In Vino Veritas: The Tradition of Making Wine in an Italian-American Home

Italian-American families making wine in their cellars goes back decades, and it's a beautiful thing.

By: Frank W. Santucci, La Nostra Voce

I cannot remember a time as a youth when I did not assist my Dad in the making of wine. I must have been 3 or 4 years old when I first began helping him in the cellar in Verona, Penn. The grapes had that sweet, sticky smell and touch. The white grapes were called muscatel, and the purple ones — which looked black to me — were zinfandel.

This was back in the 1940s and 50s, and my father did not have a car or drive. He would solicit a friend, relative or neighbor to take us to the New Kensington rail yards, where about four refrigerated rail cars would be loaded with grapes from California.

The grapes came in 32-pound boxes, and the price was always negotiable. Part of the experience for my Dad was the bartering. When the price was quoted after we got to taste the grapes, he would start to argue or walk away. Most of the time the price was lowered by two or three cents per pound, and as long as it was lowered, Dad was happy.

The price of the grapes included delivery to the house. We usually bought 40 of the 32-pound boxes, which descended to the cellar on a skid that was put on the outside steps. My Dad had saved the money for them in a wooden box, eight inches square, that he had fashioned himself. I’m sure he denied himself other pleasures during the year in order to have enough money to pay for the grapes. We always needed to keep the cold grapes in the cellar for a few days. because they needed to turn to room temperature before we could grind them into barrels. The barrels were set up on pedestals about eight inches off the floor, their own little altar.

The cellar posed an interesting issue for some of us. The old house had no cellar until Dad dug one himself by hand. He was only 5-foot-3, and he planned the cellar’s height with himself in mind. My Mom was also short, so no problem for her either, and not for me when I began helping. But as I grew, as did my brother Ralph, who was even taller than me, we had to walk around the cellar with our heads cocked to the left or right instead of standing straight.

When Dad decided it was time to grind, there was no question of waiting, no matter whatever else we were supposed to be doing at the time. It just had to be done then, using a grinder that was more than 80 years old. This was in October, a month my Dad considered a holiday period when nothing else mattered except the World Series and Halloween. We ate well during this time, with lots of fried sausage and Italian bread and cheese. Grinding was fun, but you didn’t dare drop one grape, or there was hell to be heard from. The grinder would be placed on the barrels one at a time, and the one drawback was that the sweet grapes seemed to produce the dreaded fruit flies. Though my Dad never saw them, my Mom saw them everywhere. After the grapes had been ground to perfection, we would do nothing with them for the next five or six days, until you could no longer hear the soft hum of fermentation with your ear close to the barrels. Then the plugs were pulled from the bottom of the barrels, and the juice streamed out red and clear, caught by a large pot to be taken to a small, almost secret room in the cellar.

In storage barrels there, this sacred grape juice would be supplemented by what came from a process of squeezing the grapes that had been left behind in the first four barrels. With each crank of a torture-like device, we would hear the grapes scream while producing more juice to be added. And by Christmas, magically, the stored juice was transformed into the nectar of the gods and became part of our family.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian-American life, culture and traditions. Subscribe today!

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