Print this article


In 1973, Dave Caparone was fed up. He had been a wine aficionado for many years, but had a hard time finding great wines since he moved to San Luis Obispo County in 1966. A fan of Barolos, Bordeaux, Brunellos and other great European wines, he was unable to find them, or wines like them, in any nearby stores. “Since I couldn’t find any wine I liked,” he remembered over 30 years later, “I figured I could try to make some wine to have with meals.” In the fall of 1973, just before his son Marc was born, Dave made his first wine - a Zinfandel from the Benito Dusi vineyard near Paso Robles. He couldn’t believe the results. “I was floored by the wine I made. Paso Robles had almost a negative reputation for wine - quite the opposite of what it is today, and I had no idea that non-jug wine could be made there.” Indeed, outside interest in the area as a location for fine wine grapes had just begun, with the work of Dr. Stanley Hoffman and Andre Tchelistcheff a few years earlier.

Encouraged by that first Dusi Zinfandel, Dave began studying winemaking in earnest, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Publicity from the work of Hoffman, Tchelistcheff and others resulted in the first serious attempt at varietal viticulture in the Central Coast, and numerous vineyards began producing fruit around the time that Dave was making his first wines. Word of his winemaking began to spread among growers, who needed to have wine made from their vineyards to convince skeptical out-of-town wineries to buy their fruit. Dave gladly accepted offers of grapes in exchange for a few bottles of wine, as long as he was allowed to make wine his own way. The result was a wonderful learning opportunity -- a chance to make wine from numerous vineyards, with different microclimates, soils and varietals.

True to his thorough nature (he studied to be a music professor, and later became a specialty real estate appraiser), Dave kept extensive records in numerous notebooks about his winemaking experiences, and began conducting experiments with different harvest times, fermentation methods, barrel aging and other factors. After several years of this, his hobby, as he describes it, “got out of hand,” and he began thinking about starting a winery. He was particularly interested in working with Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, the great Italian varietals that he liked, and so he began his research - looking for any information on the vines that he could find. He also began searching for available cuttings, a search that would later prove to be successful. He even put his father, a child of Italian immigrants who had spoken only Italian in his younger days, to work translating obscure Italian papers on the grapes, some of the only sources of information that could be found at the time.

While his research on the Italian grapes progressed, Dave was learning a great deal about the viticultural opportunities of the Central Coast. He made Zinfandel from a variety of areas, and was one of the first to make Cabernet and Merlot from the Santa Maria Valley. Through his observations, he developed a sense of the ideal microclimate for Zinfandel, and began to locate areas on the west side of Paso Robles that were potential vineyard sites. Finally, in 1978 he purchased the site of Caparone Winery on San Marcos Road, then a small country lane that wound through the cow pastures along San Marcos Creek, slightly northwest of Paso Robles. He picked the site for its high summertime temperatures, extremely dry microclimate, and soils with good moisture holding capacity. The site has proven to be a remarkable vineyard site, with virtually no insect, mold or mildew problems. In fact, the vines there have never been sprayed for mold or mildew, and have almost no problems from insects.

Dave made his first wine under the Caparone label, a Cabernet from Tepusquet Vineyard in Sisqoc, the following year. He also continued to pursue his goal of growing and making Nebbiolo. Based on his research, he believed that the climate of his vineyard site had strong potential as a location for Nebbiolo and he went ahead with his plans to plant that grape. In 1980, he obtained his first Nebbiolo vines from the University of California at Davis, and planted them alongside the Zinfandel that he had established. Around that time, he heard of some cuttings of Brunello, the famous Italian sangiovese, that were in California, brought here by none other than a member of Italian royalty. After obtaining some cuttings of this vine (that were later certified by the Italian prince himself) Dave established his first Sangiovese planting in 1982. His goal of growing Nebbiolo and Sangiovese was achieved. The next question: were the vines planted in the right place? Since there was very little information about how these varieties fared in California, there was no way to be sure that the experiment would be successful.

The question was answered in the winter of 1985 and ‘86, when the first harvests of Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, respectively, were the barrel, after achieving complete maturity on the vine. Those wines displayed remarkable varietal character and an abundance of complexity and fruit flavors associated with a match of varietal and microclimate. Despite the young age of the vines, the wines showed remarkable balance and aging potential, and these wines are still rich and complex 20 years later.

Dave began using the now famous Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria for his cabernets and merlots in 1984 (at this date, he is still one of the oldest customers of this vineyard). With over a decade of winemaking experience with Sisqoc grapes, he chose Bien Nacido for its exceptional fruit and its very pronounced personality. The Miller family, owners of Bien Nacido, have a remarkable commitment to quality, and their dedication has moved Bien Nacido to its current position as one of the most recognized vineyards in California.

By the mid 1980’s, with the estate vineyard in production and nebbiolo and sangiovese showing their suitability for his vineyard site, Dave turned his attention to aglianico, considered the third great red Italian grape variety. Dave once again put his research skills to work, and through the assistance of the legendary Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis, located the three Aglianico vines that were in the United States. Located at the Federal Genome Plant Repository in Winters, California, the origin of the vines was later traced to some samples imported by UC Davis over 100 years ago. Cuttings from these vines were propagated and planted at the Caparone estate vineyard in 1988. The first American aglianico was harvested in 1992, and these vines proved, like sangiovese and nebbiolo, to be well suited to their site. The little vineyard plot along San Marcos Road, selected by Dave nearly 15 years before, proved to be a remarkable site. The three great red varieties of Italy all bore excellent fruit there, planted side by side. For Dave, this was a milestone; a culmination of 20 years of research, observation and hard work. The wines that continue to come from this vineyard continue to impress those familiar with the great wines of Italy, and the Zinfandel grown there has been extremely successful as well. As he has since 1980, Dave continues to meticulously farm his vineyard, now assisted by his son Marc.

As the Aglianico planting began to bear fruit in the early ‘90s, Dave once again turned his attention to Nebbiolo. The variety is very clonally variable, and at long last, new clones were beginning to appear in America. Dave’s article gives additional information about the new clone, which was planted in the late ‘90s.

Over the last two and a half decades, the wines Dave and Marc have produced from their small vineyard and from Bien Nacido have received much praise from those who have extensive experience with the great wines of the world. The Caparones have chosen not to extensively promote themselves, preferring instead to concentrate on quietly growing grapes and making wine, selling the product of their labor to the many friends and followers they have acquired. “I have had many opportunities to grow over the years,” says Dave, “but our focus has always been on the tasks of winemaking and farming the vineyard. I’m a winemaker, I don’t want to become a manager.”

Today the winery produces small lots of each varietal. Marc Caparone, who grew up with winemaking all around him, now handles much of the winemaking and manual labor. “I want to continue what we’ve started here - a small winery that produces high quality wines using artisan techniques,” says Marc, “what other kind of winemaking could be more interesting?”