Thursday, March 23, 2006

Palmina Winery: Real Italian Style in California

The first detail I noticed as I waited for Chrystal Clifton to appear was that one of Palmina's wine labels looked...well, like a real Italian wine label. A solid, simple white background with a black band across the top, the name of the winery, the proprietary name of the wine with vintage, and the seal. Period. This little touch was enough to convince me that I'd found something I'd so hoped to find: real Italian style California vino, not just a fruit forward Barbera with some Italiany sounding name.

The Cliftons are meticulous on this point. They grow in vineyards that are appropriate for the varietals they want. They make sure that the growers they work with understand the specific needs of Tocai Friulano, of Pinot Grigio, Nebbiolo, or Barbera, because once the grapes are harvested, all they plan to do is to let them make themselves into the wine they want to be. No malolactic fermentation, no new oak, no chemistry sets allowed.

For the Cliftons, wine and food is inseparable. The wines are acid balanced for food, and half of the tasting experience involves food--fresh breadsticks, hard Italian cheeses and meats, as well as print-outs of suggested recipes for each wine they produce.

Chrystal sat down with me at a long table that takes up the entire room. She's in a hurry; there's another interview right after me, and there's a piece of expensive equipment that has disappeared, but still she is focused and well-spoken, eager to share with me.

Interview with Chrystal Clifton, Palmina Winery

C&D: These are wines designed in the traditional Northern Italian style, for the table, in the land of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. What's the reaction you get?

It's good. We have some really unique qualities that make us stand out. We have a husband and wife you have this sense of a family winery, and we encourage everything here to be family style. As you can see, when we have our tasting room open, everyone has to either sit at this table or stand around it. So it encourages people to once again join in that ceremony that we kinda miss nowadays, which is--take a moment, take the time to meet people, enjoy what you're eating, enjoy what you're drinking.

Where do your recipes come from?

There's a couple of different places. Steve and I work together, there's Chef Lachlan (Mackinnon-Patterson) of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado, the latest recipies are coming out from him, and Biba restaurant in Sacremento (Biba Caggiano), she's from Bologna, where I lived. We try to find people who are doing what we're doing. The translation of Italian food is the same as the translation of Italian wine. I've had buyers that tell me, I'm sorry, I only buy Italian wine. And I say, you know what? I totally understand---I only eat Italian food in Italy. And they look at me and they say, how is it different? Unless you're flying over the ingredients direct from Italy and making everything's still going to be different. So don't tell me that your passion and your love for taking the closest ingredients you can find and translating them into those recipes in your restaurant is any different than what we're doing, with the varietals we're doing in Santa Barbara County, and making Italian style wines.

Take that.

And it's funny because the guy said, you're right, I'll take two cases of this and a case of that. It's weird how closed minded people can get about "Cal-Ital". Cal-Ital is a really poorly created association with badly planted Italian varietals. Nobody says 'Cal-Burgundy' or 'Cal-Bordeaux', but people were looking for a way to market them because they knew in their hearts they weren't true translations of these grapes. What we're trying to do is totally step aside from that.

What are the most important things about translating the grape varietals?

Primarily proper climate, second is maintenance, how they're pruned, cared for, and third, soil. Really, in my mind, they're one. It's about finding the balance in all three and explaining to someone how that balance is important. Winemaking, when you have very well planted, very well understood varietals...there's really not much you can do wrong. Understand them, is all that they ask.

Nebbiolo is one thing the Cliftons definitely understand. Nebbiolo is their pride and joy. Three years in a row, the Cliftons have been invited to Piedmont to represent Nebbiolo from the U.S.
Chrystal realizes that this grape demands patience, both from a consumer and from a producer, and that many have given up making it because of this. "But, man, it's like that girl or guy who, once you crack their shell, and you're in, and they're worth all that crap they just put you through." She's hoping to get other winemakers to take up the grape again, and be part of actively promoting the vinification of traditional style Nebbiolos. I wished her all the luck in the world.

I'm in San Luis Obispo now, and it's so freakin' beautiful out here, I had to change my shorts. Wowza. Next up: ah, hell, I dunno yet. You'll just have to find out right along with me.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there! Glad you made it to San Luis Obispo! Next time you are out here, try a nebbiolo from Caparone Vineyards. Oh, and you must visit: 1. Chemea (koo-may-ah) 2. Opolo, 3. Turley. 4. Hansen. Those are all my favorites in the Templeton, Paso Robles area. Cheers!

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I just discovered your blog and found it a very interesting read. A while back I started brewing my own wine, I have really started getting into it and now actually sell my wine to friends and family. I wanted to add that extra touch to my wine so I designed my own wine labels and had them printed by a british labels company who did a excellent job. It has made my wine bottle look really great!

4:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The purple seal stated that they sell thier wines to friends and family. I am a home brewer my self and would like to let you that it is called bootlegging when the state doesn't get thier fair share. so keep that to yourself

8:12 PM  

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