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Might Charbono be the New Cult Grape?

by Monty & Sara Preiser

There is a relatively little known grape variety grown and produced in very limited qualities in California. Called Charbono, it is thought to have originated in the Savoie region of France, though some believe it to be identical to the Italian Dolcetto grape of Piemonte where it can be found in both Dolcetto and Barbera vineyards. However, our research can locate no wine made in Italy labeled as Charbono. It may well have found its niche in the hot regions of California where day/night temperatures are at great variance, thus allowing the requisite acid retention and ripening.

Charbono as a wine varietal is usually dark – even inky - and emits aromas of black fruit (think plums) accompanied by pepper and hints of barnyard or leather. It should be mid to full on the palate, with noticeable structure and a better than average finish. Those who produce this wine tell us it will cellar for at least 20 years.
Until we undertook the task this Fall, we do not believe there had ever been a full compilation of all the California producers of Charbono, and certainly there had never been a comparison tasting and evaluation. We spoke with numerous vintners and writers in an effort to identify each wine, and only by collating all the information obtained were we able to create what we believe to be a full list. Interestingly, no one person could name all the producers. After reading this article, you will be able to do so.

Following our identification of the wines, we wrote to the producers asking that a bottle  be sent to us for tasting, and assuring each that the exercise would be professional in nature and judged by a well qualified panel. Almost every Charbono maker exhibited excitement about the project, and many went to much appreciated pains to be certain we received the wines. Some, like Cosentino and Fortino, even went to their library since they had no present releases. We recognize and thank all those who donated bottles. Two wineries, August Briggs and Turley, refused to send a bottle and were not interested in the experiment, so we simply purchased their wines. We admit we were annoyed, since we buy August Briggs regularly (though we shy away from the overpriced Turley), and hoped both would score poorly. However, as you will see below they did quite well, confirming the blind and unbiased nature of the tasting and this reporting. Finally, we think Schrader makes a Charbono, but the winery ignored 3 phone calls and 4 emails, so if there is a Schrader Charbono and it is not discussed here, it isn’t for our lack of effort.

Judges for the evening with industry experience included Philippe Cherruault, master sommelier at the Palm Beach Four Seasons; Joel Feigenheimer, chief buyer for the China Grill restaurant group; wine and food journalist Susan Friedman; Ray Gentilella, a broker/supplier representing some of the world’s top wines, including Hundred Acre; Shari Gherman, former winery representative and now wine editor for the South Florida Business Journal and South Florida Magazine; John Lewis, a major importer of Italian wines; Director of PR for the Four Seasons Hotel, Kerry Shorr; Michael Turner, known to some as the "Sultan of Charbono," who came to Florida from California where he makes one of the Charbonos in the tasting; and, of course, ourselves.

It is worth noting that all on the panel were most impressed with the evening’s wines, even though very few had any much, or even any, experience with them. Personally, we had discovered the varietal at a tasting where we met Peter Heitz of Shypoke, and were then the guests of him and his family for a lovely tasting just south of Calistoga. When told that an astonishingly few acres of this grape are planted worldwide, with most existing in the northern Napa Valley, we became enthralled with learning more about this distinctive wine that clearly did not fall into the more common categories of Reds grown in the state. Not only did we like the Shypoke, we liked the cost. In fact, as you will see below, most Charbonos are surprisingly well priced for a wine of such boldness and structure. If it is similar to any other varietal(s), we would probably say Petite Verdot with a splash of Zinfandel, yet Charbono is unquestionably a grape and a taste unto itself.

Every one of the 15 wines showed well on the 20 point scale used that evening. All but 3 would have contended for medals at most competitions. The wines were ranked based first on total points, and then once again after omitting the highest and lowest scores. We are happy to say there was little change in order between the two procedures, though some ties were created using the latter system. All in all, the results reminded us of an Olympic race where all the contestants are world class and the final separation between each is minimal. Yet, even with all the quality, there must be someone who comes out on top, and someone who comes in last. It does not mean that any person (or wine) is a loser.


First to the results using gross scores (not throwing out the high and low):

1.      2004 Summers Villa Andriana Vineyard, from Napa Valley ($28 – terrific buy)

2.      2003 OnThEdge Frediana Vineyard, from Napa Valley ($35 – fair price)

3.      2004 August Briggs, from Napa Valley ($20 – look at this price, wow);

4.      2003 Turley Tofanelli Vineyard, from Napa Valley ($60 – well overpriced)

5.      2004 Chameleon, from Napa Valley ($22 – a bargain)

6.      2003 Joseph Laurence Shypoke Vineyard, from Napa Valley ($32 – worth it)

7.      2004 Shypoke, from Napa Valley ($25 – worth more)

8.      2003 Chameleon, from Napa Valley ($22 – still a bargain)

9.      2004 Robert Foley, from Napa Valley ($35)

10.  2004 Duxoup [“Duck Soup”] from Napa Valley ($19.76 – year the owners met)

11.  2004 Saddleback, from Napa Valley ($45)

12.  2004 Tofanelli, from Napa Valley ($34)

13.  2002 Fortino, from Santa Clara Valley ($19)

14.  2000 Cosentino Heitz Family Vineyard, from Napa Valley ($25)

15.  2000 Pacific Star, from Mendocino County ($24)


After throwing out the top and the bottom scores:

1: Summers; Tied for 2: OnThEdge and August Briggs; 4: Turley; 5: Joseph Laurence; Tied for 6: 04 Chameleon and Shypoke; Tied for 8: 03 Chameleon and Robert Foley; Tied for 10: Duxoup, Saddleback, Fortino; 13: Tofanelli; 14: Cosentino; 15: Pacific Star.

If you have studied statistics in any manner, you know that not only are the scores of interest to those analyzing an issue, but so are the number of actual first, second, and last place rankings. One can easily see that a wine with the same number of first and last place votes might have an equal score numerically to a wine that is judged to always be in the middle of the pack. Knowing the rankings is useful in determining how many superlatives and negatives are being attached to each particular bottle.

Thus, in our tasting it was not surprising given their high rankings that August Briggs and Summers won the most first place votes, but it is instructive to see that even though Briggs was actually the top number one vote getter, it had significantly more negatives than did Summers, allowing Summers to have the highest overall score. OnThEdge garnered just a few placements at the top, but with only one serious negative and many second and third placements, it deservedly copped ranking number two. Duxoup had many supporters, but also just as many detractors, a situation that lowered the wine’s ranking. There were few middle placements of Shypoke, as judges awarded it either very high or very low marks. These ratings put its average in the middle even though I number of people judged it the best. Turley received no first place help, but nevertheless scored highly as it was ranked from numbers 2 to 7 on the score sheets. Saddleback and Foley were the most divisive in scores, with each wine being placed at least once at every ranking except the first and the last two. Unfortunately for Cosentino, even though the wine received some nice scores, there was a heavy concentration of placements in the 9 – 10 range. And the evening proved to be even less a success for Pacific Star, which had far too many low placements and negatives to overcome its higher rankings by a few.

All in all, the initial impression gained from our summer in Napa and our visit with the Heitz family was well borne out. Charbono is a grape that should be tried and enjoyed by all looking for something pleasingly unique. Our judging in Florida occurred on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. On Thursday night, to a tough audience at dinner we poured from the extra bottles of Charbono some of the vintners were kind enough to send. To the surprise of the dinner hosts (us) the wines were as big a hit on the holiday as they were on Tuesday. Something different? Yes. Something to seek out? Sure. And something with which to accompany meats for perfect pairing? Most definitely. In our opinion, the quality of this wine will only improve, and more people in Napa will produce it. This is an opportune time to drink it while most prices remain in this stratosphere.


Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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