If we were to be honest with ourselves for just a moment, we’d readily admit that we live in the deep, enveloping cleavage of the bosom of great wine. Just barely peeking out over the plunging neckline of our beautiful valley, we can see some of the best vineyards in America staring back at us. And while Zinfandel, Cab, and Chardonnay get all the attention and all the praise, it is the simple Barbera that I seek out every time.
An Italian grape, Barbera is a foundational piece of many Italian table wines. Following suit, it’s been grown predominantly in the Central Valley as a blending grape in jug wines. (Shout out to my boy Carlo!) But in recent years, winemakers in Amador, El Dorado, and, to a lesser but by no means less successful extent, Paso Robles have taken the Barbera and turned it into an absolutely yummy single varietal that, in my mind, kicks the pants off of most zins, pinots, and cabs.
What does Barbera taste like? To be honest, it tastes like the cloudy mists of the firmament wrapped in bubble gum and dusted with cotton candy kisses. However, some have also described it as an inky dark, velvety wine with balanced berry sweetness and almost no tannins; it’s eminently drinkable and, like most Italian wines, very food friendly.Â Take your pick of descriptions. Wine, after all, is a subjective beverage.
Where do you find good Barbera? One place you’ll rarely find it is on a restaurant’s wine list. The Firehouse, for example, whose wine list runs over 80 pages, has only a handful of Barberas from the U.S. and Italy. On last check, Biba’s wine list had two. L Wine Lounge, whose wine list admittedly is about variety and quality over quantity, carries only one.Â Same with The Kitchen.
So, you’re pretty much on your own with this one. Which is probably why I like Barbera so much. It takes a little digging to find. And it’s usually worth the effort.
The best Barberas in our neck of the woods are made by Jeff Runquist in Amador. His “virtual winery” — Jeff doesn’t grow any of his own grapes but buys from other growers — puts out a whole line of delicious reds, yet his Barbera stands above the rest. And it’s not just me saying so, he won best red in the Sierra Foothills and tied for best Barbera in the state at the State Fair wine competition.Â He tied with Nevada City Winery, with which I am unfortunately unfamiliar, but with whom I will become more familiar very soon.
Another standout in the region is Terre Rouge/Easton, also in Amador and only steps away from the Runquist tasting room. The winner for “Best Barbera Bargain” has to go to Dry Town Cellars, with their $18 bottle of mouth-pleasing joy juice that never fails to please.
If you’re hitting the road and heading south, a suggested stopover would be at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. In a recent visit, I toured a few Paso wineries and asked several winemakers where I could find the best Barbera in the area. To a man, every one of them told me to go to Eberle. Their kids told me to go to Eberle.Â Their dogs stood up straight and pointed towards Eberle. And they were all right. Eberle has a fantastic, hearty Barbera, just a touch dryer than the Sierra Foothills versions, but no less wonderful.
So, hopefully I’ve piqued your palate to the point where you want to go and seek out some Barbera on your own.Â Start asking for it at restaurants, grocery stores, church services, or anywhere else you can think of. Let’s milk this local treasure for all it’s worth. (Yeah I know it’s a mixed metaphor, I’m just testing you to see if you made it all the way through the post. Thanks for reading.)