Northern Italy in the Sierra Foothills

Remember Cal-Ital wines? That brief fling Napa Valley had with Sangiovese back in the ‘90s, when Atlas Peak was the new Tuscany? Yeah, like so many prospectors’ dreams, it didn’t pan out. When we think of Italian red grape varieties in the United States today, our minds may stray to Washington state’s Columbia Valley for Barbera and Sangiovese, or a few rogue plantings of Sagrantino and Nero d’Avola in Sonoma and Mendocino. I’ve enjoyed Dolcetto from Texas. Back East, a few diehards are making a real go with Nebbiolo in Virginia and Maryland, even Teroldego in the Finger Lakes. But Italian reds in this country are the exception rather than the rule.

So I was intrigued recently to have an opportunity to taste wines from Montoliva Vineyard & Winery, a specialist in Italian varieities in California’s Sierra Nevada Foothills. To continue the prospector analogy, there’s gold in them thar hills.

Montoliva is the passion project of Mark Henry, who settled in the Chicago Park area of Nevada County, about halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, back in 2000. He caught the bug during a brief career in Seattle importing beer and winemaking equipment from Australia for sale in Canada. He now has about 9.5 acres of vineyards above 2,000 feet elevation, planted entirely to Italian grape varieties and farmed more or less organically, though the vineyards are not certified. And Henry avoids calling his wines natural, though he uses a minimal intervention approach to winemaking.

And his wines are delicious. You may scoff when I say Montoliva’s 2019 Negroamaro is the best I’ve tasted from the United States, and yes, it’s the only U.S. Negroamaro I recall ever tasting. It features bright sour cherry and plum notes with drying tannins on a long, lingering finish, without the tarry, cooked character this grape can show in the heat of its home in southern Italy.

Henry’s Nero d’Avola 2019 showed similar clarity of flavor, more boysenberry and blueberry, lighter in body and texture than its Sicilian counterparts perhaps, but also persistent in its finish with those subtle drying tannins. And he’s not totally beholden to southern Italy — his Teroldego 2018 was darker in color with just a little spritz on the palate to give it lift and carry the blackberry and bing cherry flavors. 

To use a musical analogy, these wines are like tuning forks struck in an acoustically perfect concert hall. The Negroamaro hits the high note, the Nero d’Avola calms it down a bit and resonates throughout, while the Teroldego adds a lower voice. I also tasted the 2020 Due Baci, a blend of Sangiovese and Aglianico that was more complex than the others, though with a dissonant, unripe note to add intrigue. 

Please believe that I hit upon the tuning fork analogy before looking up Montoliva in Mike Dunne’s terrific book, “The Signature Wines of Superior California,” where he says Henry “has his own opera resounding through the small but historic Nevada County enclave of Chicago Park.” 

These are terrific wines that deserve a following. Priced in the $30s and $40s, they are not cheap, but also not exorbitant. While he includes southern Italian grape varieties, Henry’s winemaking style is more like the reds of Alto Adige in the mountains of northern Italy, and should appeal especially to fans of those wines. He makes only about 1,500 cases a year and hopes to grow slowly to 3,000 cases. And the wines are not in distribution — available only through the winery at Henry tells me he charges a flat rate of $25 for shipping, for a single bottle or for a case.

About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (
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