La Dolce Vita

By Leah Jorgensen

Who doesn’t desire a bit of La Dolce Vita? Many Oregonians share the Italian pursuit of “the sweet life” with a passion for fine food and wine; and it’s not just about the Pinot Noir. 

If variety is truly the spice of life, an increasing number of Oregon wine producers are experimenting with Italian varietals to feed their passion and to add a little zest to the mix.

Most of these producers source their Italian grapes from Washington state vineyards. It’s difficult to know exactly how much land in Oregon is planted with Italian varietals, since the majority of these vineyards have small quantities—a half acre to an acre, or so. Often, these grapes get lumped into the “other” category, like many other esoteric varietals.

Irrespective of where the fruit is sourced, there’s an undeniable love affair with Italian winegrapes here in Oregon. In fact, on Aug. 23, 13 producers gathered for the first Italy in the Valley event, featuring only Italian varietals, all made in Oregon. Along with those 13 producers, there are several more Oregon wineries with a “root in the boot,” and they’re spicing things up for us all to enjoy.

Willamette Valley

Some of Oregon’s wine pioneers have included Italian grapes in their vineyards, such as Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi. According to Gary Horner, senior winemaker at Erath Winery, “Erath and Ponzi traveled together in Italy and became interested in making Dolcetto.” 

This was one of many visits for Ponzi, who had discovered Dolcetto, a black grape well known for its black cherry and licorice flavors, at Vietti Winery, located in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. 

Ponzi planted some of the very first Dolcetto in Oregon in 1992. They also produce Arneis, a unique dry white wine also discovered at Vietti. The Ponzis planted their Arneis in 1991 and are one of only three producers in the United States.

In the Dundee Hills, Erath planted about three acres of Dolcetto in his Niederberger Vineyard, which was grafted recently to Pinot Blanc, along with about one acre remaining at his Prince Hill Vineyard.

Another Dundee Hills producer growing Italian grapes is Cameron Winery. Owner John Paul makes a Nebbiolo, a red grape that produces a light-colored wine, which he first released before VinItaly in Alba, the famous town in the Piedmont, in the province of Cuneo.

Recognize the name Cuneo? Carlton-based Gino Cuneo’s eponymous winery Cuneo Cellars, which he founded in 1989, was formally renamed Cana’s Feast Winery in 2007. Cana’s Feast produces both Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, another red varietal most notably used in Chianti-style and Super Tuscan wines, sourced from Washington and Oregon vineyard sites. 

Cuneo stepped away from winemaking and production and has since moved to a new facility to pursue his winemaking passion on a smaller and more focused scale at Gino Cuneo Cellars.

In McMinnville, Remy Drabkin is producing an enchanting Lagrein for her Remy Wines label. Lagrein is a red grape also from the Piedmont region; it is related to Syrah and is used for deepening color in Pinot Noir. Her Lagrein comes from just short of an acre at Illahe Vineyards in Dallas. 

“Lagrein is a slow, late ripener,” Drabkin explained. “But its skin is much thicker than Pinot Noir, its clusters are looser and they hang open and are airy. Therefore, it’s really good at dealing with the moisture and cooler temperatures that develop later in the season.”

In addition to her remarkable Lagrein, Remy Wines produces Sangiovese, Barbera and a Port-style wine made with Barbera. It was the Sangiovese grape, however, that influenced Drabkin to make Italian varietal wines. 

“Sangiovese is one of the few wines I’ve made where I haven’t worked with the same vineyard each year.  This year, I’m really ecstatic to bring in fruit from Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.”

Her Barbera comes solely from Rosebud Vineyard in Mattawa, Wash., part of the Wahluke Slope, which lies on the east side of the Columbia River.

Remy Wines are focused. Varietal composition is 100 percent; there are no blends, and each wine is sourced from a single vineyard. The grapes are mostly Italian, with the exception of her Syrah and Grenache Rosé. And, with a seemingly effortless style that’s reminiscent of a seasoned winemaker, Drabkin is a rising star to watch.  

Southern Oregon

There are a handful of producers in the Applegate Valley growing or making wines from Italian grapes. 

Troon Vineyard, in Grants Pass, recently planted Primitivo, a close relative of Zinfandel, traditionally grown in the “heel” of Italy, along with Sangiovese. Also in Grants Pass, Wooldridge Creek Winery is growing Sangiovese.

LongSword Vineyard, owned by Matthew Sorenson and his wife, Maria Largaespada, produces a Dolcetto in Jacksonville.

Fiasco Winery is the second wine project belonging to David and Pamela Palmer of Jacksonville Vineyards. The Palmers set out to test plantings in their original Bordeaux-style vineyard and found three grapes to be exceptional: Sangiovese, Dolcetto and Tempranillo. 

The Sangiovese was the best performing grape and, thus, the Palmers planted five acres on a new 7.5-acre property outside of Rouche. They had to come up with a new identity and location to reflect their newly planted Italian varietals. The concept of Fiasco was born.

In addition to their 2007 Sangiovese, Fiasco produced a 2006 Super Tuscan, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, otherwise known as Italy’s version of a “Big Red” wine. 

“We are the only winery in Oregon that’s producing a Super Tuscan made from estate-grown grapes,” David noted. 

In the Rogue Valley, Del Rio Vineyards has planted the Rodino clone of Sangiovese, and Paschal Winery produced their 2005 Civita Di Bagnoregio Italian blend made with Dolcetto, Sangiovese and two Spanish varieties, Tempranillo and Syrah.

Finally, over in the Umpqua Valley, Melrose Vineyards is growing Dolcetto, which makes up 47 percent of their 2006 Equinox blend. And Abacela—known for their Spanish-style Tempranillo—also dabbles in the Italian style with a Dolcetto sourced from Abacela’s Fault Line Vineyards in the Umpqua; the winery is located in the Rogue.

Columbia Gorge

The Columbia Gorge wine region in Oregon shares its viticultural area with Washington, with each side of the river growing exceptional Italian varietals. 

Erin Glenn at The Mint in The Dalles is Wasco County’s oldest winery and produces small lots of Dolcetto and Barbera. 

Marchesi Vineyards is a boutique winery in Hood River specializing in Italian wines. Owner Franco Marchesi was born in the town of Borgosesia in Italy’s Piedmont. He has worked in the wine business for over 20 years and in May 2004, purchased his property, formerly an orchard, in the foothills of Mt. Hood, which is reminiscent of the Piedmont region. 

Marchesi grows Dolcetto and Barbera, in addition to Oregon’s traditional Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris) and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), but in an Italian style as the name suggests. The 2008 Estate Barbera, the first vintage and his flagship wine, will be released in January 2010. The 2009 Estate Dolcetto, also the first vintage, will be released in the spring of 2010. 

“We will continue to outsource, even after we release our first estate-grown wines,” Marchesi said. “We get our Primitivo and Nebbiolo from Horse Heaven Hills, and we will work with other growers who produce Italian grapes in the region.”

Also in the Hood River region is Viento Wines. Owner/Winemaker Rich Cushman makes a Sangiovese and Barbera. Viento has sourced Sangiovese fruit from Washington’s Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Columbia Valley, and both Pepper Bridge Vineyard and Seven Hills Vineyard in the Walla Walla.

Also on the Oregon side, Wheatridge in the Nook produces Barbera and Sangiovese in Arlington near Hood River. Their 2006 Barbera was named “Best All Around Red” at this year’s Wasco County Fair Blind Judging.

Leah Jorgensen is a communications expert with over a decade of experience in the wine industry. She consults for wineries and writes about travel, wine and gluten-free living. Her maternal family has been making wine in the Campania region of Italy since the mid-1700s. Visit

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