I know, I know…you’ve never heard of Caparone. Not many people have, including ardent wine lovers. Unless, that is, you happen to be a wine lover who lives in the Paso Robles region in the south-central coast of California, in which case you are probably already a customer.
Caparone Winery is five miles northwest of the town of Paso Robles, definitely off the beaten path. I discovered it because Tom, a friend of mine who loves Italian wine, gave me a tip about Caparone when I was headed to California a few years ago. Like Tom, I also love Italian wine, but I was never impressed with Italian varietal wines in California--usually referred to as “Cal-Itals”--until I found Caparone. They make only 2600 cases of wines, which are sold almost exclusively to nearby residents and to their wine club members. It’s a two-person operation: Dave Caparone, the producer-winemaker and his son Marc (who assists in the winemaking and sells their wines to walk-ins).
The Caparones do not distribute their wines throughout the country, and they do no advertising. Why should they? They’re selling all of their wines, and have no intention to expand. If you want their wines, you can order them online. Every wine the Caparones sell costs $16, which makes them the greatest value-wines in the U.S. to my way of thinking. When I was there a few years ago, they were apologizing to me because they had just raised their prices from $13 to $15.
Dave Caparone is a humble guy who loves what he does and believes in charging what he thinks is a “fair price” for his wines. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people like him existed? Dave founded his winery in 1979, and one of his intentions was to produce wines from the three most-renowned varieties in Italy: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Aglianico. The Caparones also make Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel, all decent wines, but the Italian varietals--all made 100% from the named variety--are the story here.
Another pleasant fact about Dave Caparone’s wines: Most of the wines are in the 12.5 to 13.6 alcohol range—practically unheard of in California. What is Caparone’s secret? Find the best soil that suits the variety, the right micro-climate, and pick the grapes before they get too ripe. Most of Caparone’s wines, especially the Nebbiolos and Sangioveses, are rather light in color--resembling traditional Italian wines rather than California wines, for sure. And they are so drinkable, even when they are young. But they do age well. In a recent tasting of Caparone Italian varietals, we had three wines from the 1996 vintage, all of which were showing better than the younger wines. On my visit to Caparone Winery a few years ago, I tasted an1989 Caparone Nebbiolo, which was even better the next day, just the way Nebbiolo wines such as Barolo are in Nebbiolo’s home, Piedmont, Italy.
On my trip to California, doing research for my California Wine For Dummies book, I tasted every Cal-Ital wine I could find. Practically none impressed me; I discovered only one Cal-Ital wine, besides the Caparone wines, that I thought was good. The great Adelaida Winery, about 10 miles west of Caparone, had one small plot of Nebbiolo; I thought Adelaida’s Nebbiolo was true to the variety, but Adelaida only sells it at their winery, and it sells out quickly.
Dave Caparone’s words rang true: Site decides the fate of these wines. I regard Dave Caparone as a genius of winemaking because he has managed to do what no one outside of Italy has done. He has made not one--but three--Cal-Ital wines that have the aromas and flavors of their Italian forebearers. The wines are not exactly the same as Italian wines; that would be impossible. But when you taste them blind, you can actually recognize the variety that you are tasting; for California, that is an achievement. And at $16 a bottle!
Besides price, another benefit Caparone wines have over their Italian counterparts: you can drink them when they are young—such as the three 2014s I describe below. Try drinking a four-year-old Barolo, Taurasi, or Brunello di Montalcino: the tannin and acidity would typically overwhelm your palate!
I jotted down some notes from the Caparone tasting my friend Tom arranged a few weeks ago. The descriptions follow:
Caparone Sangiovse 2014: Outside of its home in Tuscany, the Sangiovese variety is one of the most difficult grapes to produce as a fine wine. Ask the many California winemakers (and some noted Italian wine producers) who have failed to produce a good one in California. But Dave Caparone makes a true Sangiovese wine; his 2014 tastes very much like a traditional Chianti Classico. It is light-to medium-bodied, very dry, with excellent acidity, and with flavors reminiscent of tart cherries, with a slightly nutty character. It should be at its best with a few more years of maturing.
Caparone Nebbiolo 2014: The Nebbiolo was the biggest surprise of all. I am a Nebbiolo lover, and am usually disappointed with any Nebbiolo wines not from Italy’s Piedmont region. But Caparone’s 2014 captures the quality of fine Nebbiolos. The wine’s color can fool you; it is usually a light, translucent red, with a garnet rim. Once you taste it, the firmness, great acidity, and tannin comes through. Most fine Nebbiolos, such as Caparone’s 2014, exhibit aromas of roses, with a touch of anise. The wine also shows hints of strawberries, and Nebbiolo’s classic tar and licorice aromas and flavors. It was my favorite wine of a great tasting.
Caparone Aglianico 2014: Aglianico is the great red wine variety of southern Italy; it is found in Campania’s Taurasi wines, and in Basilicata’s Aglianico dell’ Vulture. Caparone’s deeply-colored Aglianico 2014 was the fleshiest, most polished (least rustic) wine of the three Caparone 2014s. It is quite firm and tannic, and yet drinkable and enjoyable even now. It has earthy aromas with a touch of leather, and flavors of blueberries and black plums. It was our host’s favorite wine of the three 2014s.
Caparone Sangiovese 1996: This wine proved Dave Caparone’s premise: Although his Italian varietals drink well in youth, they do age beautifully. Caparone’s 1996 Sangiovese was even more impressive than the 2014; with the additional age, the tannin and acidity integrated into the wine, making it perfect to drink now, at the age of 22. There were no signs of aging. It should drink well for another eight to ten years.
Caparone Aglianico 1996: Aglianico is similar to Nebbiolo; when at their best, they can age for 30 for more years. Caparone’s Aglianico 1996 shows the positive benefits of aging in its current development. It is full-bodied and firm, with black fruit flavors. It was the most elegant wine of the tasting. A very impressive wine.
The Caparones make only 200 to 230 cases each of Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Aglianico annually. The wines will never be well-known. But for lovers of good Italian wines, these wines are worth knowing about. And the price is right. For all the doubters, yes, really good Cal-Ital wines can be made in California, specifically five miles northwest of Paso Robles.