Although Barbera has made its reputation in Italy, and specifically Piedmont, the variety, like many others, has migrated to other global locations. This red grape, once believed to have originated in the hills of Monferrato in central Piemonte, has been recognized since the thirteenth century, although there is evidence of even earlier cultivation. It is most likely the grape written about by Paul the Deacon in his description of the Battle of Refrancore in 663, when the Langobard troops of Grimaldo defeated the Franks after getting them drunk on wine. He confirmed that the Langobards filled amphorae with wine and scattered them around the surrounding fields. The Franks found these jugs and drank voraciously from them, rendering them unfit for battle -- an interesting take on combat strategy!
Attempts to identify the exact parentage of Barbera have been problematic, as has determination of its specific area of origin. Despite efforts by Italian scientists to identify the parentage using DNA technology, Barbera's ancestry remains uncertain. Scientists who studied genetic relationships among grape cultivars from northwest Italy reported in 2003 that Barbera was the variety most frequently excluded from possible parental relationships with other varieties from the area. The results caused the scientists to surmise that it is more closely related to the local wild grape Vitis vinifera subspecies sylvestris than to other cultivated grapevines. Some historians believe it grew spontaneously from the seed of an older local grape variety and was later planted to replace old and poorer quality local grape varieties.
California Barbera Timeline
John Doyle, a noted trial lawyer, scholar and leader in the California wine industry (Cupertino Wine Company, later Las Palmas Winery), imports Barbera grapes and produces his first harvest in 1884.
An important collection of valuable Italian grape varieties, including Barbera, was imported by the University to California "through the kindness of Count G. [Giuseppe] di Rovasenda of Turin, the well-known Italian ampelographer.”
Italian Swiss Colony employs Barbera in several successful offerings.
Louis Martini produces and labels first varietal Barbera.
The first Barbera clone processed through the clean plant program at UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services (FPS) was Barbera FPS 01; FPS records show that plant material from Barbera 01 vines was first distributed to nurseries and the public.
Total Barbera acreage in the state was reported by the California Agricultural Statistics Service to be 5,491 bearing hectares (1,214 bearing acres).
First planting in Amador County of true varietal Barbera at Montevina winery by Cary Gott (first vintage: 1974).
3,036 ha (7503 acres) planted in the Golden State; it is readily apparent that Barbera has transitioned from being primarily a major blending constituent of inexpensive wine to a stand-alone varietal, notably in the Sierra Foothills.
Barbera plantings stood at 4,657 acres (4,209 bearing and 448 non-bearing acres), i.e. 1,884.62 hectares (1,703.32 bearing and 181.29 non-bearing hectares) through year-end 2020, representing 0.0099 % of total vineyard plantings of all California wine grapes.
Barbera is among Italy’s most widely planted and popular red wines, especially in the northwestern region of Piemonte, where it produces superb wine from vineyards surrounding the towns of Alba, Asti, and Monferrato. There is also Barbera in California, most of which is planted in the Central Valley, where it is cultivated for blending into high-volume generic reds. However, when grown in premium regions like the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, and Lake County, and cropped properly, Barbera in California can produce a delicious red wine.
Lodi old-timers will tell you that Barbera was a personal favorite of Ernest and Julio Gallo. Factoid: Lodi vineyards dating back to the early 1970s -- and still among those producing Lodi’s finest Barbera -- were originally planted at the behest of the Gallo family. Although Barbera was probably not the main component, it is said that the tart-edged grape was one of the keys to the success of the famous E. & J. Gallo Hearty Burgundy, which in a landmark 1972 Time magazine cover story by Robert Lawrence Balzer (one of American’s most widely read wine columnists at the time) noted, "Gallo Hearty Burgundy is the best wine value in the country today – period!” Thank you, Barbera!
For a deeper dive into the history and evolution of the grape in California, check out “Winegrapes of UC Davis: Barbera.”