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Barbera Rises From The Ashes

By Charles Olken

A funny thing happened on the way to the ash heap of vinous history. Barbera, a grape that had a respected standing in California back some forty years ago or so, when wineries like Martini and Sebastiani featured it as one of their important varietal bottlings, has recently made a bit of a comeback.

We tend to say things like “you can never go back”, and there are folks who point to the failed attempts at Sangiovese as proof that once you have lost, you are lost forever. Barbera is an even better example than Sangiovese, and, it does not take more than a long memory to also recall visions of Chenin Blanc, Grey and Emerald Riesling, or even Johannisberg Riesling (now more correctly called White Riesling) dancing across our palates.

Well, Barbera is one of those “lost varieties”. Always a variety we liked, as we have liked and continue to like and wish for Chenin Blanc and Riesling, Barbera simply got swept aside in the rush to Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot and then, later on, Syrah. Like some of our ignored favorite white varieties, Barbera deserves a better fate. The problem is that grapes are really nothing more than economic entities, and if they cannot pull their weight financially, then growers and wineries lose interest.

So, what about this supposed comeback of Barbera? How real is it? I have to admit that I have no idea if Barbera will ever be more than an also ran, but if that is to be its fate, it will be because the race does not pay close enough attention to what is going on up in the Sierra Foothills.

We have recently come face to face with a couple of dozen Barberas from Amador County, and it turns out that the recently created Barbera Festival that happens up in those very same foothills in June will feature some eighty wineries. Admittedly, many of those offerings will be in small lots. Amador, after all, only grows Barbera on a few hundred acres. But, based on the wines we have tasted to date, we are enthusiastic about the possibilities. And eighty separate offerings is way more than Riesling or Chenin Blanc, Sangiovese or Tempranillo.

We will have more to say about our explorations into Barbera in the coming weeks and months culminating in our report on the Barbera Festival itself. But, suffice it to say at this point, Barbera could keep rising from the ashes because so many of the wines tasted to date have captured both the grape’s inherent brightness and its deep but not in-your-face character.


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