Eat Drink Savor

Eat, Drink, Savor: Small-production Alicats Winery makes big Italian-influenced vintages

Master winemaker Alessio Carli’s foray into his deeply personal wines.
Alessio Carli and his label design. Photo by Robert Eliason
Alessio Carli and his label design. Photo by Robert Eliason
Alessio Carli and his home lab. Photo by Robert Eliason
Alessio Carli and his home lab. Photo by Robert Eliason

Alessio Carli has been making fine wines for prestigious winemakers on two continents for decades but still finds time to produce his own wines the way he wants to, under the dual labels of Alicats Winery, named after his daughters Alessia and Catia, and Carli Winery. 

“I don’t have vineyards and I buy all my grapes,” he said. “That means that I can make things that I really like, in the style I like.”

Carli got his start in California in 1998, when he came over from Italy, where he had studied at the Istituto Agrario in Siena and worked at Lorenzo de’ Medici Winery in Chianti. He started at Sam Sebastiani’s Viansa Winery in Sonoma, which at the time specialized in fine Italian varietals. 

“I came to America with my wife Cathy,” Carli said. “I told her if we were going to stay in America I needed to find a job. She designed my resume, had it printed, and we sent it out to everyone with no luck. That winter, Sam was at the same printer getting some labels made and was talking about how he was looking for a winemaker. The printer gave him my resume and Sam called me in Italy to offer me a job.”

While working at Viansa, Carli met Sharon Gimelli, whose brother, winemaker Joseph Gimelli, was starting to plan out a new winery: Pietra Santa.

“Sharon came by the winery and liked the wine I was making,” Carli said. “She talked to Joseph, and that is how I ended up working for him. At first, I was responsible for building the production layout and managing the vineyard. I worked there as a winemaker for 20 years and I also made my own little wines there until it changed owners.”

Christian Pillsbury bought the property in 2017 and renamed the winery Eden Rift. Carli found himself out of a job but does not harbor ill will.

“I think it was a good move for them,” he said. “They needed a new start. They wanted to focus more on pinot noir and chardonnay, we were more Italian-driven in style. And at the same time, I was consulting for the Biltmore Winery in North Carolina, which has the busiest tasting room in the country. We were sourcing the grapes in this area, making the wine and shipping it to them.”

Currently head winemaker for Dorcich Family Vineyards in Gilroy, Carli continues to make his “own little wines.” 

When he was at Pietra Santa, Carli only made syrah, to avoid a conflict of interest. Now that he is with Dorcich, they allow him the freedom to produce any wine he wants.

“I added pinot noir,” he said, “and sangiovese, which I love because I am from Siena. I make a pinot grigio, which is a North Italian varietal, and Vinattiere, which is super Tuscan style, like me. I think there is room for Italian wines out there. My little winery is doing well and I am making just enough. I can’t do more because I am only one person. I am making the wine and selling the wine—if I make too much, then I have to drink it!”

While Carli makes his wines at Dorcich, he does much of the blending and lab work in a little shed at his home, allowing him the luxury of tinkering with his wines until they are perfect.

“If I don’t like it, I just dump it,” he said, “I can afford it because I am not making huge amounts of wine; I can dump half a ton rather than put my label on it. But I change my style a lot, working at making the wines that people like more. My chardonnay is a complete change from the chardonnays I made before and I won best of class with it at the Chronicle Wine Competition. If you tell me what you want, I can make it.”

One remarkable thing about the wines is the price point, which is considerably lower than comparable wines.
“Some of my friends say, ‘Alessio, your wine is very inexpensive’ and ‘you should charge more,’” he said. “I say to them ‘I know, but I want to sell the wines.’ I don’t have time to market or do wine club memberships. I want people to enjoy my wines and be able to have good quality wines that they can afford to have every day.”

 

The wines of Alicats Winery

2018 Carli San Benito County Central Coast Pinot Grigio ($14) Made from 100% pinot grigio grapes grown at Vista Verde vineyards and stainless steel tank fermented, Carli produces only 50 cases of this wine a year. It has an inviting aroma with bright balanced acidity. 

“It drinks very well in the shade on a hot day with some prosciutto and melon,” Carli said. There is something about the finish of the wine that just makes you want to take another sip. This is an ideal picnic wine that is as refreshing as it is luscious, with full fruit coming through in the front and tropical flavors at the end.

2018 Carli Santa Clara County Chardonnay ($15) I feel almost guilty about reviewing this wine because it’s both delicious and totally sold out. Consider it a treasure hunt: I have spotted a few bottles of the 2019 vintage lingering in local stores and it’s worth seeking out. This is a light delicate chardonnay with buttery notes that linger but do not overwhelm the palate. Slightly tangy and gentle citrus comes through beautifully with a crispness similar to the pinot grigio. An excellent sipping wine that would go well with sharp cheese as a snack, this would also work well with cream-based dishes; perhaps pasta with vodka sauce. Carli suggests barbecued octopus. Of the two whites, this was my favorite and only the influence of my best angels are keeping me from scooping up the few 2019 bottles I saw in the store.

2019 Carli Cienega Valley Sangiovese ($15) The intense aroma of this one is instantly arresting—Carli refers to it as a “cherry bomb.” I get cherries, but there are also plum and herbal notes. He produced 130 cases of this wine and it’s an easy one to love, as smooth as spring water as it fills your mouth with vibrant tropical fruit, a bit of acidity, and a perfect finish. It’s about as Italian as you can get, so red sauces are going to go well. But it would also go well with a pre-meal or luncheon charcuterie board—I’d include some salami, pepper jack cheese, artichoke hearts and dried figs.

2019 Carli San Benito County Pinot Noir ($18) The grapes are sourced from the Gimelli and Pessagno vineyards and Carli produces 100 cases per year. This wine won a silver medal in the Chronicle Wine Competition. The natural barrel fermentation is aided by 15% whole clusters with stems, which gives the deep ruby red wine some green notes to go with vanilla and oak. I am sure this is one of the wines his friends consider to be underpriced—it compares favorably with pinots I have had at two or three times the price. It has all the fruit and little of the portentousness of heavier pinots. We talked about various pairings—this would be good with garlic-based dishes and Carli suggested squid.

2017 Carli Santa Clara Valley Vinattiere ($18) Carli translates “Vinattiere” as “the person who makes the wine,” and this red blend is my pick of the wines I tasted here. Carli produced 150 cases of this sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend that he says is modeled after the Pietra Santa style of wines. A Double Gold medal winner in the Chronicle Wine Competition, there is a soft, lingering taste of oak that adds to the complexity of the wine, with an elegant mouth feel and compelling aroma. To me, this is a go-to dinner wine that stands up to heavy foods just as easily as it complements lighter dishes. Anything grilled would pair well, Beef Bourguignon or pasta with sundried tomatoes would be ideal

Carli wines can be found at local restaurants including Mangia, Paines, and Jardines, as well as Windmill Market, Nob Hill, Diaz Liquors and Hollister Super.

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink approached me as a photographer by have since encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.