Sbragia's grandfather was an immigrant from Tuscany who gravitated to the wineries flourishing in California at the turn of the century. And his father acquired his own vineyards near Healdsburg, growing Zinfandel grapes for sale and home winemaking. “I learned to make red wines from my dad,” Sbragia recalls. “He made excellent wine and taught me that making wine is a very natural process—that good grapes and good techniques will make good red wine."
Sbragia grew up pruning, thinning, harvesting and crushing at his father's vineyards. Afterwards he majored in chemistry at the University of California Davis, and afterwards earned a master's degree in enology at California State University. He then went to work at a Sonoma County winery before taking his first position at Beringer as an assistant to winemaker Myron Nightingale in 1976—the same year that Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay programs were launched.
“I learned to make white wines from winemaker Myron. He was a great teacher and the most intuitive winemaker I've ever known,” Sbragia describes. “He understood that winemaking requires subjective input—a feeling, a major preference—just like painting or sculpture or any work to which you dedicate yourself." Sbragia was named chief winemaker upon Nightingale's retirement in 1984. Yet he remains modest about his role at Beringer. “We grow wine. Good grapes make the wine. And like a conductor of an orchestra, I wave my hands around. They make the music.”
Although Sbragia developed the style for most of Beringer's wines over his 25-plus years at the winery, they continue to evolve as a result of his teamwork with winemaker Laurie Hook. “The 2005 Beringer Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15) has wonderful grapefruit, guava and melon aromas that lead into citrus and melon flavors,” Hook describes. “There is a slight grassy back note with a hint of honey and a balanced acidity leading to a citrus finish.”
For the 2004 Beringer Chardonnay Private Reserve ($35) selected lots from Yountville and Big Ranch Road result in a rich, balanced wine with a lively acidity and citrus fruit. The 2003 Beringer Knight's Valley Alluvium Proprietary Red ($30) offers bright red fruit, with black cherry, blackberry and coffee flavors. The proprietary name Alluvium pays homage to the alluvial soils of Knights Valley. Aromas of cassis, black cherry cedar and dark chocolate, and flavors of black fruit, vanilla and spice lead to a long finish in the 2002 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve ($116). And the 2003 Beringer Nightingale Dessert Wine is golden in hue with notes of apricot preserve, crème brulee and honey. Flavors of butterscotch, stone fruit and spice linger on the finish.
These wines were among those served for dinner during the auction and are available locally at Brio Tuscan Grille, Classic Wines, Ross Bridge Resort, Ruths Chris Steakhouse, Satterfield's, Village Tavern, Vintage Wine Shoppe, and The Wynfrey Hotel. Beringer wines are paired with Fourth of July fare in this issue's Pairings column.