Napoleon had his Josephine, Halley had his comet and Angelo Papagni has his grape--the oft-scorned Alicante Bouschet.
"I love that tough old grape," said the 65-year-old San Joaquin Valley wine maker during a recent visit to San Francisco, "even if it is from the wrong side of the tracks."
The white-haired Italian-American is head of a clan that's been growing grapes in the arid valley since 1920. He has thousands of acres and his production is huge, but Papagni treasures most the 200 acres near Madera that he's set aside for his Alicante Bouschet.
In his "wrong-tracks" remark, Papagni was describing the obscure course that his favorite grape has followed since its development, apparently in the 1800s.
"Other wine makers, the ones in the north, just don't know how to handle the grape," he said. "They overcrop it. They don't know how to vinify (use) it. It makes fine wine."
The Alicante, one of whose unusual characteristics is that it produces red wine even when fermented without its skin, makes powerful, fruity and highly individualistic wine. But it's in tremendous contrast with the favored styles of the Burgundy and Bordeaux reds of the world.
Despite the low esteem with which the grape is regarded by wine lovers, Papagni has been laboring since 1973 to prove it's worth more than just a hearty filler for red jug wines.
In the year that Papagni turned from grower to grower-vintner, he founded Papagni Vineyards, and from that year's growth he bottled his 1973 Alicante Bouschet. He guesses it's the only such label in the world.
"The Alicante is a wonderful, rich, red varietal," he said. A varietal is the name used for the principal grape of which a wine is made.
"I grew up with this grape," Papagni said. "I know about it. I worked with it. I'm emotional about it. . . . This wine came out beautifully when we made wine at home: rich, red, deep. People just don't know how to handle it. . . . Alicante is an obsession because of the tradition and history behind it. I'm attached to it."