Giornata: Elegant Cal-Itals from the Central Coast

Stephanie Terrizzi with one of Giornata’s Botti (large cask).

Stephanie Terrizzi with one of Giornata’s Botti (large cask).

Making Italian varietals in California isn’t for the faint of heart. They don’t sell as easily as the more familiar Cab or Chardonnay, sourcing is a challenge as plantings in the state are relatively few, and historically ‘wine experts’ have been quick to dismiss these wines as poor imitations of the ‘real thing.’ Respect for Cal-Itals is still a contrarian opinion—but wine power-couple Stephanie and Brian Terrizzi are changing that.

With Stephanie cultivating the vines and Brian working his magic in the winery, they're on a quest to prove that Italian varietals can be at home outside of their motherland. A decade in, it looks like they're succeeding. Producing noteworthy Cal-Itals under their Giornata label, the Terrizzis have garnered high praise from top wine critics—and from yours truly.

Giornata wines are delicious and complex, each expressive of its unique terroir. They require no comparison to the Old World—they are exceptional in their own right.  Enjoy my conversation with Brian and Stephanie:

How did wine first come into your lives?

Stephanie Terrizzi: I was working in a restaurant in Rockford, IL, and I noticed that many customers went crazy for a certain wine that I found to be quite mediocre. That started my quest to see why this wine was favored over the other producers.

Brian Terrizzi: My mom remarried and my stepfather had an enormous cellar with several thousand bottles of wine and a library of wine books. I was completely fascinated. I read everything I could and tasted dozens of bottles at a time. I really learned tons about wine.

When did you decide to pursue a career in the wine industry?

ST: My interest in wine took me West and I enrolled in a class at the Santa Rosa Junior College to learn more about wine. My favorite class was Viticulture 101. As it turned out, 90% of my classmates were retirees that owned vineyards in Sonoma County. We spent much of the class at those vineyards solving problems as a group. I was hooked. The vineyard is the best office in the world.

BT: I had been working in finance in San Francisco, sitting in a cubical in front of a computer all day. I was very unhappy with my job and career path. Then I met some winemakers at a party. One suggested that I come work harvest and I quit my finance job a few days later. I began working at Rosenblum Cellars almost immediately and, after my very first day, I knew this is what I would be doing for a long time.

What inspired you to launch Giornata and craft Italian varietals in California?

BT: Growing up Italian American I became fascinated by my heritage, particularly the regionality of Italian food and wine—eating and drinking what’s made locally. Here in the States, I would go to “modern-thinking” Italian restaurants and find that the wine lists were predominantly Italian, with the only California wines being Cabernet and Chardonnay. I thought that these restaurants—which pride themselves on sourcing amazing local ingredients—needed better options for locally made wines that actually pair well with the cuisine.

So many people told us that Italian grapes would never be taken seriously in California, but that’s part of what makes doing what we do with Giornata so gratifying—I think we’ve really been a part of changing that attitude.

What drew you to Paso Robles?

BT: In Paso, the soils are very similar to the top Italian wine growing zones. Although Paso has lots of hot days, the nights are very cool. Our mean temperatures are not very different than many parts of Italy. Nebbiolo needs a good amount of heat to ripen and resolve acidity. Most sommeliers who think Paso is too hot for what we do have never been here. When they visit I laugh when they don’t bring a jacket. They usually ask to borrow one by the afternoon.

ST: The soil and topography in Paso Robles is second to none. The high pH, high levels of clay, calcareous and volcanic rocks—they all add to the complexity of the grape’s flavors.

What’s the story behind the name “Giornata”?

BT: In the Piemontese dialect, Giornata means: the amount of work that can be done in a day. Piemontese farmers would talk about how much land they owned in terms of how many days of work they had, or Giornata. I really liked the idea of this.

How would you characterize your approach to winemaking—do you follow a particular philosophy?

BT: My approach to winemaking is very much on the low intervention side. We try to remain as true to Italy as possible in the field and the winery. I use nearly all Italian equipment and storage vessels. We do not seek extraction, rather subtlety and balance. We favor native yeast and little to no additions and low free SO2. I wouldn’t say we are “natural” winemakers mainly because the term has little meaning. I think it’s a bit overused and heavily marketed. I like to tell people we are transparent.

Stephanie, you’ve been called one of California’s “Great Alternative Vineyardists”. In a nutshell, can you describe your approach to vineyard management?

ST: I approach viticulture much like Brian approaches winemaking. The first question being: is there a problem that needs to be addressed? The second question is: what are the consequences of any potential actions? I am a “math minded” person, and I think of farming as an equation. If you add something on one side of the equation, there will be something that happens on the other side. Creating and maintaining balance in the vineyard is very important to me. I also do not use herbicides at any vineyard I directly manage.

Are any of your vineyard management practices particularly unusual or innovative?

ST: We have done several releases of insect in the vineyards, including lacewings, a weevil for starthistle control and a parasitic wasp for leafhopper control. My mom taught me that if you can’t beat them, join them. In the vineyard that mean finding innovative ways to coexist with coyotes, birds, bugs, weeds, and even gophers. Each of these creatures can add value with their talents. Coyotes will eat mice, bugs eat other bugs, and some weeds can be beneficial, too. If anyone can tell me how gophers can help the vineyard ecosystem, I am all ears! I am still trying to justify not shooting them.

Besides the two of you, who makes up the Giornata team?

BT: We have an assistant winemaker, David McDonald—he helps with everything from work in the cellar to the website, even with the plumbing. We also usually have one harvest intern. Last fall he was from Monforte D’Alba. It took him a while to take our wines seriously since he’s worked with Nebbiolo, etc. in Italy since he was a baby. I think he is now pretty excited and proud about what Giornata is doing. We all learned from each other.

What do you see in Giornata’s future?

BT: We really just want to keep doing what we are doing and refine our estate vineyard and maybe plant a bit more fun stuff—like Nerello. Giornata will never be a massive operation. Maybe one of our daughters will decide to take over some day.

LIGHTNING ROUND:

What is the most memorable bottle of wine you’ve ever had?

BT: That’s a tough one. We had a Mascarello Monprivato in Barolo at a restaurant called Le Cantinetta that was just so perfect with the food and setting. We love wine and have great bottles all the time that are thought provoking and make life more enjoyable. I love finding a great bottle of wine at a reasonable price point that is great with a simple meal. That’s what we are trying to do with Giornata.

ST: I also remember this bottle. The server spoke no English, so he “acted out” which animal we were eating. Apparently, Barolo pairs nicely with Pictionary.

When you aren’t drinking wine, what are you drinking?

BT: I like some lighter beer, dry cider, green tea and lots of water. We avoid soda and fruit juice.

ST: Beer and coconut water. Rarely mixed.

If you weren’t a winemaker / viticulturalist, what would you be?

ST: A baker.

BT: A pasta maker which is our newest venture next to the winery. Look for Etto!