August 2008 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview MARCO CAPPELLI

View from the Sierra Foothills

by Laurie Daniel
Marco Cappelli
Toogood Estates cellar master Umberto Pittari (left) and Marco Cappelli taste a barrel sample of 2007 Malbec port, available to purchase as a future, in the winery's caves in Fair Play, Calif.
Marco Cappelli earned his winemaking reputation during the 17 years he spent in the Napa Valley at Swanson Vineyards, where he was the first winemaker. Eventually, he began to dream of working for himself, and in 2002 he purchased 42 acres in El Dorado County, in California's Sierra Foothills.

The property, known as Herbert Vineyard for its previous owners, had 13 acres of vines. Cappelli retained 6 acres of Zinfandel but started replanting the rest of the vineyard, and in 2004, he decided the time was right to move to the property. To help pay the bills, he began consulting for small wineries such as Miraflores, Toogood Estate and Indian Rock Vineyards in the foothills. (He continues to make dessert wines for Swanson.) Cappelli has been selling his grapes to local wineries, including two of his clients, and plans eventually to make a red Rhône-style blend from the replanted portion of the vineyard. He's also making a small amount of not-yet-released fortified wine from purchased grapes.

Cappelli graduated from the University of California, Davis, in 1984 with a degree in enology; he worked in Italy, France and at Saintsbury Winery in California's Carneros AVA before joining Swanson in 1987.

Marco Cappelli
Wines & Vines: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the transition from being the winemaker at Swanson Vineyards to being a consultant for half a dozen wineries?

Marco Cappelli: When I started working with Clarke Swanson in 1987, I was just beginning my career in the wine industry. A UC Davis degree in fermentation science and a few years in the cellars of Italy, France and Napa really hadn't prepared me for the responsibilities of running the production for a top-shelf Napa Valley winery. After a few years, with the help of André Tchelistcheff, who had recommended me for the job, and the support of the Swanson family, I began to feel confident in my winemaking and grapegrowing abilities. By the time I left Swanson in 2004 to settle down on a small vineyard property I had purchased two years earlier in El Dorado County, I knew my greatest challenges would lie not so much in making wine in a new area--I had worked with foothills fruit while at Swanson--but rather in understanding the rigors and complexities of running a consulting business and paying the mortgage on my little property.

Now, four years later, I have a small consulting company and work with six foothills wineries, in addition to making the sweet wines for Swanson. My role at each winery is different and fits in with the specific needs of my clients, but it always involves helping them realize their individual business goals and objectives.

For example, one of my clients is very interested in making wine styles that will garner high scores and gold medals, while another's focus is to make wines that appeal to less-experienced drinkers. I help with all aspects of growing, making and selling wine, from planting decisions (site, rootstock, variety, trellis system) to winemaking (winery design, barrels, wine style) to marketing and selling (label design, public relations, wine tastings and dinners). I generally avoid making the final decision on important matters, preferring instead to give the owners my recommendations, laying out the advantages and disadvantages of each option and letting them decide.

W&V: Wineries in the Sierra Foothills tend to produce a lot of unusual varieties, like Verdelho, Pinotage and Graciano, in addition to more mainstream wines like Zinfandel and Syrah. Why does this sort of diversity work in the foothills?

Cappelli: As a region, the Sierra Foothills AVA is very large. It consists of eight counties, stretches 170 miles (3° latitude) along the Sierra, ranges in elevation from 1,000 to 3,000 feet and has a multitude of soil types and exposures. This remarkable variety of terroir provides us with many opportunities to match the right grape with the right location. Cool-climate varieties thrive on northern exposed hillsides at higher elevations; while the heat-loving varieties find their place on southerly or western exposed slopes at lower elevations. The ability to successfully grow many different grapes, however, is not enough when it comes to operating a profitable business. It also requires the ability to sell these sometimes-esoteric wines.

There are many small producers up here--family-run wineries that sell most, if not all, of their production right out of the tasting room, directly to the consumers. Tasters visiting the area are treated to a high degree of personal service, including descriptions of a wine variety's history, origins, European counterpart and food pairings--try getting that service at your local supermarket. This direct approach gives the producers of offbeat wines an edge over wineries that rely on distributors to sell their product.

Making Angelica

W&V: Do you find it challenging to work with such a wide range of grape varieties from so many sites?

Cappelli: Not at all. In fact, it's exhilarating and very rewarding. My years working with Clarke Swanson prepared me for this. Swanson was one of the first to plant Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio in Napa, and the Alexis Red Wine--a blend of Cabernet and Syrah--was ahead of its time in California.

I view winemaking in very simple terms: take great fruit and preserve it in the form of wine. My main goal is for the wine to reflect the terroir. Isn't it great when the place the wine comes from is more evident than the hands that made it? All the wines I make are fairly straightforward representations of the variety, without a lot of wizardry in the cellar. There is, however, a time when the winemaker's work plays a greater and more creative role than simply preserving the fruit: blending. Multi-varietal blends are an important part of the business for my clients, and the many different varieties and sites we work with give us plenty of options on the blending table. While blending can be hard work and requires imagination and a clear style objective, it is the one chance for me and my clients to express ourselves.

W&V: Do you generally have to adjust acidity?

Cappelli: It's generally not necessary. Many consumers like wine with a round, fat mouthfeel, so I like to keep the total acidity as low as possible while still maintaining some acid structure. I don't want the wines to be perceived as "flat" on the palate. Very few of my clients' musts lack sufficient acidity; but in my experience, the most common foothills varieties that need a little bump (0.2 to 0.4 grams per liter) are the white Rhône grapes Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne. I use tartaric acid and add it at the juice stage before fermentation, which helps integrate the acid into the body of the wine.

In the event that a must or post-malolactic wine has a pH of 3.9 or higher, I will add some acid to bring the pH back into a safe range, somewhere in the 3.6 to 3.7 range. Most of the higher-elevation vineyards (above 1,500 feet) have solid pHs--anywhere from 3.4 to 3.7--so acid additions are not necessary.

W&V: Are you using much in the way of oak alternatives?

Marco Cappelli
Cappelli works as a consultant for a few small wineries, such as Toogood Estate, Bray Vineyards, Miraflores and Indian Rock Vineyards.
Cappelli: When I worked in Napa, nobody really talked much about the alternatives to new oak barrels, possibly because of some negative connotations that may be associated with them. At Swanson, we experimented with some, with good results, but only on a very limited scale. Our main source for oak character in the wines was from new French and American barrels.

Since I have been in the hills, however, I have found them (barrel alternatives) to be an indispensable part of my winemaking, and not simply for the obvious reason of price. There are many great suppliers, and for the most part they all contribute very barrel-like flavors, texture and aromas. And unlike new barrels, they are easy to use for small touch-up additions to the wine before bottling.

Most of my clients use a combination of French and American oak barrels and barrel alternatives from companies such as Innerstave, StaVin, Nadalie USA and Canton's Xtraoak. We mainly use two types of alternatives: inserts placed in the barrels by the coopers, and chains that are placed through the bunghole. The inserts seem to work best when they are used during primary or malolactic fermentation; the dirtier the wine is, the better the oak seems to integrate, and the more barrel-like results we achieve. Especially successful have been Chardonnay and Viognier fermented with oak chains. On average, we use the chains on 10% to 20% of the volume of wine. Our aim is not to produce "oaky" wines, but rather to add complexity and texture.

W&V: Do you filter your wines?

Cappelli: Yes, we sterile filter all of our wines, except the fortified wines. While I have bottled unfiltered wines in the past and will consider doing so again in the future, I felt strongly that these first few vintages were essential in establishing the quality and consistency of my clients' wines. An unstable or off-flavored wine could seriously damage the reputation of a new brand. And frankly, I don't really think we are giving up much in the way of richness or body by sterile filtering.

Since most of our wines are made in small lots (100 to 500 cases), we have found plate-and-frame filtration gives us the flexibility we need by being able to add or remove plates as necessary. We use a 40cm Velo filter with a crossover plate, which we found used.

W&V: You mentioned fortified wines, which Sierra Foothills wineries have a long tradition of producing. What sort of fortified wines are you making?

Cappelli: The first grapes were planted in the foothills in the mid-1850s in response to the tremendous demand for wine and other alcoholic beverages from the gold miners. By 1890, there were over 100 wineries in and around El Dorado and Amador counties. Much of the wine produced was fortified, in part because of the consumer preferences of the day, as well as the practical aspects of shipping and storing a wine that was completely stable. Remarkably, a few of the original vineyards--now over 150 years old--are still producing great fruit. There is still considerable demand for fortified wines. Most tasting rooms offer at least one sweet wine.

Each year I make a total of 12 to 14 different fortified wines for my clients, using the following varieties: Mission, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Muscat Canelli, Black Muscat, Barbera, Malbec, Merlot and numerous Portuguese varieties, including Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo) and Souzao. Some of these wines are released young and fruity, while others are allowed to age in barrel, which helps develop a tawny, nutty character before bottling. They do extremely well in the tasting room, attracting both the novice as well as the more sophisticated wine drinkers. It's great fun and good business.

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Making Angelica, 'a true California original'

Marco Cappelli
Cappelli says he won't release the first bottles of Angelica, based on a Gold Rush-era formula, under his label for about five years.
In addition to his consulting business, Marco Cappelli has his own winemaking project: He's producing 10 barrels per year of Angelica from Mission grapes grown in Amador County.

His interest in Angelica dates back to his tenure at Swanson Vineyards. "In 1995, Clarke Swanson started me on a project to produce a wine using some very old Mission vines from a small Amador County vineyard planted in 1856," Cappelli says. "We researched Gold Rush-era documents trying to identify a production technique that we could reproduce, in an effort to make something that would pay homage to the wine styles from the period, and found such a technique described in the 1890s by a Frenchman, Emile Vache. This 'recipe' was for Angelica--a wine type popular at the time, but not seen much today. The first Swanson Angelica was made in 1995 and aged for seven years in barrel before being released.

Since 2004, Cappelli has been making about 10 barrels per year of Mission Angelica for his own Cappelli Ranch label from an Amador County vineyard planted in the 1940s. Although Angelica was made in the 1800s by simply adding grape brandy to freshly pressed juice, Cappelli explains, "We have modified the production slightly to comply with TTB regulations, which require us to ferment the juice slightly before fortification. This permits us to call it wine." He plans to age the wine in barrels for six to eight years to develop the caramel, toffee, coffee and nut aromas and flavors for which Angelica is known.

Why Angelica? "Angelica is a delicious, complex wine," he says, "and a true California original. It is a living relic that reflects the history and culture of our state. Most of the old Mission vines have long since been ripped out, and the few original plantings that remain should be preserved as national treasures. We are doing our part."

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.
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