the holidays | wine

holiday sweet sippers


RICH, FLAVORFUL sweet wines and fruit liqueurs are often misunderstood and even dismissed as a passing phase, but today’s pours are plentiful and ever-pleasing.

Here’s the juice on a couple of locally grown and handcrafted “sweet sippers” that connoisseurs with even the most discriminating palates can appreciate and enjoy through the holiday season and beyond.

M.E. Comunale
& Sons’ Limoncello

Who would have suspected that the chairman of the anesthesiology department at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton and professor of anesthesiology at Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine is also a garage producer of limoncello?

Dr. Mark Comunale and his wife Barbra reside in the foothills of Claremont with their two sons, Mark and John. The Georgetown, Mass., natives have great appreciation for fine wine, however the doctor’s passion is handcrafting limoncello (pronounced “lee mon CHELL oh”), the traditional lemon liqueur of southern Italy.

“My grandparents were immigrants from Northern Italy and made wine at their home in Boston,” Comunale said.

“From time to time I helped them, but never made wine myself. Limoncello from our family recipe evolves from the rinds of the lemon, alcohol, water and sugar.”

It is as cherished as prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or homemade raviolis and risotto. Excellente! In Italy, true limoncello is made in Sorrento, where Sorrento lemons (aka Femminello St. Teresas) thrive in the Mediterranean climate. Its zest offers a greater amount of lemon oil. In our valley, the Eureka and Lisbon varieties grow well and have proven worthy, although the Lisbon tree is disliked by grove workers because of the thorns.

For this special bottling, Comunale and I borrowed about 200 Eurekas from the yard of his old pal and my neighbor, Dr. Peter White. Comunale’s thirst for making limoncello dates back about six years.

“I’ve since rediscovered the potion,” he said. “We first started producing in 1 and 2 gallon batches several years ago. After seeing what is commercially available, I felt that there may be a niche for an all-natural, handcrafted limoncello.

It was then that I started experimenting with larger batches and a plan toward selling the product.”

Comunale has discovered that doubling the normal amount of lemon zest that the traditional family recipe calls for makes up for the lower lemon oil content of Eureka and Lisbon lemons. Production volume ranges from 10 to 36 gallons (80 to 300 bottles) per batch, and they generally bottle a few times a year.

“It is most important to use locally grown organic produce,” Comunale said. “I have become very interested the local foods movement and in supporting local agriculture.” It’s something special that the family creates together.

“We share bottles with our family and friends,” he said. “It’s truly handcrafted, and serves as a wonderful aperitif, after dinner sipper, or utilized in martinis. We also enjoy it over ice cream, cakes and fruits for dessert, and it’s best served icy cold, of course.”

After the lemon zest or peel has been prepared, it is transferred to the ethanol alcohol (grape spirits or premium vodka 80 to 100 proof can be used). Prepared sugar is added with the water. The blend is created and aging commences (60 to 80 or more days). After transfer to bottles, it is best stored in the freezer. Because of higher alcohol content, most liqueurs will not freeze unless the temperature falls below zero.

Comunale’s product is unlike many commercial products that I find to be much too sweet and heavy on the palate. The label, created from a painting by Comunale’s artist mother, is attractive. There is a difference between a small handcrafted batch and large commercial bottlings. I enjoy the wonderfully cold and lemony taste of this one.

“One of the most obvious differences is that large producers utilize artificial colorings, flavors, chemicals and preservatives. Our family recipe is 100 percent natural,” Comunale said.

As we completed our evaluation of the lemon elixir, I was trying my best to make the connection between anesthesia and limoncello. I certainly did not want to embarrass myself by sharing my observation with the medical expert, but much to my surprise, each dose controls pain, relaxes you and can make you forgetful.

Upon label and permit approval from the federal government, M.E. Comunale & Sons’ Limoncello is expected to be available later this fall at select Inland area restaurants and shops. For product details and information, e-mail

Rancho de Philo’s Triple Cream Sherry

Janine Biane Tibbetts is a local grapegrower and winemaker of what is considered the finest sweet cream sherry in California, if not the country. She also is the daughter of the late Philo Biane, who was a true California winemaking pioneer.

Rancho de Philo Winery was founded in 1973 by Biane after he retired as president and CEO of Brookside Vineyard Co. in Guasti-Ontario, then one of California’s oldest and largest wineries, noted for its quality table and dessert wines. It was under Biane’s guidance that the first large vine plantings in the Temecula Valley were made by the Biane family.

Janine and husband Alan are the proprietors of Rancho de Philo Winery, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in Alta Loma. At the boutique winery, the incredible Triple Cream Sherry is produced via the Spanish “solera” barrel aging process.

This traditional system of fractional blending from a pyramid of oak barrels results in the finest wine quality possible. The bottom series of barrels is where the oldest finished wine is drawn for bottling and then replaced with similar wine from barrels higher in the stack.

Philo studied this process during a tour of European winemaking countries, visiting several Spanish “bodegas.” “He learned the secrets of making truly outstanding sherry wine, and decided this was a product worthy of ‘retirement.’

Upon his return to Guasti, he started his first solera and the process of making sherry in the true Spanish style — setting it aside and letting it sleep while awaiting that illusive time of ‘retirement,’” Janine said.

In 1975, Biane made his first small bottling of the excellent sherry for family and friends only. But word of mouth and Biane’s reputation quickly put an end to his retirement plans. Two years later, he asked his daughter, Janine, to join him and to learn the process of fine sherry winemaking. Biane died in 1999, and Janine and Alan became proprietors of Rancho de Philo.

“The sherry continues to be made in the traditional Spanish style,” Janine said. “Over the years, we have slowly expanded to 15 soleras. Each year, we carefully draw off a small amount of wine from the lowest level of the soleras to be used in the blend of wine ranging from 12 to more than 45 years of age. The result is a beautiful, complex wine of deep amber color with hints of golden raisins, butterscotch and almonds.”

Cucamonga Valley’s warm climate provides ideal growing conditions for Aleatico, Mission, Palomino, Pedro Ximenes, Syrah, Zinfandel and other varieties.

Classified as dessert wines, they are greater in sugar and alcohol (14 percent or more) content. Fortification is the addition of neutral grape spirits (typically brandy) to the wines during fermentation that arrests the process, expires sugar- consuming yeast, maintaining the sugar level while providing the wine an alcohol percentage upwards of 18 to 20 percent.

“Our Triple Cream Sherry is produced from the Mission grape, which was brought over to California by the missionary fathers in the 1700s,” Janine said. “It has proved its value for 300 years and continues to do so. In Spain, the traditional grape used for sherry is either the Palomino or Pedro Ximinez.”

Philo began making this unique sherry wine with Cucamonga Mission grapes, and that tradition continues. Healthy old Mission vines surround the hillside winery.

Janine said. “Our preference is to sip it with pies or tarts or custards. It is wonderful with anything made with apples or pears or nuts or mild cheeses.”

How long will it last?

“As long as you have will power,” Alan said, smiling.

“In preparing these desserts, flavor is enhanced by using a little of the wine,” Janine added. “Poach the fruit in the wine before making a pie or tart. Sprinkle a little more over the fruit before baking. Serve simple fresh fruit and cheese with this wine.”

Some of my favorite ways to use this wine(other than dessert) is in cooking the main meal. Sautéing chicken or pork? Use a little of this wine instead of (or with) the oil or butter.

Another idea is to use this wine when cooking onions. No matter how you are going to use the onions, the dish will take on a new dimension.

Serving a cream soup? A teaspoon (or so) stirred into it just before serving lends a subtlety to it that is wonderful.

Wine critics agree on the uniqueness of this wine. The 2007 blend won the Grand Champion, Best Wine of Show at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition.

“I don’t know when a sherry wine has won such an award,” Janine said. “It also won two Best of Class awards and three gold medals.”

The 2006 blend won two Best Desert Wine of Show awards, a Best of Class, Double Gold, and Chairman’s award at various competitions last year. The 2008 blend is showing great promise to continue this trend as it wasnamed Best Desert Wine of Showat the recent Los Angeles International Wine Competition at the L.A. County Fair.

Rancho de Philo’s mailing list includes more than 2,000 wine enthusiasts. This year’s wine is expected to move quickly once sales begin Nov. 8.

Older vintage bottles are limited. Prices are $25 for the 2008 blend, $35 for the 2007, and $40 for the 2006.

The Rancho de Philo Winery is at 10050 Wilson Ave., Alta Loma; (909) 987-4208.

Gino L. Filippi is a fourth generation vintner and wine writer. E-mail him at

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