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Italian wines, SLO grown

Clesi winemaker Chris Ferrara honors Old World traditions

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Few people are fortunate enough to be passionate about their job; most Americans are stuck in the 8-to-5 weekday grind. During the 16 years I’ve written this column, I’ve never witnessed a shortage of passion among the Central Coast’s ardent winemakers and growers. But no matter how much they love growing or making wine, selling the finished product can be difficult when the wines you produce are made from varieties most Americans aren’t familiar with. And there are plenty of people who walk into a tasting room who aren’t familiar with varieties like Malvasia Bianca or Dolcetto.

MEDITERRANEAN EXPERIENCE :  Anna, Christopher, and Adrienne Ferrara (left to right) of Clesi Winery are experts when it comes to making Italian wines. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • MEDITERRANEAN EXPERIENCE : Anna, Christopher, and Adrienne Ferrara (left to right) of Clesi Winery are experts when it comes to making Italian wines.

It you love Italian wines, you’ll find those varieties, among several others, at Clesi tasting room in SLO. Winemaker and owner Christopher “Chris” Ferrara makes the Old World Italian wines he loves, yet keeps a Paso Robles grown Cabernet Sauvignon among his line-up of classic Italian varieties. When asked why he added the Cabernet, the good natured winemaker quipped: “It’s nice to have a variety people are familiar with when they walk in the door.”

A quiet man, there’s nothing pretentious about Ferrara, despite his talent for making premium quality, interesting wines. Wine retailer Ash Mehta, owner of Tastes of the Valleys wine bars in Solvang and Pismo Beach, gave Clesi wines the highest praise: “Whenever I sell someone a glass of Clesi Malvasia Bianca, they buy a bottle to take home.” Indeed, that distinctive wine is how I came to discover this brand. It was my first taste of Ferrara’s singular white wine when the 2010 vintage was released last year, and I was quite impressed—after three separate, consistently good tastings I made it pick of the week. After recently tasting through his current line-up, I really came to appreciate this unaffected winemaker’s outstanding wines.

The 2009 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon is delicious, expressing ripe fruit flavors, and beautifully balanced. I found those qualities across the board while tasting the impressive Italian varieties. I believed he could succeed on the quality of his elegantly structured red wines alone. But sometimes it takes an unusual variety, like Malvasia Bianca, that stands out on its own to bring attention to the brand. Like me, once you’ve tried them all, you’ll become an advocate of Clesi Wines.

Clesi wasn’t available in a tasting room until now. Nevertheless, the wines were well appreciated by local restaurateurs. Ferrara has been making his wines since 2006 at the Filipponi Ranch in SLO on Calle Joaquin (formerly Per Bacco, which moved to another facility). Clesi has taken over the tasting room and is offering wine tasting daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. There’s a $10 tasting fee, which they don’t charge if you buy wine—and it’s a good bet you will once you’ve tasted them. Ferrara’s wife, Adrienne Lindsay, who works at Cal Poly, is helping him with the tasting room through summer. Their pretty six-month-old daughter Anna charms their guests. The couple met when they were both working at Wild Horse when it was still owned by founder Kenneth “Ken” Volk.

“I had the time of my life at that job,” Ferrara remembered, “but I’ve never looked back.”

A viticulturist at Wild Horse, he worked with the small families growing grapes for them. Like Volk, Ferrara was excited about the opportunity to work with grape varieties that are outside the main stream.

   “I fell in love with Italian varieties and buy the Malvasia Bianca from the same family I’ve worked with since I was at Wild Horse,” he said.

    When asked if he worked at other wineries, he mentioned he made his first vintage under his own label at Linne Calodo (he had worked with winemaker Matt Trevisan at Wild Horse), and moved to the current location in 2006: “I only had one job before starting my brand,” Ferrara said with a smile. He stayed with Wild Horse 11 years and left after harvest concluded in 2007. He continued buying grapes from the small grape growers he had been working with, many of whom he thinks of as family.

Ferrara grew up in Exeter, Calif., where his family farmed citrus, including navel, blood, and Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, and more. A Cal Poly alumnus, Ferrara graduated in 1998 with a degree in agriculture business. Lindsay is also an alumnus who graduated in 2003 with an MBA in business marketing. Clesi is the surname of his great, great grandmother, Anna Clesi Ferrara. The winemaker said he wanted to use a family name, but there’s already a Ferrara Winery in Temecula, owned by relatives who are the oldest winegrape growers in San Diego County. The Ferrara/Clesi family emigrated from Sicily. In honor of his heritage, Ferrara used the trinacria symbol of Sicily that refers to the three points of the island on his label, which he had redesigned in a modern style.

He explained that wine lovers will see more Italian varieties now that viticulturists have new clones exported from Italy.

“There are a lot of new clones, like we saw with the Pinot Noir Dijon clones that improved the quality of grapes,” he said. “It will be the same with Italian varieties. I’m really excited about the Aglianico and Montepulciano that’s being grown now.”

   He’s just released a lovely 2011 Aglianico Rosé, named for Anna, who was born the day they harvested it. You’ll find impressive balance in each of his delicious reds, from the Barbera and two Sangioveses to the Dolcetto and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The interesting thing about Italian varieties is that they have plenty of acidity and don’t reach those high alcohol levels,” Ferrara noted.

“Chris loves the Old World wines, and really enjoys managing the vineyards,” Adrienne said proudly.

Ferrara admitted he would like to grow grapes, too.

“I’ve kept it small. To sell out of your wines is a good thing,” he said of his brand. “I’m not in a big hurry, anyway.”

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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