The first thing you notice about Leanne Davis and Jon Chewning is their warmth. From the moment you meet them, they instantly make you feel welcome and give you the sense that you’ve known them for years. They bring that same generosity of spirit to both their wines and their tasting room at Via Romano Vineyards in the heart of El Dorado County’s Apple Hill. One of the newest wineries in the region, they are quickly making a name for themselves by being rooted in Italian tradition while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of their winemaking heritage.
Established in January 2017, Via Romano itself is young but its history is not. Leanne’s great grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1905 from just outside of Naples (although in true Italian style she tells us there are several different versions of how exactly it happened depending on which relative you ask)! He brought with him Leanne’s great grandmother who was from Sicily and they settled in Chicago’s Little Italy. He was well known in the neighbourhood for making wine in his basement as well as making his own cigars.
Fast forward two generations and although Leanne was born and raised in Sacramento her family still very much lived by Italian traditions where family gatherings and celebrations over good food and wine were a staple in their house. Until May of last year, Leanne was a commercial interior designer with the largest architectural design firm in Sacramento. Jon, on the other hand, was born in Dallas the son of a Preacher that moved around the country throughout his childhood and eventually ended up in Alaska brewing beer. In 1996, he moved to El Dorado and became fascinated with winemaking so began working with some of the best winemakers in the Sierra Foothills. A true Renaissance man, he also happens to play the electric bass guitar and is known to spontaneously join the band at winery events. It was a passion for wine that brought Leanne and Jon together. They were married in Montelpulciano and spent their honeymoon in Barolo enjoying harvest and sampling several different local wines. Upon their return they discovered that El Dorado has similar conditions to Italy and would lend itself to those varieties. When Leanne and Jon finally took the leap to start the winery, they decided to work exclusively with Italian grapes.
Sourcing quality fruit is priority number one for them and while they’ve been offered grapes from Lodi and Napa, it is important for them to remain local and work with what is grown in the Sierra Foothills. For example, they get their Vermentino from nearby Amador County, their Pinot Grigio from Calaveras County and their Fiano is from a vineyard just down the street from their tasting room. In 2015 they also established their own estate vineyard which sits at 1800 feet in elevation planted exclusively to Nebbiolo. They currently make 10 wines with Aglianico and Dolcetto in barrel and plan on doing 2 more blends, not all of which will be available all the time. They started off by making 500 cases of wine and last year added another 250 cases. This year they’re planning upwards of 1500 cases as demand is quickly outgrowing supply.
While Sangiovese is their flagship variety, Jon is having the most fun making Italian white varietals, “There aren’t a lot of whites being done in the region and we like the more obscure ones that grow really well here that tend to have higher acid and a lower sugar balance.” In working with several different varieties, we asked Jon which is the most challenging from a winemaking perspective, “the one we’re growing (Nebbiolo) mainly because of the high acid and tannin content. You really have to tame that or it can overwhelm a wine.”
We also learned the interesting difference between Primitivo and Zinfandel. According to Jon there’s a professor at UC Davis who recently mapped out the whole history of the grape genetically, “it originated in Croatia as a grape called Crljenak and when it came over to Italy it was named Primitivo. When it came over to the US in the 1800’s, it was Primitivo that got named Zinfandel. Primitivo stayed in Italy and Zinfandel stayed in the US. Zinfandel ripens later in California and when Primitivo came over the in the 1960’s, the only notable difference between the two is that it ripens a little earlier. We actually buy the Primitivo clone from growers, we don’t buy zinfandel and label it Primitivo.”
At Via Romano, not only is there a story behind the wine and the grapes, there’s also a story behind every label. Leanne explains how their ‘Fiasco’ Chianti got its name, “In Italy when you buy an old chianti you get the wine in a basket. That basket is a flask and flask in Italian is ‘Fiasco’.” Their Super Tuscan is named “Papa Romano” after Leanne’s father and it’s his picture that adorns the label. In November, Via Romano will be releasing its first Nebbiolo wine which will be named “Carolina” after Leanne’s mother Caroline. Her mother doesn’t know about the wine being named after her yet, and the surprise will be revealed at Leanne’s parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in August.
Respect for tradition is at the heart of everything Via Romano does, however, Leanne and Jon take great pride in not letting that tradition restrict their desire to push the boundaries and be experimental, “we make wine in the Italian style but we like to dip our toe in the water and do things no one else is doing.” Case in point, they are the first winery we’ve come across that makes a Pétillant Naturel wine. “Pét-nat” is a sparkling wine made in the méthode ancestrale which is a process that is actually older than Méthode Champenoise, considered by many the traditional way of making sparkling wine. They will also be releasing a skin-fermented Vermentino called Oro which is their version of an “Orange” wine (white wine that has had some grape skin contact giving it an orange colour).
It’s clear at Via Romano that family comes first. What’s also clear is that Leanne and Jon’s definition of family is as inclusive as any you’ll find in Italy as their wine club members and visitors can attest. Here you’ll experience the very best qualities of Italian tradition – great wine, delicious food, and a comfortable, welcoming gathering place. Saluti!
Made in the Pétillant Naturel (see Pet Nat explanation above) giving it a light frizzante. Flavours of white peach and strawberry, it has medium plus acidity and comes across as incredibly refreshing. The perfect wine to enjoy on a warm deck all summer long.
2017 Pinot Grigio
100% Pinot Grigio from Calaveras County grown at 2100 feet elevation. Medium bodied, with lovely aromatics of lemon, citrus and honey while fresh and fruity on the palate with grapefruit, pear and apple. A nice mouth watering acidity to this wine that would pair nicely with seafood on a warm sunny deck.
Very Good+ (US$22 at the winery *terrific value for this wine)
100% Vermentino from the same vineyard as the Pinot Grigio, this is a little lighter body then the PG but brings with it a very nice minerality. Notes of pear, honeydew and honey, to us this would make the perfect summer sipper with or without food.
Very Good+ (US$24 at the winery *terrific value for this wine)
Our first time tasting this grape this is an uncommon grape variety that happens to be growing right down the street from Via Romano’s tasting room. Very fruit forward with very little residual sugar. A little more complex and intense than the above two whites this is a medium bodied wine that is a great example of their experimentation paying off. Honey, melon, citrus and some herbal notes on the nose with apple, lemon and a hint of orange on the palate.
Excellent (US$26 at the winery)
A blend of 65% Sangiovese, 30% Primitivo, and 5% Vermentino, you won’t find this blend in many new world regions. Medium bodied, this had cherry, blueberry, plum and back with earth and spice. A really nice combination of the savory, rustic old world style combined with new world fruit. A very approachable and food-friendly wine.
Very Good+ (US$26 at the winery)
100% Primitivo from El Dorado County grown at 2650 feet. This is a big, bold wine with great structure to its full body so as not to be overpowering. Lots of black fruit, raspberry and spice.
Very Good+ (US $24 at the winery)
2014 Papa Romano
Named after Leanne’s father whose face adorns the label it’s a blend of 38% Sangiovese, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc and 12% Merlot that certainly lives up to being a “Super Tuscan”. A beautiful nose of dark cherry, blackcurrant, and cassis while on the palate plum and baking spice. A full bodied wine that is spicy and round with a terrific mouth feel and ridiculously long finish.
Excellent (US$37 at the winery – a steal at this price!)