Wine Watch: Under the Tuscan Sun

Campiello's sommelier recommends a super Tuscan-style wine with all the strength of a bold Italian red, crafted on California soil by a Naples family.

BY March 1, 2020
Campiello's beverage director and sommelier Ross Kapitz Photo by Scott McIntyre
(Photo by Scott McIntyre)

March is one of sommelier Ross Kupitz’s favorite months at Campiello Naples. It’s the busiest time of the season for the Third Street South restaurant, and wine flies off the cellar shelves. “This is the one month when we’re worried we’ll run out of wine,” says Kupitz, who oversees the beverage programs at all of the  local D’Amico restaurants.  

As part of the “Tour di Italia” specials, Campiello curates a themed menu each month that celebrates a different part of Italy. March toasts the Piedmont, a land of white truffles (which can go for $4,000 per pound) and beautiful, bold red wines, such as Barolo, barbera and Barbaresco. While these vinos are wonderful (with quite a few good ones on the wine list), Kupitz recommends that when you claim a table in Campiello’s dining room or courtyard this month, you order the Aprile Super Oakville Blend from Gargiulo Vineyards.

The Aprile Super Oakville Blend Courtesy of Sue Negrini
The Aprile Super Oakville Blend; (Courtesy Gargiulo Vineyards/Sue Negrini)

The wine is made in a super Tuscan style (a term for wines  crafted in Tuscany with nonnative grapes, like this sangiovese-cabernet blend) and tends to be associated with big, collectible reds. In Napa, where less than 1% of acreage is dedicated to sangiovese grapes, the power player of Central Italian wines, finding a good super Tuscan is gold. 

One of many Naples families with a stake in Napa winemaking, the Gargiulos named their spicy yet fruity version Aprile, after their daughter. A balanced expression of sangioveses, the wine has a little cabernet blended in and stands on the heavier side with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, rhubarb and strawberries. Crafted at a single-estate vineyard in Napa Valley, the Aprile is versatile enough to pair with a variety of Campiello’s modernized, Italian fare, like the lamb osso buco, egg ravioli with duck and the housemade ravioletti with fennel sausage. 

Gargiulo's wine room, featuring stone and reclaimed wood from Napa Courtesy Gargiulo Vineyards
Gargiulo’s wine room, featuring stone and reclaimed wood from Napa; (Courtesy Gargiulo Vineyards/Sue Negrini)
The winemaking team follows a hands-off approach for the truest expression of terroir. (Courtesy Gargiulo Vineyards/Sue Negrini)

Production is small, so you won’t come by this wine often. But if diners are not familiar with the Aprile itself, they definitely know the couple behind the wine. Jeff and Valerie Gargiulo—who split their time between Napa and Naples—are founding trustees of the Naples Winter Wine Festival, as well as regulars at the restaurant. 

Jeff, who got his start in farming as a picking boss, went on to expand the Gargiulo, Inc. family tomato business and then became president of Sunkist. When he purchased his first vineyard in Napa Valley, in 1992, he applied the same standards that helped him grow his other companies. “He always says we should never compromise on quality,” says winemaker Kristof Anderson, who has been with the winery since the start. “I’m one of those rare winemakers who gets to grow their own ingredients, which you’d think would be more common, but it’s not.”

Naples residents Jeff and Valerie Gargiulo debuted their wine operation in 1992. (Courtesy Gargiulo Vineyards/Sue Negrini)
The vineyard’s harvest. (Courtesy Gargiulo Vineyards/Sue Negrini)

Anderson first met the Gargiulos while working with Lewis Cellars, another small family winery in Napa. At the time, the Gargiulos had 8-year-old vines they had planted at their Money Road Ranch vineyard, and they were looking for a winemaker who shared their minimal-intervention philosophy. “It’s a hands-off approach to winemaking, letting the wines speak more about terroir,” Anderson says. “With every vintage, I’m getting better at matching the winemaking style with what the vineyard is providing me.”

The odd vintages—2011, 2015 and 2017—have been some of the best for the Aprile. Jeff’s favorite is the 2011, which happened to be one of the most challenging growing years Napa has seen in the last three decades. It rained throughout the entire growing season—a rarity for the region where 80% of rain falls from October to May, when vines are dormant. Using tips and strategies from winemaker friends in the rainier French regions, Anderson got proactive in the vineyard and created one of the wine’s best vintages to date.

Sangiovese is a challenging grape to grow in the Tuscan hills, but in Napa Valley, the varietal grows like a weed. Where cab vines, which are dominant in the area, may produce 2 to 6 tons of grapes per acre, sangiovese can yield 12 tons or more, resulting in weak, acidic wines. To achieve intense flavor and complexity, Anderson has to coerce the vines to grow half the number of grapes the vineyard would naturally produce, so plants can concentrate energy on the few.

Campiello's beverage director and sommelier Ross Kupitz in the restaurants new jazz club Photo by Scott McIntyre
Sommelier Ross Kupitz in Campiellos new jazz club; (Photo by Scott McIntyre)

Though it’s not the easiest or most common grape to grow in Napa, Jeff, who would often drink sangiovese wines with his father, wanted to pay tribute to his Italian heritage. “Stylistically, it has one foot in Italy and one foot in Napa,” Anderson explains. “It’s restrained and elegant, more of a European approach and not the giant, extracted stereotypical Napa reds you’re used to seeing.”

With only 900 cases produced annually, the hard-to-get Aprile upholds the Italian saying: “Nella botte piccola c’è il vino buono,” which means, “in small barrels, there’s good wine.” Or, as we say, good things come in small packages. 

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