At a party recently for the launch of SAVEUR contributor Jon Bonné's book The New California Wine (Ten Speed, 2013), I poured myself a glass of white wine and fell in love. Made from a Mediterranean grape called malvasia, the wine was wildly blossomy and unctuous but with an underlying acidity and herbaceousness: lemon verbena and candied yuzu zest, eucalyptus and rosemary. There must have been a hundred bottles opened that night, but it was that Arbe Garbe Russian River Malvasia 2012 that stole my heart.
Lucky for me, I was on my way west, and I was staying in Sonoma at the Farmhouse Inn, smack in the middle of the Russian River Valley. So I called up the young couple who make Arbe Garbe and met them out at the vineyard.
“We read too much Kerouac and fell in love with Dylan,” Enrico Maria Bertoz told me, smiling beneath a shock of thick black curls. We were walking with early-morning glasses of wine in our hands over rolling hills toward a new plot of malvasia. He was explaining how, 15 years ago fresh out of university, he and his wife, Letizia, natives of Italy’s Friuli region, arrived in California. “We came for good poetry and bad singing.”
But what they found here was very good wine. Enrico, who had worked for the Friulian grappa makers Nonino, landed a job in the formidable cellar of Piero Selvaggio's Los Angeles restaurant Valentino, stocking and restocking its 100,000 bottles. One thing led to another, and today, the couple produces their tiny label—named "bad weeds" in Italian for the cover crops that Friulians use in vineyards—using equipment borrowed from Flora Springs, the large Napa winery where Enrico has his day job.
To achieve the malvasia’s luxurious creaminess, and its gorgeous balance of sweetness and acid, they leave some of the grapes to air dry before blending them back in with the rest. The dehydration concentrates sugars and the glycerol that produces that rich mouthfeel. It’s a clever technique that’s not unlike the passito method used to make Italian dessert wine.
And, yet, if they were still living in Italy, the couple would most likely not be making such interesting wine. “The heritage of the old world is a double-edged sword,” says Enrico. “There’s the terroir, the exposition. But here in the United States, I experienced that the spirit of the pioneers.”
Like many young winemakers in Northern California, Enrico and Letizia can’t afford their own facilities or land. But they manage through the good graces of folks like Saralee Kunde, the legendary Sonoma grower whose vineyard we were walking through. Kunde had sold off the property where Enrico and Letizia’s malvasia previously grew. But in this other vineyard, Catie’s Corner, she had found the perfect spot for the finnicky grape and had grafted it onto established chardonnay vines. It will be ready to pick in 2014.
That leaves Enrico and Letizia with no malvasia to release until 2015. But you still have the chance to fall in love with that swoon-worthy 2012 malvasia yourself right now while it lasts. Just join the Arbe Garbe mailing list, to score it straight from the couple.
What should you eat with it? "There's a dish where I come from," says Enrico. "Sarde en saor: sardines lightly fried and topped with balsamic, black pepper, and onions. Malvasia, she doesn't like to be rivalled. She needs something that can stand up to her, something as pungent as she is."