Food & dining

By the Glass

Two winemakers, making wild leaps

Ellen Bhang For The Boston Globe

At first glance, a Virginia vermentino and a California cabernet sauvignon would seem to have little in common other than made-in-America provenance. But dig into the back stories of these bottles, and you learn that both their makers draw courage from community.

When third-generation winemaker Luca Paschina moved in 1990 to central Virginia from his native Italy, folks thought he was crazy. At the time, there were fewer than 50 wineries in the state and the region’s wine industry was just finding its footing.

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Paschina didn’t want to disappoint his employer, Gianni Zonin, a titan of the Italian wine industry, who years before had purchased the historic plantation owned in the early 1800s by Governor James Barbour. Paschina knew that Zonin himself had endured the skeptics who urged him to grow tobacco rather than wine grapes, so the newly arrived winemaker was doubly determined to champion this new frontier.

A quarter-century later, Virginia is the fifth-largest wine producing state in the US, and Paschina has elevated the wines of Barboursville Vineyards. He showcases grapes that thrive in the region’s warm, humid conditions, including vermentino, more often associated with Liguria and Corsica than Old Dominion. He feels fortunate to have joined a network of fellow winemakers open to collaboration. Raising the collective quality of these pours, they reasoned, would raise the prestige of the region. Their approach is accomplishing just that.

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Travel to the West Coast and you’ll meet Birk O’Halloran, another producer who forged an intrepid path — in his case, from wine importing in New York to winemaking in Napa, Calif. There, he also found community, and calls his mentors “heroes.”

O’Halloran, together with college friend Karl Antle, launched Iconic Wines in 2010. He is quick to credit winemaker Steve Matthiasson, who helped him secure his first batch of grapes. Dan Petroski (of Larkmead Vineyards and Massican) was instrumental in growing the brand as O’Halloran, still based in Brooklyn, commuted regularly to Napa. Today, O’Halloran continues to purchase fruit from Matthiasson’s vineyard partners, and taps Petroski for input every chance he gets.

When you pick up a bottle in the “SK” series (SK stands for “Sidekick”), the first thing you notice is the front label. The illustration is done in the style of a comic book, a nod to a childhood passion for the genre. The cabernet sauvignon features a ponytailed caped crusader in a power stance. The character could represent the moxie it took for O’Halloran to make the leap into winemaking, but it’s really about honoring his mentors.

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“Today we get to work with our heroes, doing what we love,” he notes. “So it only made sense to put the heroes of our youth on the bottles of our dream job.”

Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino Reserve 2014 Waterfall fresh with attractive apple-pear and floral aromas. The palate is bright and smooth, with yellow tree fruit and appetizing saline-herbal components. A natural with seafood. Around $23. Ball Square Fine Wines, Somerville, 617-623-9500; the Wine Emporium, (Tremont Street), South End, 617-262-0379.

Iconic Wines “SK” Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 Blackberries and crushed violets combine with stemmy, toasty scents, leading to flavors of berry and cherry. Ripeness is highlighted by well-handled residual sugar, terrific with dark meat poultry and sweet roasted carrots. Around $20. At Darwin’s Ltd. (Mt. Auburn Street), Cambridge, 617-354-5233; Haley’s Wines & Market Cafe, Marblehead, 781-631-0169.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.
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