winery produces 18,000 cases a year. Amazingly, there are over a dozen different wines, all of which are produced in very small quantities. Greg admits that with so many different wines, all Italian, and for the most part unfamiliar, it may be a bit confusing to retailers and consumers. To help make sense of it all, he has added another brand he calls, Fattoria Enotria, that will group together the varieties that have their origins in the Piemonte region of northwest Italy. Those include varieties such as Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Muscato. The Monte Volpe brand will showcase Italian varieties from the areas of Tuscany and Friuli—wines such as Sangiovese, Tocai Fruilano, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Bianco.
Recently, Greg opened his first tasting room in the quaint wine town of Hopland where he showcases all three of his labels. His entire production operation is located at the picturesque and historic Fetzer Estate in Redwood Valley. “I have plenty of room to expand now,” says an obviously pleased Greg Graziano. Judging from the quality of his wines, we have a feeling he’ll need plenty of room!
‘It always seemed like a lot of work,” Greg Graziano remembers as he was growing up and working long hours on the family vineyard in Mendocino County. ‘My dad’s passion was grape farming, but he discouraged my brother and I from becoming farmers because he knew how tough it could be at times,” Greg recalls. So, by the time Greg went to college, the titles of Grape Grower and Winemaker were far down on the list of career choices.
At college though, something happened. ‘There I was at school, not really into it and with no real direction,” he remembers vividly. ‘The only thing that made sense to me was growing grapes and making wine. That’s what I had been doing most of my life. That’s what I was most comfortable doing. So having a winery was the logical, sensible thing.”
Greg transferred immediately to the University of California at Davis where all the wine gurus get their start. He already knew the basics, having grown up with on-the-job-training. At Davis, he simply wanted to get an academic point of view. After a year at Davis, at the age of 21, he and a friend opened up a winery called Milano.
In 1982, Greg sold his part of the winery and moved on. He had gained enough industry knowledge by then to offer his expertise to other wineries that were trying to get off the ground. So for several years he consulted, made wine for other wineries, helped in the vineyards, and built a solid reputation within the industry.
Three years later, Greg took the position of Assistant Winemaker at La Crema Winery when a friend who was the winemaker convinced him to come on board. The following year his friend left and Greg took over as winemaker. He was there for five years until the winery was sold to industry giant Kendall-Jackson. During that time Greg guided La Crema’s production from 10,000 to 100,000 cases.
As winemakers are often allowed to do, Greg started his own label of wines called Domaine Saint Gregory, in 1988 while he was still La Crema’s winemaker. When La Crema was sold, his own brand was not yet mature enough to stand on its own, so he accepted the position of winemaker for Hidden Cellars, one of the operations he helped establish years earlier.
In the early 1990s Greg also took on winemaking duties for two other wineries, Martin Ray and Yorkville. Then in 1991 he and his wife Trudi, started Monte Volpe Winery, specializing exclusively in Italian varietals. And a several years ago, he accepted the challenge of producing one of the country’s first biodynamic (certified organic) line of wines for a new winery called Fox Brook. He then added a third brand of his own, called Fattoria Enotria, also devoted to Italian wines.
You may have surmised by now that Greg likes to keep busy. ‘Basically, my strategy has been to make wine for other wineries to help finance and grow my own brands,” he says. Today, with Monte Volpe wines leading the Italian charge, Greg’s operation is solid enough to stand on its own. But he still has a hard time saying ‘no” to people seeking his help and advice. ‘I’m the kind of person who likes to have a lot of challenges,” admits Greg. ‘I enjoy helping wineries get started and sharing what I know, but every situation also adds to my knowledge and understanding, so it tends to work both ways,” he says philosophically.