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Winemaker blends fruit, family traditions

The air in Northeastern professor Ennio Mingolla’s basement is thick with the aroma of fruit, fermentation, and yeast. “It’s a multisensory experience,” he says, referring to his home winemaking operation.

Four 50-gallon steel drums line the perimeter of the cavernous, stone-walled room in his Wellesley, Mass., home. Each holds a concoction of warm liquid and grape skins. He plunges his hand into one steel drum, “punching down the cap” of cabernet sauvignon berries, and re-emerges with a glass full of inky purple juice.

Combing through the liquid below the floating fruit carcasses Mingolla stirs up the delicious chemical reaction of carbon dioxide, sugar, and lactic acid molecules. “Depending on the batch, this is a process that I’ll do a couple of times a day until all the sugar is converted to alcohol,” Mingolla says.

Born in Puglia, Italy, Mingolla hails from a long line of vintners. He started young—“Literally, at my father’s knee,” he smiles. His father, Giovanni Batista Mingolla, moved his family to the U.S. in 1955, leaving their lives on the farm where they grew food to fill their plates and grapes for their income. “Upon coming to the United States, my father became a construction worker,” Mingolla explains. “Like a lot of immigrants of his generation, making wine, as opposed to buying it, was an economic necessity.”

The elder Mingolla tests the density of a new batch of wine. Photo courtesy of Ennio Mingolla.

After sitting in the steel barrels for a couple of weeks, most of the sugar in the berries has been converted to alcohol. Mingolla confirms this with a quick test of the mixture’s density, which, he says, is “an old fashioned way of measuring sugar.” He floats a hollow glass tube filled with lead shot in a beaker of the wine. “More sugar makes the liquid more dense,” he explains. “This is showing me that the fermentation has already gone further than I would have predicted.”

Mingolla then transfers the mixture to a variable capacity tank, an airtight container that allows for give and take in the volume without exposing the aging wine to oxygen. “You need air for the fermentation,” he says. “Once that’s done, air is your enemy.”

Next he transfers the spent California berries and wine into a steel press, which uses compressed air to separate the liquids from the solids. “The technology for this stuff is beautiful,” says Mingolla, who has a classic wooden screw press but no longer uses it because of  its susceptibility to microbial contamination.

From this point, he waits.

Another room in Mingolla’s basement is crammed with elegant glass containers that hold wine at various stages in the process. Some have been there for a couple of years. “When it tastes ready, it’s ready,” Mingolla says. “It’s not much more complicated than that.”

He siphons the wine from one glass container to another, separating the liquid from particulate that was in solution during the pressing phase but has since crystallized  over the long settling period. “I don’t bottle most of my wine,” Mingolla says. “Corks are expensive. It’s hard work getting the cork in. It’s hard work getting the cork out.” Instead he lets it sit in the loose jugs until he’s ready to drink it, a method Italians call vino sfuso, or bulk wine.

He bottles some of the wine to give as gifts, but drinking it straight from the jugs in the basement carries on the social tradition that characterizes the rest of the process. “The thing about winemaking that I enjoy a great deal is its physicality and its social nature,” Mingolla says. “I generally do it with some kind of help, be it from friends or my family members—my wife, my children.”

When the whole process is complete, we raise our glasses in appreciation: “A la salute!,” Mingolla croons: To your health.