SI Vault
John Hanlon
October 16, 1961
One of the most satisfying social ploys, says this home wine maker, is to lift your glass and proclaim, "It's a small wine, but mine own"
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October 16, 1961

The Heady Sport Of Grapesmanship

One of the most satisfying social ploys, says this home wine maker, is to lift your glass and proclaim, "It's a small wine, but mine own"

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Martha, with a child's innocence and assurance, promptly announced publicly that this was poppycock. When the teacher asked Martha her source of information, Martha said: "My father. He makes our wine. He said so."

Furthermore, as I get it, Martha went on to say that she herself had just that weekend helped her father crush his grapes (and so had her brother and so had her mother) and displayed her purple-stained hands as evidence. The teacher, I'm told, was taken considerably aback by this firsthand knowledge from the mouth of a perfectly well-informed babe and forthwith turned to the teaching of other matters.

There are additional boons. One is the solemn rite of the selection and purchase of my grapes. There are three stores in the Italian shopping area of Providence that seem to exist solely for the sale of grapes. From early November through late August they are vacant, though one of them keeps permanently on display a huge sign that says, "UVO PER VINO" (Grapes for Wine).

But at vintage time, all three come to fruition, and inside they are crammed almost to the ceiling with cases of grapes. The overflow is piled in towering stacks on the sidewalk, where also is displayed a selection of wine barrels for purchase. Bees are at work on this unexpected lode, and men stand about—discussing, tasting, just looking.

With family, I enter my favorite of the three shops. Though we meet only this one time each year, the owner knows me now, not by name, but as a fellow wine maker. Ritualistically, he asks me first how last year's wine turned out. I tell him it was good. He tells me he knew those were good grapes. I am invited to inspect the current crop, equally as good, I am assured. Each crate carries a label giving the vineyard of origin, the variety of grape (Petit Sirah, Zinfandel, Muscatel, Alicante) and the trade name. I take a few grapes, sample them to taste and ask the sugar content (very important, since, once nature's chemistry is done, the wine's alcoholic content will be approximately one-half that of the sugar content). We spend a pleasant half-hour or so discussing varieties and price. I decide, as before, on a Zinfandel. I make my choice. A young man loads my crop into my car and I leave with the owner's wish for another good wine.

A few days later there is another of the boons: that of the sharp aroma of grapes fermenting in the vat below, filling the house with a deliciously vinous atmosphere for a week or so. There is the awe of simply watching the mass of pulp and juice in the vat begin to bubble and gurgle as the yeast on the skin of the grapes brings "life" to the conglomeration. All these things contribute to a wonderfully paternal feeling, so infrequently available to fathers in these times, of being the provider of one of life's happiest and worthiest foods.

And then there is one of the greatest joys—or ploys—of all. That is the serving of the wine. There are few experiences to surpass this scene. Friends are asked for dinner. At the proper moment, I go down to my own wine cellar. I select a bottle or two of my own wine, marked with my own personal label. When all are seated and ready, I pour the contents into a good wineglass and say: "Yes, my '59. Not a bad year at all." That satisfies me; that is truly gamesmanship on the grand scale.

For all the basic simplicity in the steps of the wine-making process, i.e., crushing, fermentation, pressing, aging and, if desired, bottling, there is an amazing amount of gobbledygook available to confuse the vintner. I have perused much of it and have—for those interested—narrowed the choice of reasonable guidebooks down to two. They are, Winemaking at Home by Homer Hardwick (Wilfred Funk) and American Wines and Wine-making by Philip M. Wagner ( Alfred A. Knopf). Each in its way offers concise descriptions of the equipment needed and procedures to follow. Their diligent study is recommended to any who are inclined to join the select brotherhood of wine makers.

One other advisory is ordered to joiners: the Federal Government wants to know about it. As with most everything, there is a form (Form 1541, U.S. Treasury Department Internal Revenue Service) that must be filed before proceeding. This grants governmental permission for the making—tax-free-of not more than 200 gallons of wine for family use, under certain conditions that are, well, unintentionally wry.

The wine maker, so the form says categorically, must be the head of a family. A single man cannot qualify for the exemption unless he heads a household. A married man living apart from his family is similarly banned. The wine may not be sold, it may not be "furnished to persons not members of the producer's family," may not be removed ("without authority of the assistant regional commissioner") from the premises where it was made, and two or more heads of families may not make wine jointly. And so on. The form is available at any of the offices of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax division and there is no charge, other than the price you pay to your conscience for answering as you choose.

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