The Coldest Vineyard in California
Giuseppe Comollo’s moustache has its disadvantages. “I say it is my fog-collector,” he jokes, using his sleeve to wipe off the collecting droplets of mist. The heavy fog rushing in from the Pacific nearly blots out his cherry-red Alfa Romeo, illegally parked twenty yards away on the shoulder of Highway 1.
It’s early November. To the southeast, we can hear the waves of the Pacific crashing into the pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge. Four years ago, Comollo came here to plant what must surely be California’s coolest vineyard: a half-acre of nebbiolo on a steep, windswept patch of Franciscan mélange that, on sunnier days, yields a clear view of downtown San Francisco.
“Nebbiolo is a delicate grape,” he says. “Piemonte—people think I’m crazy when I say this—Piemonte is too hot for it. Barolo, Barbaresco, these are a sauna! When I taste the green little grapes in the spring, sometimes I think: they are already too ripe. Sometimes I want to pick at negative Brix. But then who would buy the wine? I want the vini concettuale, the pure idea of the wine, but the market—they want the commercial thing.”
The son of a wealthy industrialist, Comollo moved to San Francisco to write his doctoral dissertation on experimental artist Bruce Conner. As he delved into that artist’s sooty, nylon-webbed sculptures, he couldn’t shake the lingering sensation that he was being drawn back toward his homeland. He dreamt of roots digging into cold earth, of minerals and subterranean fungi melding together, of sap and stratified rock.
Mostly, he thought of his grandfather Mauro, a communist viticulturist from Barbaresco who had disappeared under Mussolini. “I started asking my father some questions,” says Comollo. “It turned out that my grandfather was still alive! But my father didn’t tell me, because before I was born, they had a big fight and stopped speaking.” Comollo learned that, before fleeing Italy for the Swiss border, his grandfather had taken some nebbiolo cuttings from their family vineyard, and was still farming that same genetic material in the Swiss Alps beyond the Valle d’Aosta, pruning his several meager acres by hand at age 96.
Comollo immediately dropped his dissertation, tracked down his grandfather and learned how to farm alpine nebbiolo. “My grandfather found that the mountains were even better than Piemonte. The wines were fresher, wilder,” says Comollo. The family’s nebbiolo clone proved a distinct asset. “If anyone else had it, they would pull it out,” he says. “No yield. Tiny clusters. Very difficult to grow. We were always replanting the young vines—they die right away many times. But once the vine becomes established, if it survives, it is beautiful.”
Comollo spent the next several years living with his grandfather in a stone cabin. He trellised vines with cotton string spun from mountain sheep, hand-bottled mountain nebbiolo and dipped the necks in beeswax from wild hives. Also, he admits with a grimace, he ate an awful lot of his grandfather’s kale and chard soup.
Then, in 2002, a group of scientists conducting research near Mauro’s vineyard discovered several specimens of a nearly-extinct species of earthworm. Mauro’s vineyard and primitive winery were immediately seized by the EU, the vines ripped out and the hillside turned into an off-limits nature preserve. Comollo just shrugs his shoulders, as if to say, “That’s Europe for you.”
Shortly after the EU requisitioned his land, Mauro passed away.
“After my grandfather’s funeral, I opened the last bottle of his 1941—the first vintage that he produced in Switzerland. That was a year with a lot of rain at harvest, and very cool. There was some snow as well. Papi Mauro picked in mid-October right before veraison and fermented it in a stone cistern. Not any wood, not even old wood. And this was before the technological yeasts, so the fermentation was natural. He bottled without sulfur. I remember the wine had no color at all; it had almost no flavor anymore. But it was still young, very fresh, very high acid. It was a pure wine, pure nebbiolo and pure terroir.”
With Switzerland out of the picture, and preferring not to return to the country that long ago erased his family’s viticultural legacy, he smuggled some cuttings into the United States. His charisma and enthusiasm charmed the Secretary of the Interior, who offered him a lease in the Marin Headlands through the National Park Service five minutes into their meeting. “I told him my idea about cool-climate nebbiolo, and that was it: he got me some land,” says Comollo.
As the fog clears, we reach the meadow above of his young vineyard and sit down for a simple picnic of bread and charcuterie. Comollo pours his inaugural vintage, the 2010 Golden Gate Nebbiolo “Naturale.” Feather-light in color, the wine brings an almost ferocious attack of green skin tannin and acidity—harvested at 12˚ Brix, it’s as if the wine has moved completely beyond its vinosity to capture pure minerality. I tell Comollo that this is a wine I’d like to see in 30 or 40 years.
He thinks for a moment. “Yes,” he says, “But I like the young wine too. It is powerful and fresh at the same time. Maybe not as balanced right now, but it is pure coolness. Its flavors will get warmer with age. More balanced, maybe, but I think no more pure to the site, no more pure to the terroir.”
(Happy April Fools’ Day from Wine & Spirits)