Fifty out of fifty States now produce wine, including Alaska, where moose blubber is used as a fining agent and the must is strainied through Sarah Palin’s brassiere.
Today, every continent has a winemaking tradition except Antarctica, but the geophysicists at McMurdo research station do have a year-round tradition of eating winesicles for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In 1961, if President John F. Kennedy had maintained: “We will put a vintner on the moon by the end of this decade, and bring him home with a slight, nagging hangover,” by golly, it would have happened.
Who, you ask, would have been up to such a monumental task? Jim Forchini, that’s who.
Winemaking is Not Rocket Science
But nobody says a rocket scientist can’t make wine, right? Jim Forchini, today a gnarled, bearded, tanned agriculturist from Sonoma, was in 1961 a fresh-faced young engineer hired by Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to help develop the nacent space industry on JFK’s marching orders. That was a three year gig; in the meantime, in Sonoma, he bumped into a grape vine.
If it’s vaguely un-PC to a suggest an indelible connection between Italians and winemaking, so be it. Says Jim: “Growing up, we always had wine on the table. It wasn’t an addition to our meals, it wasn’t a special occasion thing, it was part of our daily bread.”
So in 1963, still juggling rocket science, a Pasadena family and some vague race-memory recall, he purchased a small ranch in wine country with a small vineyard attached, and spent the next fifteen years dreaming of leaving second-stage boosters for second-stage fermentation.
That finally happened in 1996—and though he candidly admits that back then, there was less competition—his first release, an estate-grown zinfandel, won a gold medal. Today, he produces a sensational array of Dry Creek old-vine zins and cabs, miniscule amounts (79 cases) of Russian River chardonnay, and a beatifully spiced, black cherry-scented proprietor’s reserve pinot noir along with a slew of lyrically-named blends.
Food and Italians, Italians and Food…?
Inexpungibly linked. No question. I know, I know; I’m digging my social grave deeper, but almost all of Forchini’s winemaking metaphors are food-related. He’ll vividly portray a circle of little old ladies (little and old are his words, ye Arbiters of Ageism and Sizeism, not mine) making clam chowder. “They’ll all use the same clams, the same milk, the same onions, but each chowder will be slightly different,” says Jim, his mouth watering—though it may have been the chardonnay. “ Each will reflect the chowder-maker as much as the ingredients.”
Likewise, he defends his somewhat iconoclastic method of fermenting a given grape blend all together in a single vat rather than following the traditional route of individual lot fermenting, where the blending is done at the end.
“When you’re making marinara, what do you do? Sautee everything separately? Garlic one pot, green peppers another, then mix them up when you’re done? Of course not; you cook them together, you know instinctively that the flavors will mix and marry…”
Speaking of Marinara…
A lot of winemakers call their reasonably-priced, multi-grape red hodgepodges ‘spaghetti wines’, but I honestly don’t think I’ve had a better one than Forchini’s Papa Nonno, a zin/cab/carignane fusion that contains, like chianti, a bit of proprietary white wine as part of the recipe.
Why the superlative marinara affiliation? Because the bloody stuff tastes like marinara, that’s why. Remember the old Ragu commercial where the dude kept saying in Brooklynese: ‘It’s in there…’? Strike me dead if I’m wrong, but grab a glass of Papa Nono. Freshly snipped sprigs of oregano? It’s in there. Tomatoes? They’re in there. Basil, green vegetables, even a touch of fenocchio —badda-bing. I’m going to pour this stuff over my pasta and drink Ragu directly out of the jar; what do you think of that, Emily Post?
I’m a Sucker for Tribute Wines
Winemakers tend to be passionate, poetic, from-the-heart type of people—which is why hardly any of them make money—so when one creates a special bottling for a special someone, my papillae perk up, expecting that a little extra TLC goes into the effort. Papa Nonno was conceived to honor Pietro Bernacchi, Jim Forchini’s maternal grandfather, who immigrated to America in 1908. Called ‘Papa’ by his parents and ‘Nonno’ by his siblings, Jim offers up this meaty, aromatic Tuscan-style blend, with a heartfelt tanti gratzie, to the heavens.
Or maybe it’s to the moon. Either way, Papa Nonno would have been proud, and as a matter of fact, so would Papa JFK.