I live on a freelance writer’s salary, so if I want to drink really, really good wine on a daily basis, I pretty much have to go to work in a winery, which is what I did last fall. I went to the Piedmont region of Italy, which is home to two of the country’s most prized (and most expensive) gastronomic products: Barolo, arguably Italy’s best wine, and the Alba white truffle.
It wasn’t just my lust for fancy wine (or tartufo bianco) that compelled me to go to Piedmont. A year earlier, I completed my advanced certification course with the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and I took a celebratory research trip to the area with my friend Erica. Visiting the wineries in the Langhe and Roero zones was inspiring, and after all of my book and class work, I decided that I wanted to help build my wine-writing repertoire by taking my learning to another level.
I took advantage of an invitation to do a winemaking apprenticeship with Roberto Damonte, winemaker and co-owner (with his brother Massimo) of Malvirà, a Roero winery known for its award-winning nebbiolos and arneis. The Damontes also own the Villa Tiboldi hotel and restaurant, which is eminently perched above the winery. I wrapped up all but two of my freelance projects and departed New York City on September 10th, 2010, to spend nearly two months vinifying grapes on the outskirts of a little village called Canale.
I apprenticed directly with Roberto, who is truly one of the nicest, funniest, and most generous winemakers I’ve ever met. I didn’t spend much time picking grapes in the vineyard. Most of my work took place in the wine cellar. There were just two other full-time workers in the cellar with us – Roberto’s son Giacomo and Adrian (a.k.a., Adi, the strong guy who did all of the work that required big muscles) and two part-time interns: Caroline from Germany and Alex from Norway.
The harvest season commenced the day after I arrived. Truckloads of chardonnay grapes in big red crates began appearing at the cellar door first thing in the morning, and they kept coming until sundown. Favorita and arneis grapes would follow in the weeks to come. Adi lifted hundreds of these heavy crates each day and dumped the grapes into the crushing machine, where their skins would get split open before they went to the pneumatic press. The process was slightly different when we vinified the red grapes several weeks later. The barbera, Bonarda Piemontese, brachetto, and nebbiolo all go through a de-stemming process before getting crushed. They also macerate and “sit” on their skins in the tank to extract color and tannin before the wine gets separated from the skins.
I had a number of different jobs in the cellar. Some of my less glamorous work included pulling leaves, twigs, and other foreign matter out of the grapes as they went up the conveyor belt and into the crushing machine. I also washed and stacked the crates after the grapes were emptied out. I helped control the pneumatic press and pump the juices into the different fermentation tanks. I did a lot of sweeping and cleaning up around the cellar. I made enzymatic concoctions to “feed” the fermenting wines. And I helped manually remove the final dregs of wine from the bottom of the steel tanks when we transferred the wines from one tank to another.
But I had some big jobs too. It was my responsibility to control the sugar and monitor the fermentation of all the 2010 vintages on a daily basis. I engaged in typical winemaking activities like batonage (stirring the fermenting wines) and remontage (pumping the fermenting red wines over their skins). I conducted wine tastings and vineyard/cellar tours for guests (which included memorizing and recounting details about the winery and the individual wines’ viticulture and vinification processes, characteristics, and ideal food pairings). And since I speak Italian, I also acted as an Italian-English translator for all of the English-speakers who visited the winery.
And the best part? Drinking the wine, of course! I really did get to drink great wine (and taste the nascent beginnings of very promising wines) every day. Quite simply, it was part of my job. I was expected to taste the wines that were in the steel tanks to get a better understanding of how they changed throughout the fermentation process: They start out as sweet juices, but as the sugar gets fermented out, the wines start developing more complex flavors, plus the characteristics from their acid and tannins begin evolving.
Roberto and I also regularly tasted samples from both the steel tanks and the barrels to compare the different wines and vintages as they aged. Young nebbiolos, for example, are mouth-puckeringly tannic, but as they get a few years on them, they start to soften (at least slightly) and you get a better sense of the wine’s true structure and flavors. They can really vary from vintage to vintage.
When leading the daily wine tastings, it was also customary to taste the wines with the guests – first and foremost, to make sure that the wines were not flawed before serving them. It is also a matter of politeness in Italy to drink with your guests. And even if Roberto was conducting the tasting and I was just translating, he always insisted that I sit with them and enjoy a glass, too.
In addition to all of the wine tasting, we also did some recreational drinking. Wine always accompanied our delicious multi-course harvest lunches, which were usually prepared by the Villa Tiboldi’s head chef, Alberto Macario, or their consulting Michelin-star chef, Fulvio Siccardi. There were also a few afternoons during the height of truffle season when Roberto took over the kitchen and prepared us traditional egg and pasta dishes topped with generous shavings of white truffles. The musky scent of fresh Alba white truffle is intoxicating, and the truffles themselves are practically worth their weight in gold, so this was an extra special treat for a frugal girl like me.
The drinking would routinely commence again at aperitivo when we celebrated the end of the work day with a glass of Franciacorta or another local spumante (sparkling wine) in the courtyard at the Villa. Exhausted and covered in dirt and grape goo, we would sip and gaze out at the neatly planted rows of grapevines that spiral around the hills of the Langhe and Roero as the sky turned purple and darkness crept over them.
Some nights, I also accompanied Roberto to dinners with clients or vendors at the Villa. I was often relied on to translate details about the food and wine that was being served, as well as relay parts of the conversation. One evening, there was a particularly funny group of about 25 Norwegians who, after many bottles of wine and grappa, insisted that I demonstrate the pronunciation of phrases from their guidebook. It was a cheeky book that claimed to offer useful conversation for Norwegians to communicate with Italians on Italian terms – so basically, it was all about how to either pick someone up or insult them. At some point, I was laughing so hard I could no longer speak, never mind translate!
I enjoyed my work at Malvirà very much, but I also savored the times when we had business at other wineries. A few of them I’d visited the year before with Erica, but many of them I’d only known by name and reputation before going with Roberto. I also loved meeting and talking with Piedmont winemakers like Eraldo Viberti, Cristina Oddero, Guido Fantino and his son, Fabio, Domenico Clerico, and Chiara Boschis. It was fun to taste their wines, to compare and contrast them with others from the area. All of these winemakers are basically working with the same varietals, but because of their land, their vines, and their viticulture and winemaking techniques, their wines really differ from one another. It was especially interesting to compare the different expressions of the nebbiolo grape in the Barolos and Barbarescos with Malvirà’s Roero Riservas.
My time in Piedmont deepened my understanding and appreciation of the winemaker’s art. It also provided me with excellent wine-writing fodder and a bunch of new friends and colleagues. After drinking all of that great wine in Italy, it was hard to come back to my frugal reality. But a few weeks ago in a Chelsea wine shop, I came across a bottle of Malvirà’s Roero Superiore from 1995 marked at the astonishingly low price of $29.99 – a splurge for me, but a steal in the wine world! I snatched it up, and brought it to a friend’s house for dinner. Lucky for us, it had been preserved well, and it turned out to be the perfect wine to pair with her braised beef and polenta.
Malvirà’s wine can be purchased in the States at select wine shops and through Esprit du Monde Wines.