All Ricerca del Vino Passato

Written By: Michael Cinquemani

All Ricerca del Vino Passato Being a child of Sicilian immigrant parents, my predisposition to the love of wine should come as no great surprise. Jugs of Villa Armando “Rustico” and CK “Burgundy Fortissimo” filled what most other folks would call “water” glasses at virtually every meal following breakfast. Siblings shared a pleasant variation of a similar libation diluted with quantities of water in inverse proportion to our ages. In the late fifties our family had relocated to the still rural bosom of Nassau County where fresh produce could be purchased at nearby farm stands. Though wine, too, for us was considered an agricultural product, we were disappointed to find that local production was virtually non-existent. Names like Hargrave and Pindar were to exist only in the future-perfect tense of wine-lovers’ conversations and the concept of “North Fork/ South Fork of Long Island” appellations hadn’t even taken shape as a dream. My grandfather was the family patriarch, omnipresent at the head of the table opposite my father ever since the death of Mama, just months following my own birth. Papa was an authority on many things, especially on how to soften his calloused hands with a massage of warm olive oil after a day’s work of setting tile the likes of which we will never see again. Papa was an artisan, a lover of great and simple food and an even greater lover of strong, straight-forward wine. I made the mistake of not following in his professional footsteps, but his other passions, I am happy to say, did become a significant part of my life. Thus is was, at the tender age of fifteen, that I decided I should attempt to replicate the legendary home-made wine that I had heard so much about from Papa. The store-bought gallon jugs of wine purchased by the case from local merchants may have been pretty good, “But Michele, vino fatta a casa,” there was nothing like it that could be bought in any store in the country. I was a junior in high school, very studious, very scientific. Everything about wine interested me, especially the idea of producing our own family vintage in the suburbs of Long Island. I hunted down books on winemaking technique and located catalogues of winemaking supplies. What good fortune to discover an equipment supplier not far away, on Spring Street in lower Manhattan. With the proceeds from my part-time job I gradually amassed the necessary tools of the trade and set up a nascent “winery” in the partially finished basement of our family home. © Cinquemani p.2 Papa was obviously impressed, but also a little confused. For all his experience and presumed expertise, he seemed not to recognize some of the most basic implements of winemaking which I, at considerable expense and trouble, had acquired for us. He handled my saccharometer and my fermentation locks with amused interest, but obvious puzzlement. It was always perfectly clear back in those days of the quintessence of family that there was never any great need for Papa to become seriously fluent in English nor for me to acquire any real proficiency in the native tongue of his beloved Partanna, Sicily. Still, there was rarely any language impasse. Not, that is, until attempted discussion of “saccharometers” and “fermentation locks,” which I knew were absolutely essential to the vinification process. No matter, we still manifested the perfect collaboration of tradition and innovation, golden age and sparkling youth. Early one morning when the season was right and the final arrangements had been set, we made our pilgrimage to the “old neighborhood” deep within the bowels of Brooklyn. There my grandfather greeted old friends and negotiated for the price of eight, thirty-six pound cases of carefully selected “wine”grapes which were culled from an edifice of boxes which seemed to me to resemble a purple Great Wall of China temporarily erected on the sidewalks of Suydam Street. We carted off our cepage of six alicante bouschet and two muscato — vinis vinifera being yet unknown, even to my advanced level of vinous sophistication. The following day the “crush” got under way in earnest. Papa hovered about, but pretty much left me to my own devices – as long as I promised to leave him two cases of grapes, untouched, to do with as he saw fit. The rest is a melange of fragrant memories punctuated by the distinctive haze of blue- gray smoke rising from the stub of my grandfather’s twisted, black Italian cigar. I nursed my embryonic vintage daily, sometimes hourly – mesmerized by streams of carbon dioxide bubbles rising through fermentation locks like twisting vortices of tiny pearls surfacing in flutes of vintage champagne. Papa shoved a wad of cotton in the bung-hole of his still-fermenting small oak barrel of must, taking care to camouflage any hint of criticism beneath a façade of smiles and advice and nods. Months passed and the moment of truth eventually came. To say that my first (and, mercifully, last) creation was bad, simply would not suffice. It was foul. It was acrid. It was beset by flavors and aromas totally foreign to wine, or grapes or any other edible fruit once created through the benevolence of nature. Time could not heal this wound, for there was to be no recovery from my vintage’s fatal illness. And through all my subsequent research, I never could determine why. © Cinquemani p. 3 And Papa’s vino fatta a casa? I’m certain by now you can guess. Everything my wine wasn’t, his tiny and modest production was. Dark, strong, heavy, flavorful, seductively sweet-edged, delicious. The miniscule quantity didn’t last long – and, as promised, it was unlike anything I had ever tasted before or since. At the age of ninety-five, Papa had a heart attack – after returning home to Long Island, by bus and train from his daily trip to “work” with friends in their Brooklyn-owned bakery. He lived for another year, and we often laughed together in reminiscing about the naive experiment that I had so enthusiastically undertaken some thirty years earlier. Papa’s life was full and rich in so many ways that seem beyond our reach today. Still, my one regret for him is that he did not live to see and taste the vinous miracles that have become almost commonplace in the East End backyard of his adopted homeland. My grandfather would have been proud, very proud, to see our Long Island wineries carry forward the great traditions of his heritage. And I have no doubt that Papa would have understood the universal eloquence of our home grown wines — without the exchange of a single word between us.