During the last few decades, Charbono has become an extremely rare variety with an estimated 40 acres remaining in the world, most of which are located at the northern end of Napa Valley around Calistoga. Planted in the 1880s by Italian immigrants who helped settle this area, the variety was at first mistaken for Barbera. Then people thought it was Pinot Noir. Or Dolcetto. In the early 1940s, two geneticists from UC-Davis determined that Charbono was actually derived from the French grape Corbeau (aka Douce Noir).
One reason why Charbono is so scarce is that it's notoriously difficult to grow. It requires lots of TLC and even then only the most dedicated, meticulous, and patient farmers achieve much success with it. California's best-known Charbono growers are Gary Heitz and his son, Peter. Gary and Peter have contracted to sell most of their fruit to other estates, like Inglenook, Robert Foley, and Cosentino, but they make a small amount of highly prized wine under their own family label, Shypoke.
The Heitzes have been cultivating Charbono for more than a century. Gary's grandparents settled in Calistoga the region in 1904. Farmers in their native Germany, they purchased a 50-acre parcel and cultivated locally popular grape varieties. Most of their vines were replanted during Prohibition, but by the 1960s they were once again providing sought-after fruit for top wineries.
Calistoga's microclimate provides the diurnal temperature fluctuation that Charbono requires in order to reach its full physiological ripeness. Long, warm summer days are followed by cool evenings as fog rolls in through the Chalk Hill Gap from the Russian River Valley. The 2004 vintage got off to an early start, thanks to a very warm March, but in April the heat abated and the next few months were "beautifully mild," says Peter. August "made up for the tame growing conditions," as the fog bowed out and the heat returned in earnest. The harvest occurred in September, which is rare for Charbono.
Deep ruby-red, this wine presents enticing aromas of ripe cherry and pomegranate together with soft floral notes and a hint of vanilla spice. Intense flavors of cherry and black fruit frame a rustic core of black licorice commingling with subtle notes of brown spice, lavender and fig. The wine finishes with round but firm tannins that accentuate the plump fruit flavors.