Autumn was everyone’s favorite season in the North End. The feasts were over, the air was crisp and cool, the smell of burning leaves would drift in from the suburbs, the kids were back in school, and it was wine-making season.
Old Italian men kept their traditions alive and made wine in many of the North End cellars. A few paesani would meet and someone would have a truck. They would drive over to Chelsea where fruit and vegetables arrived by train from the west coast and stacks of grapes, mostly Zinfandel but some Moscato, would be piled on the sidings. Very carefully they would examine the grapes, never wanting the boxes from the bottom where the grapes would be crushed but trying to get grapes from the top of the stacks. They would slip their fingers through the slats, feel the grapes for firmness, smell them for mold, and pass them around to taste. Endless arguments followed; too sweet, not enough sugar, too many tannins, skins too thick or not thick enough.
The old timers would use sight, smell, taste, all of their senses, to get the exact right grapes. They didn’t need fancy gizmos or chemistry sets, they chose grapes the way their ancestors did back in the old country. The Zinfandel grape was the one most favored by the Italian immigrants. It was imported to California from Southern Italy by the early Italian vineyard owners like the Mondavi and Gallo families. It was called Primitivo in Southern Italy, and it flourished in California to the delight of all newly arrived Italians. To the early Italian immigrants America was not only the land of milk and honey but of wine as well.
After haggling with the wholesaler over the price and promising him a few bottles when the wine was ready, they loaded the truck and drove back to the North End. It took about ten cases to make a barrel of wine, and most men would buy twenty or thirty cases. Back home they would wash their wine crushers, presses and barrels, then rinse them with sulfites to kill any bacteria or mold. Then they set aside a long Saturday for the crushing.
Back in Italy grape crushing was done in a communal way. Most towns had a large cement tub or wooden botti where grapes from all the vineyards would be mixed together and crushed by the women and young girls with their bare feet. The entire town would come together for the celebration with food, music and neighbors greeting each other. Young men would gather to watch because the women had to pull up their skirts to protect them from the grape juice. Comments and comparisons would be made about weather Maria’s legs were more shapely than those of Concetta or Annunziata. Nonna would watch carefully to make sure the skirts weren’t raised too high.
In the North End, the grape crushing was much more prosaic. Everyone had his secret recipe for making wine. Most would allow the stems and skins to ferment along with the grape juice. Others might strain out the skins and stems after a week or two to yield a lighter wine. Some added their own yeast, while others used the yeast that came naturally with the grapes. The fermentation time could take several weeks depending on the temperature of the cellar, the robustness of the yeast, and the amount of sugar in the grape juice. White moscato wine took much longer to ferment and was fussy.
Not everyone made the wine, so drinking it was a special treat. Someone would have to go into the cellar several times a day to push the must down into the fermenting juice in order to extract all the flavor from the grapes. Finally, when the bubbling stopped, the wine was ready to be strained and put in barrels to age during the winter months. Come spring, the paesani would again gather and siphon off the wine into bottles, usually gallons but sometimes smaller ones. Everyone would get a taste, or several, and then compare this batch with last year’s. They would sit in the cellar under bare light bulbs on old, rickety chairs, sharing some bread and cheese and making toast after toast to the new wine. “Cent’ anni.”
Homemade wine can only be described as rustic. It is very tannic and has a high alcohol content. My grandfather would cut his wine with a little bit of water or even soda water to give it some fizz. Some restaurants in the North End used to say they served homemade wine but it was a ploy to fool gullible customers. Joe Tecci’s restaurant on North Washington Street even served “homemade” wine in Coca Cola bottles to give customers the impression they were in a speakeasy like during the days of Prohibition. Hokey, but it worked.
I even made wine for a few years in my father’s basement. It was fun and only cost about fifty cents a bottle, but fifty gallons of Zinfandel is an awful lot of wine to drink. I found myself going to sleep right after supper and my wife soon put a stop to that.
The photo I am attaching was taken in 1970. At that time the Martignetti family had a store on Salem Street where they sold salumi and Italian food products. As their liquor and wine business increased they opened another store on Cross Street that only sold alcoholic beverages. Every fall, they would place the crushers, presses, strainers, and barrels out on the sidewalk. I lived right around the corner and always looked forward to seeing these wine-making implements appear. To me, and to many of my generation, it was the first sign of autumn.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.