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Drink | Wine

The Queen of Charbono

November 08, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Indeed, Pacific Star wines are striking for their concentration and luxuriant textures. My favorite in a recent tasting was the '96 Charbono, which has just been released after four years in barrel. It has the kind of deep richness and intensity of flavor one finds in a slow-simmered sauce, balanced by lively acidity.

Charbono is Pacific Star's specialty, and Ottoson's pride and joy. "I want to be the Queen of Charbono," she declares.

Charbono is a curious grape. Like Zinfandel, it has obscure European origins. It was mistakenly imported and planted as Barbera by Inglenook in the Napa Valley during the late 19th century. Not until the 1940s did UC Davis geneticist Harold Olmo determine that what was thought to be a rather distinctive clone of Barbera was not Barbera at all, but rather the obscure Charbonneau (also called Douce Noire, and possibly the same as Italy's Dolcetto) of France's mountainous Jura region. In its homeland, it was known for producing rather stolid and undistinguished wine but, like many other no-account European grape varieties, it sang in the fine volcanic soil of Napa Valley.

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Inglenook identified the Charbonneau vines interplanted with the Barbera and began bottling a separate wine as Charbono--with immediate and lasting success. Inglenook Charbono was one of California's first cult wines. It still has a passionate following among California collectors, including many Napa Valley winemakers who still have bottles from the 1940s and '50s.

There are only about 200 acres of Charbono in the state, concentrated primarily in the Calpella area of eastern Mendocino County and the upper Napa Valley. In recent years the biggest buyers have been Parducci and Fife Vineyards; smaller producers such as Pacific Star, Bonny Doon and Topolos have had to compete for the rest. However, Parducci bottled its last varietal Charbono in 1996 and this year finally relinquished its long-term contracts.

That put a new supply of Charbono grapes up for grabs. They were split by Pacific Star and Fife. As of the 2000 vintage, Pacific Star's Charbono production soared from 300 cases annually to around 1,000.

Fife's production increased from 800 to 2,500 cases. So Ottoson isn't quite the Queen of Charbono yet, but she can certainly claim royalty.

Meanwhile, a cult has grown up around all of Pacific Star's ocean-aged wines. Many customers make a point of trekking up the coast to pick up their allocations personally, picnicking and even camping on the bluff by the sea. They also provide enthusiastic free labor during harvest.

But Ottoson says she has no intention of playing a Napa-style cult wine game. "I've made a conscious decision to keep prices reasonable and make the wine available," she told me. "I want this magic place to be part of people's lives."

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Smith is writer-at-large for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

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