THERE'S A new player in the California premium wine game: Delicato Vineyards of Manteca.
I know, you've never heard of Delicato, even though it was established by Gaspare Indelicato in 1924. Today, it is the nation's 12th-largest vintner, larger than the Robert Mondavi Winery (16th), Beringer (19th), Charles Krug (21st) and Sebastiani (22nd).
The story of Delicato began in 1919, when Indelicato arrived in America from Sicily. He moved to Manteca in 1920 and transformed a dairy ranch into vineyards of the type he had known in Italy. It was Prohibition time, and "juice grapes" were shipped to home wine makers.
After repeal, and encouraged by neighbors, Gaspare and his now-former partner, Sebastiano Lupino, began to make their own red wine in wooden vats in the barn. They put up road signs along California 99, and the winery began to sell about 15,000 gallons of wine a year. In the mid-'60s, with the addition of large cement fermenters, the SamJasper Winery became Delicato Vineyards.
The wine boom of the '70s brought big changes. North coast wineries with great name acceptance and too-small production needed bulk wine to expand their sales. By leaps and bounds, with advanced technology and stainless-steel fermenters, Delicato's bulk wine sales to famous wineries took it into the million-gallon production bracket.
To maintain quality standards, Delicato bought grapes from the Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties and the Sierra foothills, augmenting its 120 acres of predominantly Zinfandel vines surrounding the winery in Manteca and 300 acres of varietals in the foothills east of Lodi. "We try to buy the grapes that grow best in each individual region," Vincent Indelicato, a son of Gaspare, told me.
With more than two dozen medals for its varietals from fairs across the land, Delicato decided to go for the gold, the premium wine category, the only segment of the California wine industry to have shown dramatic sales increases during the past few years. For its "Golden Anniversary" varietals in 1985, Delicato called upon consultant Andre Tchelistcheff to guide its 1983 Carneros-Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.99), aged in French Nevers oak and American oak in the Beaulieu tradition. It's a fine California claret with cedary overtones.
Recently, I revisited the 65 square miles of rolling terrain at the San Bernabe vineyards purchased last year by Delicato. The knolls were ribbed with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, French Colombard, and the whole index of better vinifera.
With Frank and Anthony Indelicato, also Gaspare's sons, I sat down to appraise the new premium stars of the Delicato roster. We began with a 1987 Delicato California Sauvignon Blanc ($4.99), made of grapes mostly from the Lodi region. Clean, crisp, with minimal grassiness, it is a lovely, fruity wine, hinting at tarragon with herbal overtones. And the 1985 Delicato Sonoma Valley-Carneros (Barrel-Fermented) Chardonnay ($10) is of interesting complexity with intriguing, almost-apricot and pineapple aftertastes, albeit thoroughly dry.