At Yerington’s Pellegrini vineyard, a retired science teacher grows grapes for the pleasure of working with plants, and makes wine for the love of chemistry.
“I enjoy the chemistry more than anything else about the wine,” says Steve Pellegrini. He also has a botanist’s passion for viticulture, and loves working outdoors.
You might call Pellegrini the reluctant winemaker. Dumping alfalfa in favor of grapes was his wife’s idea. The first experiment with 100 vitis vinifera was a flop.
“Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet – they all died,” he said.
That was 2004. Success came the following year with 150 hybrids, a suggestion from the management of the Tahoe Ridge winery. The Pellegrini vineyard now has 1,500 vines, all Frontenac.
“I kind of got hooked on it,” Pellegrini told Grape Basin News. But the real motivator was keeping his water permit. “In Nevada those are very hard to come by. I was gonna lose it if I didn’t put something in.”
The grape crop has preserved the permit, and more. As advertised by Nevada’s viticulture advocates, it’s also paid off handsomely in water conservation. The grapes require five percent of the water he used for alfalfa, Pellegrini told GBN.
A dozen years later, working in the vineyard is a full-time job. Making wine is secondary.
“I baby the plants,” he said. “They’re happy.”
The vines have 25 percent more space than they need, with 60 square feet apiece, six feet apart. He limits production to 2.67 pounds of grapes per vine.
“I’m told you can do a lot more than that. But I don’t want to have to start replacing them.” He likens it to raising cattle. “You don’t want them to have too many calves, you’re gonna wind up losing heifers.”
Pellegrini’s grapes have turned up in wines made by some of Nevada’s commercial producers. There was a short-lived arrangement with the Pahrump Valley Winery, and this year he sold part of his crop to the new Nevada Sunset Winery. But Pellegrini hasn’t been gripped by the commercial fever that’s fired up some of the state’s vintners.
“When you make your own product to sell, you’re gonna have people who don’t like it. You’re gonna have people who have all kinds of suggestions. I’m not interested in going there,” he said. “I grow it, drink it, and I’m happy with that”
The Pellegrini operation is driven by passion and pleasure. And then there’s the harvest party.
With 45 volunteers the 2017 harvest took a bit more than three hours. The rest of the day was for a big Italian style party, a way to revive some of Mason Valley’s Italian tradition that’s slipped away over the years, says Pellegrini.
“Big get-togethers, lots of vino, and the accordion, and lots of people coming together,” he said. “We’ve lost that.”
A brick Italian bread oven built by Pellegrini sits adjacent to the vineyard, a replica of the ones his stone mason grandfather once built for the valley’s ranchers. The door is a remnant he located when he set out in search of one of the original ovens.
The oven resembles a red-brick igloo. It sits neatly on a platform of stones, revealing the precision its builder brings to his projects.
The Pellegrini winery reflects similar precision. The building was once a taxidermy lab – he has a master’s degree in zoology. Now stainless steel barrels gleam above a spotless floor. In this space, winemaking is an ongoing chemistry experiment.
The reluctant winemaker is modest about his product.
“It’s a real deep red wine, very acidic. Probably wouldn’t meet the expectations of a lot of wine drinkers.” he said. “It’s such a deep red wine it’s almost black.”
“I’m just learning how to do this,” he says. “Every year I learn a little bit more.”