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How One of Italy’s Most Celebrated Wines Became a California Exclusive

Tocai Friulano is one of the best and most popular white wines in the northern Italian region of Friuli. They’ve been growing the grape and making the wine for a long time. But in 2007, after Hungary joined the European Union, it was determined by that governing body that one of their wines, Tokaji (a sweet wine made from the grape furmint) could potentially, due to its similar pronunciation to Tocai Friulano confuse consumers into…what? Thinking they were the same wine? I guess so. So poor Tocai Friulano had to change its name to simply Friulano.

Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara County, Steve and Chrystal Clifton of Palmina, who make exclusively Italian varietal wine, including a Tocai Friulano, decided to show their solidarity (the couple was married in Friuli and they were there during what was dubbed by Italians as “the death of Tocai”) by changing the name of their wine as well. But when they sent their revised label to the TTB (the government organization that regulates the wine industry in the U.S.) for approval, it was immediately rejected: Friulano is not a recognized grape variety in California. And because it was part of a name of an actual grape variety, they couldn’t get away with claiming it was a proprietary or “fanciful” name  (which they did with their wine Lagrein—meaning Palmina owns the name “Lagrein” in the U.S. although Steve assures us he would never stop anyone from using it). Palmina, forced to call their wine Tocai Friulano, is not allowed to export it to the EU, meaning the only “Tocai Friulano” in the world is currently available in California’s Central Coast.

Besides telling a great story, it’s also a delicious wine. Related genetically to Sauvignon Blanc, it has some of the same explosive aromatics but without the vegetal character. It’s lean and bright, thanks to stainless steel fermentation, but gets added richness and texture from stirring the lees, or dead yeast cells. The Cliftons appreciates that it pairs well with artichokes and asparagus: Two foods that are notoriously unfriendly to wine. Palmina also make a skin-fermented version from the same grapes — a tradition in Friuli — called Subida, which is deeper, nuttier and more complex (they recommend pairing it with fish stew).