Try 1 month for 99¢

When he was coming up in the wine business as a restaurant buyer in the 1990s, Calistoga winemaker-turned-grower Sam Spencer fell in love with Spain. Not the country, per se, but the vinos tintos — its red wines.

Guided by savvy importers, the industry veteran became so enamored of Spain’s most famous wine regions, Rioja and Ribera del Duero, that, just a few years later, he planted his family’s Lake County property with the vine that ties these denominacións to each other and is the Spanish calling card to the rest of the wine world: Tempranillo.

Two decades ago, Spencer wasn’t the only North Coast vintner to focus on this noble, age-worthy variety. In a small but significant way, the late ‘90s were an auspicious time for Tempranillo up and down Napa Valley.

After a visit to a famous Ribera del Duero estate in 1998, Napa importer-brokers Steve and Faith Ventrello acquired an armful of Tempranillo vine cuttings from the owner and airmailed them back to California. They used these raw ingredients to establish a one-acre vineyard for Parador Cellars, Napa Valley’s first Tempranillo-centric wine brand.

“The hardier red wine varieties have done really well up here,” Steve Ventrello said in an interview a couple of years ago. “I consider Tempranillo one of these.”

Northern California’s climate is a factor. Recall that in “My Fair Lady,” Eliza Doolittle carefully enunciates, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Here in the North Bay, it mainly just stays away — for much of the growing season, anyway. But in the Napa Valley, Ventrello noted the weather works to Tempranillo’s advantage.

“The dry climate leading up to the harvest, usually speaking, lends itself to it,” he said. “It’s an early-ripening variety, which is how it got its name: temprano means ‘early’ in Spanish. So you know that is something that’s beneficial for the grape.”

Around the same time the Ventrellos’ package was jetting west over the Atlantic, Tony Truchard got inspired by Rioja and planted two acres of Tempranillo on a volcanic knoll at the eastern edge of his and his wife Jo Ann’s Carneros property.

In 2000, the vintner Peter Prager grafted the vine over from Muscat in a Calistoga vineyard he owned. He farmed it to blend into some of the Port-style wines made at his St. Helena winery. Prager still buys the fruit from the vineyard’s current owners, Brenda and Clay Cockerell, who bottle Tempranillo under their own label, Coquerel Wines.

For Sal DeIanni, Tony Truchard’s longtime winemaker, the project was more conventional: to produce a 100 percent varietal wine that, like the dozen other varieties his boss grows, demonstrates how the cool Carneros climate affects Tempranillo. As DeIanni put it during a harvest break, “We try to be true to the grape. We want to show you what the vineyard can do here with each variety.”

Seen, then, through Steve Ventrello’s lens of a dry, mild Napa Valley, the bookended Truchard and Coquerel sites — one in cool Carneros, the other in warm Calistoga — offer an intriguing look at how Spain’s signature grape can perform at opposite ends of the Valley.

“I probably drank some Tempranillo earlier in France, but I don’t have the memory of it,” confessed Coquerel winemaker Christine Barbe over lunch at Zuzu Restaurant, Napa’s default locus for Spanish wine and food. “I’m from Bordeaux and we drink a lot of Cabernet and Cab Franc, maybe a little bit of Burgundy. But you know, Bordeaux people barely drink Pinot Noir!”

Barbe arrived in the U.S. in 1996 after earning a Ph.D. in enology from the University of Bordeaux. She worked for a decade at the volume end of the industry, in viticultural research at E & J Gallo and Robert Mondavi. When she signed onto the Cockerells’ boutique project in 2006, she was tasked with shaping up Walnut Wash Vineyard, their Calistoga property.

“We bought the vineyard next door in 2008, and the Tempranillo was there,” she said over the busy midday din at Zuzu, a Flamenco tune blaring in the background. “We also had [the Portuguese varieties] Tinta Cao and Touriga Nacional, but I re-grafted them to Sauvignon Blanc because they didn’t do well.”

In the particularly cool 2010 vintage, Peter Prager opted not to purchase these two crops. But rain or shine, the Spanish vine has never been a problem. “With Tempranillo, it’s a better variety in all climates, because it resists very much to the drought,” she said, echoing Ventrello, “and we pick it just after Sauvignon Blanc. So it’s a good deal earlier.”

With a focus on Bordeaux grape varieties like Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc, it fits that Coquerel has a winemaker who comes from there. Barbe even specialized in Sauvignon Blanc fermentation while working towards her Ph.D. and makes outstanding versions of the grape at Coquerel and under own label, Toquade.

Tempranillo is a newer endeavor; except as a Languedoc blending grape, there’s none to speak of in France, and her first Calistoga harvest was in 2011. Since she has come on board, the Cockerells have encouraged her to experiment not just with Tempranillo but also the Portuguese white grape, Verdelho.

Meanwhile, down in Carneros, experimentation is the name of the game in Truchard’s 400-acre vineyard. There are an almost unprecedented 13 different grape varieties grown there to supply the winery’s 20,000-case production, “which is pretty unique,” as Sal DeIanni pointed out, “because it’s a unique piece of property with a lot of different soil profiles and aspects. You can find a little niche for almost everything.”

Like Barbe, DeIanni has an advanced wine science background. The Wisconsin native majored in chemistry at Marquette University in Milwaukee and was midway through graduate work at Northwestern when, courtesy of a few Chicago wine shops and restaurants, fermented grape juice replaced analytical chemistry as his calling in life. In a familiar winemaker’s tale, he packed his bags for California and ended up with a master’s degree in enology from UC Davis in 1996. Two years later, the Truchards hired him from a job ad in this newspaper. Coincidentally, it was the same year Tony Truchard planted those two acres of Tempranillo.

DeIanni described his boss as a grower who welcomes the challenge of raising non-traditional wine grapes. “It gets boring just growing Chardonnay and Pinot in Carneros. Tony was looking for something different. He was into some of the Riojas, and when people let him taste some high-end Riojas, he thought, ‘That’s kind of a fun wine.’”

P&L considerations aside, perhaps “fun” is the main point of Tempranillo for DeIanni and Barbe. With the Spanish grape representing just a small fraction of their respective wineries’ total productions, it’s unthinkable that it would ever replace Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Cabernet in either portfolio. At the same time, the two winemakers’ shared science training and attention to detail assure that tackling Tempranillo is more than just a casual endeavor.

Stretching back to the 2000 vintage at Truchard, DeIanni has an extensive track record with the grape. For Barbe, it’s been a shorter learning curve. The just-released 2015 vintage is the French winemaker’s fifth in bottle. In a way, her experience mirrors the vine’s own compressed cycle of vegetation. From the get-go in 2011, bud-break to harvest, she watched Tempranillo develop much faster than Cabernet Sauvignon.

“I’m amazed on the property. It’s the last one to bud-break, but early to pick. So when you start,” she said, snapping her fingers, “it goes very, very quickly.”

In that ’11 vintage, Barbe figured the large, ripe Tempranillo berries would be less tannic than Cabernet. To compensate, she worked them aggressively, with lots of skin contact during fermentation to extract color and tannin. She ended up with a wine she described as “so tannic, we had to age it a long time to soften it.”

She has since learned to de-stem, do a cold maceration, and try to control the temperature during fermentation. “And,” she added, “we don’t leave it on the skins very long. As soon as it’s dry, we press it.”

If Calistoga Cabernet was Barbe’s original template, the reference point for DeIanni has been the red grape most closely associated with Carneros. “We treat Tempranillo like Pinot Noir,” he said. “And actually, to be honest, we treat it more gently than Pinot Noir, because the skins on Tempranillo are a little thinner.”

DeIanni limits punchdowns during fermentation to one per day, versus the three or four Pinot Noir can require to get the color and extraction he wants. He laughed and admitted, “If I do that to Tempranillo, I end up with a tankful of oatmeal” from the meatier berries. Like Barbe, he’s had to figure out the grape’s peculiarities on the job.

There’s an aromatic and flavor symmetry to Barbe’s and DeIanni’s versions of Tempranillo. The main difference goes back to the temprano, or early, nature of how the grape ripens. In Calistoga’s warm (and sometimes hot) climate, Coquerel consistently sees September pick dates that come, as Barbe noted, on the heels of Sauvignon Blanc, one of Napa Valley’s earliest-picked varieties.

The weather in Carneros is noticeably cooler and causes Tony Truchard and his team to grow Tempranillo that flies somewhat in the face of its early ripening identity. DeIanni observed that, in the milder climate, “things ripen here a little bit slower with the fog, and longer hangtime on the vine just gives you more flavor.” With his and Barbe’s 2014 Tempranillos each clocking in just above 14 percent alcohol, the additional weeks of Carneros growing season didn’t translate to a more potent Truchard wine.

Not that it doesn’t bite back a little. “Our Tempranillo’s got an edge to it, especially when it’s young,” he said, circling back to the topic of tannins. “It’ll eventually age out and soften, but anything you can do to get those tannins a little softer sooner, I think is a good thing.”

Both winemakers’ early challenges — Barbe’s surprising tannins and DeIanni’s “oatmeal” — might conjure a less-than-refined image of Tempranillo as a fine red wine. The results in the bottle are quite opposite.

Sitting down in the Truchard tasting room to revisit last year’s release, DeIanni described their excellent 2013 as lean, complex, and food-friendly. “It’s probably the best food wine we made. It’s good tasted by itself, but you have it with cheese or something off the grill and it transforms the wine into something else. It really marries well with the right foods.”

At Zuzu, Barbe shared a similar thought. “That’s what’s good in the U.S., because there are so many different tastes, and so many different foods, so Tempranillo goes with different kinds of food.”

There’s probably no one in Napa Valley better qualified to comment on this point than Zuzu’s proprietor, Mick Salyer. He opened his Main Street tapas and paella restaurant in 2002 and has since introduced his customers to scores of Tempranillo-based Spanish wines. Rioja and Ribera del Duero are two of Salyer’s go-tos, but he was also an early supporter of Steve Ventrello’s Parador label and, of course, Truchard. He even partnered with Napa winemaker Mark Herold to make a Zuzu Tempranillo with fruit supplied by Sam Spencer and the respected Lodi grower, Markus Bokisch.

With their case production at just a fraction of Truchard’s, Coquerel Tempranillo mostly goes to the winery mailing list. It consequently stays off many restaurateur radars, including Salyer’s. Tasting it for the first time, he extended Barbe’s Calistoga wine an informed compliment. “Coquerel is very reminiscent of Rioja,” he said. “I would think it’s going to be much more fruit-forward, coming from upvalley, but it’s not. It’s really well-balanced. It’s nuanced like a Rioja.”

In both practice and theory, DeIanni and Barbe’s Tempranillos work alongside Zuzu Chef Armando Ramirez’s cuisine. “I don’t put Rioja or Tempranillo on the list because it’s Rioja or Tempranillo,” Salyer said. “It’s because it’s a good wine. Whether it’s from Spain or the Sierra Foothills or southern Napa, I’m going to put it on the list because I like it. And because it pairs well with our menu.”

The verdict may still be out, but the Spanish vine seems capable of succeeding in California. “I mean, Tempranillo thrives in warm climates,” Sam Spencer said recently, repeating a grower’s mantra. “That’s what it’s designed for, if a vine can be designed for anything. It can express itself really differently depending on where you pick it.”

At the end of the day, people tend to reach for their local wines before most anything else. Barbe had earlier mentioned that in Bordeaux, they drink very little Burgundy Pinot Noir. The same can be said of Napa Valley and Tempranillo. But in their respective ways, she and DeIanni are putting tiny chinks in Cabernet’s armor.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.