A Vintner’s Education

My introduction to winemaking was by Sandi’s Grandmother (Nonna) Angelina in the fall of 1979 while I was a senior medical student at Wayne State University in Detroit. We lived in the upstairs flat at Nonna’s house. Grandma Palumbo took us down to Eastern Market in Detroit to pick out the grapes. She showed me, Sandi and all the Palumbo cousins how to use Grandpa’s old wine press and equipment down in her basement. We bought a used 60-gallon whiskey barrel for the Zinfandel and a 30-gallon barrel for the Muscat. We crushed the California grapes and no additives or yeast were added. This was a natural fermentation process and the only testing we did was tasting. We bottled it approximately seven months later in recycled, one-gallon Cribari jugs with screw tops. I had a chance to taste this wine in 2018, and to my surprise it had evolved into a decent Sherry.

We moved to Atlanta to continue our medical educations two months later in 1980. The family tradition was strong with the Palumbos and the “seed was planted” for Sandi and I to make wine again in the same family tradition. I wish I could have tasted some of Grandpa Erasmo Palumbo’s legendary wines, made during prohibition after he immigrated in 1922. Home winemakers like Erasmo kept the grape growing business alive during prohibition in the US.

Sandi and I visited her relatives in Italy in 1980 (the Palumbos, Soaves, Mancinis and Stirparos), and that reinforced the family tradition and helped me gain a deeper understanding of the importance of wine and food in Italian culture.

Fast forward to 2006, we were living in suburban Atlanta after pursuing dual medical careers and raising four children. We had just returned from another trip to “the old country” as the kids were all leaving the nest. It was time to dust off our old hobby, home winemaking. I first made a “kit wine” to experimented with, and by fall of 2007, I had my first shipment of grapes scheduled from California.

I enjoyed some early successes with good fresh grapes and I had the winemaking “bug”. Tinkering around in the basement with the wine became my preferred hobby. I read, researched and went to several national meetings where I made some great connections and learned more about the craft of winemaking. Cleanliness is key, as well as keeping good records of everything you do and learning from others along the way.

Like any great hobby, winemaking requires several expensive pieces of equipment. I bought three different wine basket presses, two wine pumps, a motorized crusher-destemmer, two wine lab analyzers, barrels and carboys. I made increasingly complex and sophisticated wines. I began organizing the shipment of a refrigerated tractor-trailer full of fresh grapes from California every fall. This business was was taking over our basement. Our home was quickly becoming a local winemaking center in metro Atlanta.