Consider the plight of the Napa Valley winemaker: you live and work in a locale rightly described as a slice of heaven on earth; you make thousands of people happy with your bold, spicy cabernet sauvignons and rich, fragrant chardonnays; you work hard, have risked much, but are loved by many. But here’s the rub: for whatever reasons you want to make grignolino.
Grignolino (pronounced gree-nyoh-LEE-noh) is a throwback grape, indeed. This tart, light-bodied, fairly tannic wine once roamed the foothills in northwestern Italy in the 1800s. The phyloxera epidemic in the latter half of that century effectively wiped it—and most other grapevines—off the map. Grignolino never really made a comeback. It can still be found in small pockets around the town of Asti in the Monferrato hills of Piemonte…and an eight-acre vineyard in—of all places—the heart of Napa Valley.
When you can get upwards of $100 for a bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon wine, economics makes a compelling argument to plant as much of it as you can. Back in 1961, when Joe and Alice Heitz, founders of Heitz Wine Cellars, bought their first piece of vineyard land from Leon Brendel, they inherited his above-mentioned patch of grignolino. Brendel dubbed the vineyard The One and Only because—for reasons that have faded with winds of history—it was the one and only type of grape he planted.
In addition to many acres of fruit and nut trees, you could find all manner of grapes in Napa Valley in the early 1960s. Robust vines like charbono, colombard and even riesling were popular among Napa farmers, who were more interested in tons per acre than micromanaging the yet-to-be-lucrative cabernet sauvignon grape. Back then, Brendel’s grignolino vineyard was not the anachronism it is today.
Time passed. Cabernet sauvignon became inextricably linked with Napa Valley and prices went meteoric. Most vineyards (and orchards, for that matter) were planted to cabernet sauvignon. Heitz Wine Cellars, in fact, had one of the first iconic cabernet sauvignons with its Martha’s Vineyard bottling in 1966.
Yet Brendel’s vineyard remained, perhaps as a reminder of the valley’s humbler times. Heitz Wine Cellars, now run by Alice and Joe’s children, only get about $20 a bottle for its grignolino. It comprises a fraction of Heitz’ 40,000-case production, but a $35 Heitz Cellar Brendel Vineyard cabernet sauvignon (if one existed) could easily bring in an extra $100,000 annually. Even for an independent-minded, family-run company, it’s hard to justify making a wine just for old time’s sake.
“Even though we have focused on cabernet sauvignon, we have always enjoyed offering a variety of wines, including grignolino,” says Kathleen Heitz Myers, president of Heitz and daughter of founders Joe and Alice. “It has developed quite a following over the years…. Life is not always about money, you have to have fun along the way, too.”
Life’s short. Pass the grignolino.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog