Winemaker's Journal
Nebbiolo - The King of Grapes
Sept. 21, 2005 -- I pick up the World Book
Encyclopedia and search between Nebraska and
Nearsightedness for an entry not there. I tell my
friends & family, some of them wine collectors, that
I've sourced some of these grapes, and my
enthusiasm is met with blank stares. At a visit to
Duke University last month I met my Public Policy
Professor of 25 years ago who teaches summer
courses on wine in Napa Valley. He warns me he's
only interested in "big red wines," yet the Professor
is stumped by the mention of this varietal. If Durian,
that spikey fruit from Asia that is banned from hotels
and airlines because of its strong aroma, is the
"king of fruits"  then NEBBIOLO is the King of
Grapes, producing the most memorable, the most
distinctive, the most enjoyable wines and wine
blends that I have tasted during the last few years.
Amazingly, in my little garage, in my fledgling
"winery," there are Nebbiolo grapes perculating
happily, their yeast companions fruitfully multiplying
converting sugar to alcohol.

Here's what the Italian organization Nebbiolo has to say about this amazing varietal:  

Nebbiolo's local origin dates back to the 14th century, its
name allegedly deriving from "nebbia" – fog – due either to
the particular dusty frosted appearance typical with grapes
of this variety, or from its the late ripening characteristics.
However, according to more recent opinions, the name
Nebbiolo more likely is simply derived from "nobile" - noble.

In Valtellina Nebbiolo is called "Chiavennasca", the name
coming either from the local expression "ciu venasca"
meaning very strong vine, or from a similar expression "ciu
vinasca", meaning "more wine".This grape, responsible for
many of Italys most important wines, has a bottle green-
coloured pentagonal medium-sized leaf with, pyramidical
bunches and grapes with a thin but resistant dark purple
skin typically "frosted".

Here's what wine-writing Jim LaMar says about

Wines made from nebbiolo are typically dark, tart, tannic
and alcoholic. The best smell of cherries, violets and black
licorice or truffles and have rich, chewy, deep and long-
lasting flavors. Good Nebbiolo can harmonize with the
richest, strongest-flavored meats and stews, as well as dry,
aged cheeses that may be too strong or distinctive for other

For this novice winemaker, it is the third batch of
wine in slightly more than 12 months, and as I give
winery tours to friends and neighbors who visit, the
sophomore's tendencies to exude confidence in the
miracle taking place shine through. This is almost
becoming routine, until I imagine the potential taste
of this Nebbiolo, and how it might ad zest to the
Merlot that is two weeks ahead of it.....

We hope to press on Friday ... stay tuned, and you'll
learn how we got these grapes, how they came to
be pressed, and even how The Master Himself --
Mr. Lum Eisenman -- is involved with the outcome
of this batch. And, we'll update you on the state of
Bluey's swollen nose, which was bitten by a rodent
looking for grape skins (or a sip of wine). Meantime,
if you have some suggestions,
please contact us.

Oct. 8th -- The Nebbiolo was pressed underneath a
full moon, and secondary fermentation has been
completed. We ended up with 15 gallons of "free
run" and 3 gallons of pressed wine. At the end of
pressing (and cleaning) I must have been delirious
as a caught whiffs of "vanilla" (again to vanilla
extract) from a mound of pressed grapes.  The
Merlot has been racked (a story of trial and
tribulation to be recounted soon) into a 48-gallon
container. The Syrah is aging happily along, still
occupying the oak barrell, and mellowing slowly.  
We had some leftover new wine, and have been
experimenting with Coq au Vin, and a reduction
stew made of beef brisket.
Mick carefully drives lugs of
grapes to the crush pad.
At crush, the sugar
content is about 26.5
brix (as shown at left).
The tartaric acid is a
little low, and Lum
Eisenman, on hand
this day, recommends
adding a little acid. The
sophomore winemaker
makes his first
adjustments to the
must.  Below, about 4
days after fermentation
has began, the must
reads about 12 brix.
Notice how the
hydrometer sinks
lower into the liquid.
A small batch of Nebbiolo
wine, beginning a new
Bluey is ready to lend a
helpful paw on crush night,
destined to take place
under a full harvest moon.
A quick fermentation (6
days since adding the
yeast) has determined a
Thursday evening as the
optimal time for us to press.
The trusty blue bucket is
used to gather some free
run, and to scope the
grape/wine mixture from the
fermenter into the press
As the basket is loaded
with fruit (above), a
small stream of wine
gathers strength and falls
into the catch pan
(below), spreading out.  
The first fruits. The first
blood is drawn.
The color of wood in
the morning after it
has been pressed
against 200 lbs. of
grapes under a full
At the end of
pressing, the work has
just begun. It's time
to clean up.
Before dawn, Mick transfers a load of grapes from
the 18-wheeler to a pickup truck.  Lum will come
and fill up the back of his pick-up truck with this fruit.
The mixture of grapes and grape pulp are expelled
out the end of the hose into a fermenter. The mixture
is sweet to taste.
Mick uses a high pressure hose
to clean the crusher. Stand
back! After he's finished, there's
still a grape or two to be found.
Those things are hard to clean.
Everyone lends a helping hand to clean up.
Cleaning up takes about us much time as
the actual crushing.
Story of The Nebbiolo

The story of the Nebbiolo is like this.  I volunteered
to assist with the crush at Belle Marie, our local
winery in Escondido, CA.  I arrived at 6 a.m. to find
an 18 wheeler refrigerated truck being unloaded of
its fruit.  Unloading the 40+lbs. lugs were Dave and
his wife (owners of Witch Creek Winery in
Carlsbad) and members of the San Diego Amateur
Winemakers Association.  There was a mix-up in
Dave's shipment ... he had been delivered a couple
of tons of extra fruit.  If I had had a pick-up truck, I
would have taken some of the fruit home with me.

Mick of Belle Marie loads up a pallet, and with his
fork lift ascends the hill to his crush bad. The
professional winery has tools and equipment that
we beginners lack (fork lifts, powerful crushers,
steel tanks, electronic pumps) but the process of
making the wine is basically the same. And, the
dynamics of having one's spouse involved in the
process are all too familiar (it's a family activity for
the pros as well).

Each lug of grapes weighs about 45 lbs. The height
of the crush bin is about 5 feet, and it's an effort in
weight lifting to lift the lugs and dump them into the
bin, where the fruit is gently ground by wheels and
sucked into the machine.  Mick's daytime job is
surgeon (he doesn't drink coffee -- my guess is to
keep his hands steady) and the doctor's hands
guide the fruit into the hole of moving parts, picking
grape leaves before they are mashed into the mix.
Mary uses a pitchfork to gather emptied stems that
are spit out by the machine, and Erik (who recently
purchased Orphelia Winery) is helping out lifting
and dumping lugs at a rate twice as fast as I can.

The must is forced from the crusher down a plastic
pipe into either a bin, or a fermentation tank.

The process is made easier on another day, when
the truck from Mexico backs carefully to the crush
pad, so you can "pour" the grapes into the crusher
from the back of the truck.  The top of the crusher is
about level with the truck's floor, so less lifting is
required.  I sit on my knees, Samurai style,
dumping 40 lbs. lugs of fruit into the crusher, while
the Surgeon's hands gently guide it.  Fortunately,
I'm not pulled into the crusher by the grapes, and
Mick's hands survive for another round of surgery.  
What turns out to be a "good exercise" after a while
becomes tiring. It is a fun task for the day, because
of the novelty, and I appreciate the folks whose
occupation calls for such lifting on a daily basis.
The work is repetitive, and the mind wanders.

Thick clumps of purple grapes come tumbling out
of the plastic crate into a steel container and as if
sucked under by a rip-tide are pulled down into the
shoot  where giant spinning wheels break their
skins releasing sticky, sugary pulp. Watch your
hands, Mick. There, there. Don't fall into the bin
yourself. What a bloody mess that would be. Pull
out that green leaf. Got you. Make the wine less
bitter. Don't dump the fruit in all at once. Grapes will
back up. There you go, pour them in at a steady
pace. Hand off the empty. Lug a full one. Is that why
they call it a lug? Heavy it is. Tilt it over, gently now.
Thick lumps of purple grapes, pressed together,
tumble into the bin. Watch your hands, Mick. Pull out
that grape leaf. Grape leaves make wonderful
grape leaves -- Greek cooking. Boil them, then add
a little rice, salt, meat and lemon. Don't fall into that
hole. Worse than quicksand. And bloodier would
be. If I fell in. Hand off the empty. Inhale, lift up
another, and pour.

The crushed grapes and grape pulp next travel
through a line unseen (inside the crushing
machine) mashed by turning handles that pull out
stems from the clumps, spitting out a steady
stream of stems to the ground which are scooped
up by a pitchfork and given to the nursery next door
to use as mulch. The remaining mixture of skins,
grapes, pulp and thick juice -- so sweet to the taste
-- is pulled out of the machine by vacuum forces
then forced down a flexible plastic tube longer than
a dragon to the fermenter. When making their exit
the grape must is expelled out the tube making
noises like the moving of bowels after drinking
contaminated water in the land of Montezuma.

In a matter of two hours we're able to crush the fruit
and get the place cleaned up. Some of the crushed
grapes have fallen to the ground.  I scope them up
with my hands telling Mary, "With these grapes you
can make wine for the tasting room -- don't think of
it as an expense, think of it as free!"  Free tasting
wine. Says Mick, "Our wines are handcrafted."  They
are indeed.

 Sept. 30, 2006 -- One year later.  Ink indigo liquid
is siphoned from a 15-gallon carboy into a green
Bordeaux bottle then capped with a cork.  A sip
yields much pleasure. We have produced a keeper.

Erik (at left), the new owner of
Orphelia Winery in San Diego,
helps out at the Belle Marie crush,
lugging two tons of grapes, one
basket at a time, from an
18-wheeler truck from Mexico's
Guadaloupe Valley, into the
crusher, as a surgeion's hands
guide the grapes down the shute,
inches from danger. Ralph
(assistant cellar master at Belle
Marie who stands at right in the
truck) prepares the next lug for
What to do with leftover wine, or
leftover pressings that could be
too bitter or tannic to drink?  Coq
au vin is one possibility. Starting
with a pot full of extra "pressings
wine", the final result is shown in
the pot.