The usual joys of autumn—snap in the air, tinge of the trees, return of orderliness after lazing through a summer—are not lost on me, but they are secondary. When summer shifts to fall in my corner of New England, I want to be home for another reason. It is time for wine making and I must be at my cave.
Home and cellar are at Providence, near the area that 11th century Norse explorers named "Vinland," but now hardly renowned for its viticulture. Since 1954, however, I have made my small contribution toward correcting this shortcoming by tending an annual birthing of the grape into wine. I am now able to proclaim, loudly if somewhat vinously, that I probably am one of the few of non-Latin extraction in the region who can serve a true vin de maison. Probably? Ah, the hell with it. I won't hedge. I say there are none around here, regardless of heritage, who produce a wine better prepared, aged, bottled and labeled than that which comes from my own stone cellar.
Heeding this September call of the grape has frequently called for logistical maneuverings that would try the Kennedy entourage at campaign time. My work as a newspaper sports columnist has often put me far from the desired scene as vendage time nears. The World Series, for example, has a bothersome custom of being played early in October. Nowadays I always root for the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the National League pennant, not because I like the team especially, but because my paper will not stand the cost of sending me to the West Coast. Accordingly, Walter O'Malley in my book is not all bad.
In 1957 I was in Moscow in mid-September. The assignment was fascinating, but I passed up the chance to prolong it because an extension would put me at my cellar too late. Last summer it was Rome for the Olympic Games. My wife and youngsters were with me, and the living—and the Olympics—were splendid. Neither could hold me. We left Rome a few days before the end of the Games so I could keep to schedule. My wife may claim that the real reason for hustling home on this occasion was to get the youngsters back in time for school opening, but this simply goes to show once again that men and women hear a different drummer.
This fall may be devastating. The turn of the wheel will have me, without recourse or return reservation, in England in October, and I despair. There are, I understand, a few hardy souls in old Blighty who attempt home wine making. I shall try to find one. But I have heard that wine grapes there are scarce and unsatisfactory, and that English wine making is more ritualistic than feasible. It will be a sad October.
Of course, there is with my own wine making, as with that of the English, a certain ritual and illusion. My grapes are not picked up by singing workers in nearby vineyards and hauled to the chai by oxcart. Instead they are freighted in by refrigerator car from California, and I lug them from the store to my suburban home in my car. (It is a Renault, and that helps a bit.) The amount of wine I make is not great by commercial standards, but it is enough to sustain me and mine from one October to the next. And my methods for wine making, though classical, are what I consider informal, as opposed to the formal procedures of your truly purist home-level oenologist.
The formalists deal in such worthy matters as sulfurization, sugar content, total acidity and alcoholic content, and they come equipped with the gadgetry to infuse and/or test for same. I do not decry. But in my vintage I hold to this theory: as an airplane is made to fly and wants to fly, so do wine grapes want to become wine, given the proper set of circumstances. So I proceed by ways that were in use centuries ago. I make no claim that my wine has the bouquet of a Ch√¢teau-Latour, the velvet quality and size of a Romanée-Conti or even the robust Latin verve of a Chianti. But it is wine, a true descendant of the product made by the ancient Egyptians and before—if the caveman was as herbivorous and clever as claimed.
The urge to make a wine of my own was the only aim in the first year or two of my vintage. But now I find that I am caught up by lures that go far beyond quantity or even quality. I am bound to admit that better domestic wines may be purchased from the commercial wineries at not much more than the cost of mine, figuring in time, effort and original costs of materials. But that's not the point. It is the other appeals that now make the vintage more compelling than ever.
For instance, my wife and two children are enlisted for the first step, that of crushing the grapes. In my system this is done by hand. The four of us gather around the vat, take a few bunches of grapes, crush them until the pulp is loosed from the skins and the juice running, then drop them into the vat for the fermentation. I do not, as often accused, force my children into the vat, barefoot, to crush the grapes in the ancient manner. It's a thought, Ell grant, that does have an appeal to a classicist, but the gas from fermenting grapes can be fatal—after all, it's carbon dioxide—and I do worry about what the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children might think. We already have had one small and significant reaction from those who do not completely understand.
This happened last October in the classroom of our Martha, then age 8. The teacher, somehow or other, got into the subject of wine making and gave out the old one—complete with shudder—that real wine makers foot-press their grapes. (There is a cartoon on the matter, in which a Helen Hokinson lady is saying timidly to the wine clerk: "Are you sure it was not made by foot?")
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.
This fall, regretfully, I will not have to ponder my status in my household for Form 1541. As mentioned, there will be no 1961 vintage from the Chateau Hanlon in Rhode Island. And that is not the only consideration. I have the additional problem of moving and storing my winemaking implements—press, vat, barrels, etc.—while I am gone; the wine itself is no trouble, for that has already been happily consumed.
After much deliberation, I have taken my decision. The equipment is to be stored in the home of a French family. I feel certain, in so doing, that proper care and sympathy will be given my possessions until another vintage. And I mean to be back home next September.