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When What’s Old Becomes What’s New—And Worth It

By Stephen Eliot

“New” is by necessity is big part of wine writing be it place, producer, vintage or variety, and there is always a hope on the part of journalists looking for an audience to be first in discovering the “next big thing.” The truth is that the world of wine is stubbornly resistant to genuinely ground-breaking change and such changes that come tend to come slowly. It is the nature of a business and craft that marks progress by one harvest at a time, and, more often than not, when substantive change seems afoot, it turns out that it was not sudden but was instead fairly long in the making.

Still, the continuum of fine wine is indelibly marked by both changing fashion and the lessons of experience learned by those who both sell and make the stuff, and the joy of discovery drives most all of us who for whom wine has become more than a casual concern. For us here at CGCW, every year is one of change; no wine is an exact copy of its predecessor, yet every so often there is a smell of something new in the air that causes us to stop and look beyond the simple turnings of vintage.

For the past several years, varieties that might best be described as being outside of the mainstream have quietly been gaining attention. Rhône varieties such as Grenache Noir, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne have found a few vocal advocates, and a handful of vintners and writers have gone even further afield in trying to whip up interest in grapes like Trousseau Gris, Ribolla Gialla and Valdigue. Sometimes, however, “new” is not so new after all. Barbera, a grape that has been around these parts for well over one-hundred years, is showing surprising signs of new life and looks to be in the early stages of a mini-revival.

To say that a Barbera “renaissance” is imminent would be going too far, and, in fact, the word would be misplaced insofar as there is no golden Barbera era in California at which to point. While briefly made in a snappy food-friendly style by a few producers like Louis Martini and Sebastiani in the 1960s and 1970s, Barbera has, for most of its history hereabouts, been largely planted in hot inland regions as a high-acid blending grape whose raison d’etre was to enliven cheap, generic red blends. That, however, is clearly changing. While it has been possible to find an occasional offering of some seriousness over the past decade or so, the number of well-made Barberas emanating from the Sierra Foothills is arguably beginning to reach critical mass.

We were pleasantly surprised by more than a few genuinely satisfying examples as we turned our attention to recent Barberas in our newly published May issue, and a follow-up visit to Amador County last week confirmed that Barbera born of meticulous farming and capable winemaking is a distinctive wine deserving of note. The wines from producers such as Borjón, Bella Grace and Easton, to name but a few, are well worth seeking out, while individual growers such as Cooper Ranch, Linstead and Shake Ridge Vineyards are starting to gain well-warranted acclaim. If its local champions might knowingly smile at the notion that good Barbera is new, its place in the fine-wine market may prove to be just that, and, even if it is destined to remain a peripheral player, there are reasons to give the latest crop of California Barberas a serious look.

A good place to start would be at the upcoming Barbera Festival which is slated for June 13 in Plymouth and will feature wines from upwards of 80 producers. We plan on a return visit to see just what is in store next and have no doubts that the drive back to the hills will be richly rewarded.

You can find the particulars at

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Color Me Barbera
by Ron Washam, HMW
Posted on:5/7/2015 7:47:47 PM


At the recent Amador Four Fires event (very nice event, by the way), you were kind enough to encourage me to taste the Borjon Barberas. Thanks for that! Those were very impressive wines. I hadn't tasted them because I was sure Borjon was Bonne's nickname, and I avoided the table because I think he wants to kill me. Instead, I was very pleasantly surprised. Bella Grace was new to me as well, and, as you know, I loved that Barbera too (their Reserve '12). I wish I could attend the Barbera Fest, but, alas, I'm judging that weekend. Maybe next year.

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