Italian-Inspired Wines in a California Setting

American Wine Society Brings John Backer of August Ridge Vineyards

August Ridge Vineyards
Courtesy Photo

The American Wine Society of Santa Barbara’s next tasting is called “Italian Flair” and features guest winemaker John Backer of August Ridge Vineyard from the eastern side of the Paso Robles AVA. He’ll discuss the northern Italian varietals that he grows, and how the resulting wines have influenced the cooking that he and his wife do at home.

To get a taste, I recently chatted with Backer about his family’s 100-year history in grape growing and his wife Jill’s Italian influences in both winemaking and culinary pairings.

How did you get into wine making?

I came to winemaking to make Italian varietals from two different directions. My family has grown grapes for over 100 years or so in the Central Valley, until the 1970s, so there was that whole farm feeling in my family. The winemaking direction comes from my wife’s side of the family. She is of Italian descent and, particularly, the food part of wine pairing comes from her. In my opinion, I’ve always felt that Italian wines with Italian food is the best combination. [My wife is] the world’s best cook, so I figured I could make the wine. We are big believers in the food and wine tradition of family and friends and the winery is focused around that socially oriented type of setting.

Do you look to pair specific types of wines with Italian dishes?

We pretty much do that all the time. We put a huge amount of effort both in making the wine as well as in making the meal to make sure that the style of food or wine is such that they pair well. For example, we do a lot of events at the winery and we’re very careful in the menu choices to make sure that the meal compliments the wine and vice versa.

Where do you get your grapes?

Our grapes come from our estate vineyard, where we grow sangiovese, nebbiolo, and our Italian cabernet sauvignon and merlot. We make a barbera and primitivo as well as our dolcetto from Santa Maria. We also make an arneis, which is grown up in the San Benito County. New this year, we are making a pinot grigio from Paso Robles. We buy about half of the grapes that we use and grow the other half.

What can we expect to see at the tasting on May 30?

I will be bringing some of our wines to taste and there will be some Italian wines for tasting as well. We will give an overview on the wine scene today in Italy, and also a bit of history of how wine came to California. We will also talk about the varietals themselves, and how they mostly come from northern Italy. We chose those because they tend to be more spicy, wood, pepper and floral oriented, and we make them specifically to emphasize that. The reason we can grow them in California is because we have roughly the same amount of heat as Italy, but California wines have much richer and stronger fruit flavors.

What is your favorite Italian dish to make and which August Ridge wine would you pair it with?

I actually have two. Our arneis — which is a very high acid, very crisp white wine characterized by green apples, white peach, a little kiwi, and a hazelnut finish — that wine pairs very well with raviolis and a cream sauce with a crumbled prosciutto and peas. The pairing works well because the richness of the cream sauce is cut by the acidity of the wine. The fruit flavors in the wine pair nicely with the savory bite from the prosciutto and the sweetness from the peas.

The second would be the dolcetta with baked salmon on a bed of lentils with fall spices or our nebbiolo or Ingenious blend (our nebbiolo/cabernet blend) with Thanksgiving dinner. They are both high in tannins, which pair well with the savory, gamey types of food such as dark turkey meat. They have the spicy wood flavors that blend well with the Thanksgiving spices.


The American Wine Society of Santa Barbara’s “Italian Flair” tasting is on May 30, 6-8:30 p.m., at the Ambassador Gallery (1A West Canon Perdido St.). Tickets are limited to 30, and cost $30 for members and $40 for nonmembers. For info, call Jacky Lopez at (805) 467-6777 or email

For more info on John Backer and August Ridge, see


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