Life in the Ville by Jimmy Del Ponte
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In the cellar of my grandpa’s house in West Somerville, you can still see wine barrels, bottle cappers, and other winemaking paraphernalia. I have the last known bottle of his wine. Please enjoy this entertaining and informative story by my friend Anthony Accardi.
Thanksgiving is just weeks away and the fall harvest season as we know it will come to a close. For the old time Europeans however, the fall harvest traditions actually started back in August.
For my family, mushroom picking usually kicked off the fall harvest. I remember my grandfather and his friends driving up to the Maine/Canadian border to pick mushrooms. Only those from “his generation” knew which ones were safe to eat. To my knowledge, they never got it wrong, as I cannot remember anyone ever getting sick. By this time of year, the mushrooms have now all been picked and placed into mason jars for preservation. Some are preserved in a brine and some are marinated for that unique taste.
Next in the harvest line of succession were the tomatoes, also carefully placed into Mason jars. The tomatoes had been picked from the garden or for those without gardens, had been purchased at the Chelsea Produce Market. They had all been boiled, ground up and placed into their new glass homes. Fresh pasta sauce (yes, I call it sauce) for the next year was just a trip downstairs to the cellar.
The only thing left to do now is to take one last trip to the Chelsea Market to buy the grapes. It is October in Somerville and it is time to make the wine. Soon the gutters will be purple from the cleaning of the oak barrels and the discarded empty grape crates which will be left at the curb for the weekly trash pick up.
Homemade wine is a European tradition that they brought to this country back in the early 1900’s. Many thought wine making would have faded away once all the elders had passed on. Still, their children and even their grandchildren carry on this tradition. In my old neighborhood on Winter Hill (Heath St. and Langmaid Ave.), there were about 7 or 8 families that made their own wine.
Wine making season usually starts in mid-September and goes on until mid- to late October. The grapes are first crushed using a grape crusher (contrary to the funny I Love Lucy episode, foot stomping is no longer the method). The crushed grapes and their juice (called “must”) is sometimes mixed with sugar for both taste and to speed up the fermentation process. The crushed grapes are then left to sit for as long as a week or for as little as 3-4 days, depending on the desired color and taste. While the grapes sit and start their fermentation process, the barrels are then cleaned.
The “Big Event” usually takes place during one weekend when the crushed grapes get placed into the wine press and the juice is extracted. The extracted juice then gets placed into the barrels for their final fermentation. After about a month, a stabilizer is added to knock all the sediment to the bottom of the barrel. Within a month or two after that, fresh homemade wine can be enjoyed for the next year.
In my old neighborhood, wine making was a huge undertaking. My cellar did not have the room to make wine. My grandfather, Joe Marletta, made wine with my friend Val Deperrio’s grandfather, Tony DeChristofaro, who lived next door to us.
My grandfather used Mr. DeChristofaro’s wine press. He also kept his wine barrel down Tony’s cellar. Next door (on the other side of us), the Barsanti’s also made wine. Down and across the street, the Calisi’s made their own wine and across from them, the Carnazzo’s made their own wine as well. On Langmaid Ave, my friend Shawn Sullivan’s grandfather, Ermano Donati, made wine, as did my grandfather’s other friend Lorenzo (we never knew his last name).
Now, in my neighborhood there was only one grape crusher (owned by Lorenzo) that was used by the entire neighborhood. The grape crusher itself was home made. It was an old grape crate with the bottom taken out. A motor attached to the side drove a pulley which made two 2 x 4 pieces of wood sort of slap together just enough to break the grapes open. It then shot the broken grapes into a barrel that was cut in half. The motor was electric and the power cord was old and broken with loose and exposed wires. It’s no wonder one of the houses didn’t burn down.
Still, it all worked out. Once the wine was ready, it was placed into glass bottles (usually empty store bought wine gallons). After that the wine was enjoyed for the next year. My grandfather’s wine was very strong, as was that of most of the neighbors.
Naturally, once the wine was ready it was time to compare how each other’s came out. They would each bring a bottle of their own wine and meet down one of the cellars to compare how each person’s wine tasted. Needless to say, this little comparison usually turned into a party of some sort. It was funny when this little comparison/party broke up at the end of the night. Each of them would stagger back to their respective homes, my grandfather included. Needless to say, they all got a good night’s sleep that night.
Now I make the wine with my father-in-law, Rocco Schirripa, in East Boston. Everyone that knows him can tell you how good his wine is. For my wife’s family it is truly a family effort. My mother-in-law Marianna and both my brothers-in-law, Sal and Lou, and all of the grandchildren each help out in some way.
When I met my wife Maria 15 years ago, I couldn’t wait to make the wine with her family. My father-in-law always tries to make his wine on Columbus Day weekend. I remember the first time I made the wine with her family. We started at around 8 a.m. and didn’t finish till about 11 p.m. that night.
After that first time, I had my father-in-law get me my own barrel. I still made the wine with him, except now I had my own barrel to use. That one year I soon found out that I cannot consume 50 gallons of wine in one year. Not to worry though, it didn’t go to waste.
Now I just enjoy what he makes and earn my keep by helping him make it. He usually makes about 75 gallons a year. For him and like my grandfather, it is a passion and a necessary tradition. My father-in-law always said two things about making wine. The first was, “I enjoy it so much that I will continue to make it until I physically can no longer do it.” The other was of the hard work involved. He always says, “For one weekend’s sacrifice of hard work, you get an entire years worth of enjoyment.”