La Dolce Vita: Once upon a time… D’Angelo winery owner discovered malolactic fermentation

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Sal D’Angelo of D’Angelo Estate Winery.

Sal D’Angelo of D’Angelo Estate Winery.

“It’s always about the story,” Sal D’Angelo agreed. We were talking about a book project I have going, my pal Sal and I, when I stopped in to pick up a case of Sal’s excellent wine at his Naramata tasting room.

“Did I ever tell you the story about how I discovered ML?” he grinned. We were on the subject of wine, so I deduced that the reference was to malolactic fermentation. I was in a bit of a hurry, but I wasn’t about to walk away from one of Sal’s tales. He’s one of my favourite people in the wine business and I usually stay at the D’Angelo Estate Winery B&B when I am in the area.

First, though, about ML, as Sal calls it. This secondary, and most often desirable, fermentation takes place when temperature and bacteria conditions are right. In the process, harsher malic acids are converted to softer lactic acids. The results are more stable, softer, fuller and more complex wines that can also include a buttery flavour. MLF, as my reference books call it, is used most commonly in reds, but it was the very process that made Chardonnays so popular in the 1980s and 1990s. If ever there was proof that there can be too much of a good thing, that was it. Buttery Chards became so ubiquitous that a marketplace backlash resulted and the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) movement was born.

“I had just bought my first house and I even had a winemaking facility,” Sal began. He lived in Southern Ontario then, and would go on to become an electrician, college instructor and then a winery owner. Today he has wineries in Amherstburg, Ont., and Naramata, B.C., and has the only family operation to run wineries in both provinces. Growing up in an Italian family, winemaking came naturally to him.

“I decided to move two barrels of wine to my place from my dad’s. After all, I had a ‘facility’, not just a garage like my dad,” he grinned.

Sal enlisted the help of his brother Danny. They planned the operation for an afternoon in which their dad would be at work, going on the theory that it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. They arrived at the house in Sal’s pickup and Danny just had to ask. “How are we going to do this?”

Sal had it all figured out. They would siphon the contents of the barrels into buckets, load the empty barrels into the back of the pickup, funnel the wine back into the barrels, drive to Sal’s new house, siphon the wine out of the barrels, move them into his “facility” and refill them with the wine. It sounds like a lot of work, but the brothers got at it, snacking on cheese and prosciutto and washing it down with the occasional glass of wine while siphoning.

Eventually, the shift of the wine into the truck box was complete and Sal was just tidying up to remove any evidence of their presence when Danny scrunched up his face and asked, “What’s that sound?”

At first Sal couldn’t hear it, but a soft, persistent hiss grew louder and finally he leaned over the back of his truck to try to pinpoint the source.

“Then it blew,” he said. “The bung shot up in the air and the wine hit me square in the face. It knocked the contact lenses right out my eyes and made a geyser about 15 feet high. That’s when I discovered ML!”

The brothers got to work, re-bunging the barrel and hosing down the driveway. They drove the kilometer to Sal’s place and the rest of the operation went as planned.

Sal’s dad smelled something fishy when he got home from work that night, though. The driveway was wet. The next morning he went out to do a little more detective work and found nothing to fuel his suspicion. Until a drop of liquid hit his forehead and ran down his nose. He got out a stepladder and climbed up, finding red liquid settled into the low spots of eaves troughs.

He brought up the subject the next time he saw Sal, who had to tell the whole story.

“But now I had wine in my ‘facility’,” he said, again making air quotes. “I would learn a lot more about malolactic fermentation over the next few years, but that’s how I discovered it.”

When I was able to choke back my laughter Sal grinned.

“See,” he said. “It’s all about the story!”

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.