By James Knight
Located one block off the Plaza, Portalupi is another stylish wine lounge that keeps late hours, inviting Healdsburg dinner-goers to stop in for a quick tasting or to lounge in purple sofas with a glass while waiting for their reservation. Three doors open to the street, and a vintage Vespa scooter—bought direct from the factory decades ago—looks ready to scoot off to fun times. The theme is Italian, the style coherent and the wines great, but what's more, the folks behind the bar here are responsible for it all, from the ground up.
Jane Portalupi used to direct marketing for major brands; she's responsible for "everything outside of the bottle," says Tim Borges, "I'm responsible for everything inside." Working on his 34th harvest, Borges used to build wine brands for wealthy Napa types who, as I've often noted, must disinter an Italian great-grandfather of a remote relative who made wine in his New York basement in an effort to connect themselves with this time-honored tradition. Borges and Portalupi don't have to look so far. Borges' grandfather taught him how to make Port in the style of the 2006 Antone M. Napa Valley Port ($36), a blend of Portuguese varietals with deep, grapey flavor and cognac overtones that finishes drier than the typical "late harvest" port. (Continuing the lineage, Borges offers wine education classes for groups in the adjacent conference room.) Portalupi's grandmother was a winemaker near Asti, refilling villager's jugs with simple vino di tavola. In her honor, the flavorful Vaso di Marina ($48) is bottled in a 1.89-liter milk jug.
The tasting starts with a 2009 Sonoma Coast Vermentino ($20) that smells of sea spray and finishes with crisp, salted lychee. The bright and silky 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($46) is comprised of Rochioli fruit; quite the opposite number, the age-worthy 2008 Paso Robles Pinot Noir ($48) has black olive, dark fruit and a dense, dry finish.
But the star here is more often a sideline elsewhere. To create it, Borges went the distance, hand-selecting and importing cuttings from near the Italian alps and planting a small vineyard in the alps of eastern California. Rewardingly, their 2006 Barbera was named the best Barbera in the world. To enhance authenticity, Borges ages it in red Slovakian oak, as is the custom in Piedmont. The 2008 Nevada County Barbera ($36) has pretty aromas of bright cherry, red plum, wild grape, and a silky body with a long—make that quite long—and lingering finish. After a glass of this, one might have to disinter oneself from the sofa to make that dinner reservation.
Portalupi Wine, 107 North St., Healdsburg. Open daily, 10:30am–7pm. Three tastes $5, full slate $12. 707.395.0960.
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