What happens when you cross the Carolinas with California? Calicaro wine, that's what. IntoWine recently caught up with Dave Ball, founder of Calicaro wine to discuss his nascent wine venture and his thoughts on winemaking.

What inspired the name Calicaro Wine?

We live part of the time in the Carolinas and part of the time in California.  I love both of these places and wanted to reflect that in our name.  Plus, Calicaro sounds Spanish or Italian and I like the connection to the rich winemaking traditions in both of these countries.  A friend who speaks Italian later told me that "caro" means "dear" or "fond of" so the name works on that level too!

How did your foray into winemaking come about?

I have fond memories of making wine at home as a kid.  My family was of northern European descent and I grew up in the Midwest, so I did not grow up around grapes or any real winemaking tradition.  We were a typical suburban Midwestern family, and my parents' alcohol consumption was largely limited to Jim Beam and the occasional beer. 

The Calico Liberty Bridge Pinot Noir 2008 was recently reviewed on IntoWineTV, watch now

But my dad was an electrical engineer and liked to expose his kids to science in fun ways. We built rockets, stereo equipment and other things.  Our exposure to chemistry was to make wine.  It was magic to me, and I remember going through the fridge to find whatever juice I could to make into wine.  Orange juice makes awful wine- the acidity was off the charts.  Over time we got better at it and made some drinkable stuff.

Later I was captivated by California Pinot Noir and inspired by a couple of other lawyers who were both practicing law (as I do) and making wine.  I thought: if they can, maybe I can too.        

Describe your winemaking philosophy:

Philosophy may be too big a word for what we try to do.  Obviously, we try to make the best wine we can.  To us that means a wine that is relatively big - we like a lot going on in the glass - but still balanced.  If everything is in equipoise, then the wine will hopefully develop into a fine, harmonious, complex and enjoyable bottle that we will be proud to call Calicaro. 

We try to make wine that plays to and draws on the strength of the vineyard and the AVA.  When we make an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, it will be a more elegant and restrained interpretation than one of our big, dark, plush and lush Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs.  

We love it when we get to create ephiphany moments.  I've observed people taste one of our wines and roll their eyes back and  say "ahhhhh."  What could be better than that for us?  Many of my own personal epiphany moments involve sense memories while tasting Pinot Noir.      

What are your long-term goals for the brand?

In our short history, Calicaro has already been placed on highy regarded restaurant wine lists in San Francisco and the Carolinas, served at a formal reception and wine dinner in Washington, D.C. and praised by critics with numerous 90-93 point wine scores.  Best of all, our customers tell us how much they love Calicaro wines. 

Making the best wine we possibly can is a given for us, and for this reason our production will always remain very small. I want to continue to know many of our customers and provide personal service and attention.  We obsess over the details and the quality, and that really limits how much we can take on. 

If we can grow to the point where we make 4-6 single vineyard designated and appellation blend Pinot Noirs, a couple of Cabernets, and a little Syrah, Zin and a Rhone white blend, we will be very happy.  I should think that 3000 cases per year is realistically our limit, and I wll be surprized if we ever do grow to that size. 

Why the focus on Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon?

Pinot Noir is THE grape for me. I seem to be wired in such a way as to be in sympathetic vibration with this varietal.  My palate is just so clearly dialed in on Pinot Noir, and it is the grape where I think Calicaro can really shine. There are a lot of great Napa Cabernets, but what I think Calicaro can do is bring our Pinot Noir sensibiities to Cabernet to make an intense, concentrated, but still very balanced Cabernet that shows elegance, finesse and harmony.  This involves gentle handling, rigorous fruit sorting, careful selection and use of oak and blending, blending, blending until we hit the sweet spot.      

When it comes to winemaking, what's one thing you know now that you wish you had known before you started?

One thing?  ONLY one thing? :) Starting a wine brand is not for the faint of heart.  Dealing with the commerce side of things can be hard and stressful. But, at its core, making wine gives people something to enjoy, to savor, to share with friends old and new, to remember, and to keep in their cellar as a treasured possession.  I am honored that Calicaro can be a small part of this 7,000 year tradition.  For me, it is a profound and richly rewarding journey - more so than I would have ever imagined. 

A hot topic in wine circles is the "Parkerization" of wines. Some people claim his 100 point scoring system has been an enabling factor for consumers as they navigate the endless array of brands from which they can choose. Others claim his influence has negatively impacted wine quality as producers are increasingly crafting their wines to earn a high score from Parker at the expense of making the best wine they can with the fruit and resources they have available. Given this, what are your thoughts on Parker and the 100 point scoring system?

How many pages do I have here? :).  It has become increasingly popular to criticize Parker.  But recognize that the problem isn't Parker himself, the Wine Advocate or the 100 point scale.  The problem is that Parker has been TOO successful at doing what ALL critics do, which is to taste and rate wines subjectively.  So his voice has exercised too much influence, a hegemony on public perceptions of wine quality.  And over time, many wine lovers have learned or will learn - often too late - that their palates are not really in sync with Parker's palate. 

In the larger historical context, Parker changed the whole system as an outsider who maintained his independence, thereby bringing a "Consumer Reports" approach to wine judging.  On balance, this is good for the consumer, and the 100 point scale provides a way to initially sift through thousands of wines in the market. 

The solution is twofold.  First, critics who rail against Parker should step up their own game rather than seek to quiet Parker's voice. They should go out into the marketplace of ideas and convince the public that they are better judges of wine. Obviously, Alice Feiring knew that putting Parker's name on the cover would help her sell books, and it is naive to think that she or anyone else is "saving" the world from Parkerization.  If she were to succeed in her quest, who would then save us from Feiringization?  

Secondly, recognize that the world of wine is vast, and there is room for all styles.  People who really care about wine will find critics whose palates are in tune with their own and will pay attention to those critics. Learning this is part of the journey, the exploration into wine and one's own palate.  There is no need to demonize Parker.  Just move on.    

And, as styles and trends shift - as they are doing now - as we are seeing Parker's influence wane and many winemakers dialing back on the alcohol and oak - this whole debate simply goes away.  No doubt, to be replaced by a new debate.  Wine lovers like to talk and argue almost as much as they like to drink wine!     

Lastly, where can your wines be purchased?

Online at www.calicaro.com.  In the Bay area we are at Napa Valley Winery Exchange in SF, Greens Restaurant in SF and Wood Tavern in Oakland.  Calicaro is also in a number of fine restaurants and wine shops in the Carolinas.  We are always talking to new wine shops and restaurants, so please email me at [email protected] to get an update.