Think Charbono and you may imagine Italy, France and Argentina. But this lovely red grape also thrives in Calistoga — so much so that many wine connoisseurs consider it the signature grape of the region. Yes, excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc command more acreage in the area, but the boutique Charbono is an extra-special treasure. In fact, most of the 75 acres of Charbono planted in California are in Calistoga.
Why is Charbono in Calistoga? Because Charbono adores Calistoga’s distinctive bedrock that was formed almost exclusively through volcanic action millions of years ago. The region’s hot summer days and cool nights help flavors flourish, too.
Here are 6 places to explore the unusual grape:
Summers Estate Wines – The best known of Calistoga’s producers, the winery and tasting room has been open since 1997, with 14 acres of Charbono. Owners Jim and Beth Summers keep things fun, with wacky snacks like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. However, for their rich boysenberry-blueberry-plum Charbono, they recommend game meats or anything with tomato sauce.
Tofanelli Family Vineyards – The heirloom Charbono variety has been grown on this family ranch since 1929, and shines with rose and ripe blueberry notes zinged with lavender and pomegranate. Get it while you can – the most recent 2014 release, included just 10 barrels (249 cases). Note: the winery is small, and owner Vince Tofanelli personally handles pretty much everything, so call ahead for a tasting.
T-Vine Winery – Sourced from Calistoga grape grower Jim Frediani, this Charbono style tends to be a bit spicy, the deep cherry and bark berry character kicked up with black currant and white pepper. Make a reservation for a tasting in the modern, two-story barn or on the landscaped patio, and gussy things up by adding an artisanal cheese plate.
Markham Vineyards (St. Helena) – Wild, bold berry fruit is a hallmark of this Charbono. Or, as the winemaker likes to say, “boysenberry pie and coffeecake.” It’s a heritage wine, too – the dry-farmed, old vines were planted sometime in the ’70s. Plan on spending some time admiring this grand winery made of stone. It has a great art gallery, with free admission.
August Briggs Winery – This family-run small-batch winery is a favorite with visitors for its offering of goodies, one of which is a chocolate and wine flight. The ambiance at this tasting room is relaxed, and guests are impressed with the whimsical wall art. Owners Matt Gacso and Colette Milliman produce some 20 different wines; Charbono is one of the most popular, in limited production of generally less than 275 cases. These Calistoga-centric grapes grow on 50 to 90-plus year-old vines and deliver excellent flavor concentration, with notes of blueberry pie, tart cherry and a hint of spice.
von Strasser Family of Wines – The Lava Vine brand produces a delicious charbono made from grapes grown in the nearby Diamond Mountain District AVA. You can taste this varietal at the winery’s laidback tasting room on the Silverado Trail.