by Fred McMillin
for September 16, 1997

Barbera Oompah-pah

Prologue: "The new-found popularity of Italian grape varieties in California seems to have bypassed Barbera...one exception is the Barbera La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi, richer and softer [than typical California Barbera]."

...Frank Prial, New York Times

The Rest of the Story: Barbera, a native of Italy's Piedmont district, came to California with the influx of Italian winegrowers long ago. However, as recently as 1960 there were only 200 acres of the varietal in the Golden State. But, the grape has the rare virtue of producing high-acid red wine even in hot climates. Hence, planting increased dramatically in the Central Valley, reaching some 20,000 acres ten years later.

Useful for blending, the warm-region Barbera was not full enough to triumph as a varietal. By 1990 the popularity had faded and half the vines were gone. Yet, in Italy it has been demonstrated that the Barbera can produce what grape guru Jancis Robinson describes as "genuinely thrilling, mouthfilling wines." The Robert Mondavi Winery believes they've found the secret...lean and mean soil on cool, hilly regions.

The fruit for their '94 that Frank Prial mentioned came from the Sierra Foothills and from a cool, hillside vineyard in Sonoma County. The intense, berry-cherry flavors impressed my tasters, who put it in the Highly Recommended category. We think California Barbera is going to rise to new heights... definitely a grape to watch and try.

1994 Barbera, 75% Sonoma, 25% El Dorado
La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi
Acid Content—0.78%
Contact—Nancy Light, (707) 259-9463
Food Affinity—Hearty Italian pasta dishes; gentle enough to enjoy even with charbroiled salmon.

  • $18

    Postscript: Suprisingly, in spite of the drop in acreage, the last time I looked Barbera is still the fourth biggest red wine producer in the state. (Zinfandel is #l.)

    About the Writer

    Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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