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Wednesday, 22 May 2013 08:00

Sniff the Cap: Swilling Wine-Making History in Sacramento

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Sacramento boasts plenty of wine bars—some with witty hipsters, and others with well-dressed lobbyists. Or hipster lobbyists.

We end up in California’s capital, now and again, on business or pleasure. For something new during a recent visit, we drive south from our downtown hotel on Highway 99. Exit and turn east on Florin Road. Zoom past strip malls with the usual Starbucks, Panda Express and Sizzler chains.

The journey is daunting. I’m not especially hopeful. But we have reservations at a landmark winery, Sacramento’s oldest, producing alcohol from grapes since 1897.

Doubts double as we turn on Frasinetti Road, just before the railroad tracks. What in the heck are we doing out here? A Burlington Northern train chugs by. On the right, an auto repair shop, building supplies, Industrial Minerals. Just up the road, Siemens operates a light-rail manufacturing facility, and Pepsi bottles liquids of the carbonated variety.

“A winery back here? Really? What were they thinking?”

Of course, Frasinetti Winery was here first, founded by Italian immigrant James Frasinetti about 115 years ago. Its first wines were hauled into Sacramento on horse-drawn wagons. The vineyard survived Prohibition. Made it through the Depression. Thrived and grew to 400 acres.

Howard Frasinetti, James’ grandson, remembers a time when the surrounding neighborhood was country—expansive fields, grapes growing in all directions. “After your chores were done, you could get out there with your .22 and do some shooting,” he says.

Still family-owned, Frasinetti now buys its grapes from Napa and elsewhere. Its wines sell in the tasting room and restaurant, but aren’t commercially distributed.

The winery will put custom labels on its wine for special events for $2 per label. I read this on the website—with muted dismay. You don’t slap a “Happy Anniversary, Joan and Bennie!” label on a high-end bottle of wine. Though who am I, the cap-sniffer, to judge?

We turn into the palm-tree-lined wine oasis. Parking lot packed. The door to the tasting room is propped open. Inside, I spot a wine bottle filled with blinking disco lights flashing on a shelf near the tasting bar.

Huh.

We have reservations for dinner, but the recommended course of action is to enjoy complimentary wine-tastings before dinner. This way, we can pick a bottle for the meal.

It’s a warm Friday, around 6:30 p.m., and Dana Underwood, behind the tasting bar, is pouring chilled whites, sultry and sweet. We talk about wine-tasting—why we like it. Conclusion: Wine is good. Wine people are friendly people. And wine is good.

We discuss Pablo Cruise, Napa cabs and properly training teenagers to be our designated drivers when we go wine tasting. This seems a great way to model responsibility, no joke.

Then we advance to Frasinetti’s reds—a lightly sweet chianti, a decent cabernet sauvignon, and viscous burgundy. Solid table wines, these. Not something you buy to impress wine snob friends, but drinkable. I like the sepia labels with serif-ed Old World font. I buy the cabernet sauvignon ($18) and order a bottle of chianti ($10) at dinner.

We debate wine-and-food pairing. Underwood owns her tastes.

“My philosophy is that I’m going to drink whatever I want,” she says. “If I want a red wine with fish, I’m going to drink a red wine with fish. Or maybe I’ll want a cold beer.”

Ah, a kindred spirit.

That said, the chianti’s fine with our meal. A friendly gentleman seats us, regaling us with stories about his marriage and the Vietnam draft, which he miraculously escaped (Vietnam, not marriage, which has led to decades of bliss).

Our waiter is similarly attentive, if not as personable.

We eat light, sharing an appetizer, soup and entrée. Grilled French brie ($10.95) arrives with toasted crostinis, a mound of roasted garlic and a generous helping of sweet-red-pepper chutney. I attempt to reverse-engineer the chutney’s ingredients so I can reproduce it.

Howard FrasinettiThe restaurant is hopping when we arrive. We’re seated next to a table with a largish family, including kids. The quarters feel slightly cramped, but that’s because the restaurant was crafted from a space that once boasted a dozen 12-foot-square wine-fermenting tanks, made with poured cement. The tanks were state-of-the-art wine-making in the 1930s and 1940s, says Howard Frasinetti. Oh, yeah: Turns out that the storytelling host who seated us is the co-owner, a third-generation Frasinetti.

Howard comes back to see how we’re liking our meal. He points out historic photos and giant redwood barrels that once held 15,000 gallons of wine. His grandfather’s citizenship papers and marriage certificate, framed, hang on the walls. He invites us to tour the property, including the gardens, where a wedding rehearsal is under way.

Next up, bowls of clam chowder ($4.95) and seafood manicotti ($17.95), which arrives already split on two plates ($3 for sharing). Plenty of seafood in the soup. Salmon dominates the manicotti filling, and the pasta’s drizzled in tarragon butter sauce—rich as hell, and therefore yummy. If I drank whites, I’d have paired the entrée with the winery’s 2010 sauvignon blanc, balancing crisp and creamy.

By the time we leave, well before 8 p.m., the place has cleared out. Too many empty tables.

Frasinetti expresses concern about the future of his family’s biz. Generation No. 4 isn’t interested in running the winery or restaurant, he says. And these days, he contends, the only real restaurant success is going to the chains.

I disagree, smiling. Consumers are rejecting chains, and appreciating small, local and family-owned, I say. He shrugs and smiles.

We spend a few minutes in the Frasinetti garden after dinner. The wedding rehearsal’s over, and I have a tipsy vision: A Frasinetti face-lift that includes local, organic food-sourcing and a winemaker with contemporary sensibilities. Toss in marketing efforts to highlight changes that preserve the Italian-immigrant roots of the wine and cuisine. Instant cachet. The wine bottle with disco lights becomes, you know, ironic. The location contributes to the place’s distinctive identity, the small patch of green in the midst of grey industry. David holding his own against Goliath!

But hang on, cap-sniffing self. David has been holding his own against Goliath. Frasinetti’s is already a green oasis, filled with living things packed between the machines, and gushing with California wine-making history, not to mention ironic bottle lights and friendly people who celebrate the innate goodness of wine.

Totally worth the 20-minute drive from downtown.

To maintain her independence and ability to write and say whatever the hell she wants, California’s least-pretentious wine columnist, Deidre Pike, does not accept gifts of food, wine, desserts, lodging, airplane tickets or cheese fondue. Though free cheese does sound tempting.

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