Winemaking in Barre
Written onApril 04 , 2013
I was drinking a glass of wine with a colleague when she told me that she and her husband make wine. In a garage. With friends. I was intrigued. I know plenty of people who brew beer in their bathtub (so to speak) but I’d never met anyone who makes wine at home. When I expressed interest, she invited me to join their next winemaking season. So I put a reminder in my Google calendar and eight months later, voila: “Call Marianne about winemaking” popped up.
“We’re going to start next weekend,” she said when I called. “Come on over.” So I did.
What I discovered over the next month was a simple procedure that turns grapes into history’s lauded beverage. More than that, I discovered a Barre community tradition that honors a family’s heritage while creating lots of opportunity for fun with friends.
My tour guide to the experience was my teaching colleague, Marianne McNamara. Her family is from Sicily, and she and her husband purchased a house in Sicily a decade ago; now they spend summers there, and her enthusiastic stories about Italy,
its language, and culture had me eager to share in this local winemaking experience.
On a sunny Sunday morning in early October, I arrive at the central Vermont home of Vittorio “Vic” and Annette Rossi, Marianne’s friends, whose home—garage, actually—hosts the winemaking activity every year. A huge Italian flag hangs from the porch, alongside an autumn arrangement of corn stalks and pumpkins, and a half-dozen people buzz around the open garage door.
On the ground floor of the garage, Marianne works around a cardboard box of grapes approximately the size of a small hot tub. Her white rubber gloves stained purple, she moves bunches of grapes from the box into five-gallon buckets, which are then hoisted to the second floor of the garage via a simple, hand-rigged pulley system.
Following the buckets upstairs, I meet the Bobs—Bob McNamara, Marianne’s husband, and Bob Lucenti, Marianne’s brother. “Are you Vic’s brother?” I mistakenly ask Bob Lucenti, trying to get everyone straight.
“No—crony,” he says with a laugh, the first of many such?quips that establish him as the one who ensures levity in the proceedings.
Annette appears with a journal and asks my name. “For the log,” she says, adding my name to the list of those assembled and explaining that the journal is a much more accurate record of each year’s grapes and resulting wine than anyone’s memory.
This year’s grapes had finished their journey to Barre that morning. At 8:00 a.m., Marianne and the crew took a pickup truck to meet a semi carrying about 2500 pounds of grapes from a vineyard in northern California. For the past few years, the crew has been buying directly from the vineyard, and today’s Shiraz grapes, picked just six days earlier, are fresh and ripe.
Vic Rossi has been making wine in his garage since 1978, the year his father passed away. His father, a granite sculptor, went to art school in Carrara and was recruited to work in a Barre granite shed. He brought along Italy’s tradition of home winemaking. “My dad made wine as far back as I can remember, ”Vic tells me. After his dad’s death, it was just Vic and Annette making wine each year until Marianne and Bob made their first trip to Italy in 1995 and decided to join in.
Marianne notes that it’s really helpful to have Vic’s background in winemaking, and to know his father’s method. “We tried to stay true to his father, but we’ve made some changes.” Most of these changes involve adding machinery, including a crusher with a destemmer (so they don’t have to pull the grapes off the stems by hand), a kerosene heater (more on that later), and a press that screws to the floor for easier leverage.
As I follow one of the grape-filled buckets upstairs, I hear the loud hum of the crusher, perched over an oak barrel that’s quickly filling with grape juice and crushed skins. The juice fills five oak barrels, all lined up on a bench on the far side of the garage. A couple dozen multi-liter glass bottles, called demijohns, are in the middle of the room, along with cases and cases of empty bottles, which won’t be filled for a few months.
Before the wine can be bottled, it must ferment. No sugar or yeast is added to this wine, so the barrels will sit, uncovered, for a couple of weeks. The juice will absorb wild yeasts from the air, and as the yeast consumes the sugar in the juice, alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2) will be produced. Fermentation will be complete when the yeast’s food source, sugar, has been fully consumed and no more CO2 can be released.
But yeast has a couple of natural enemies, cold weather being one of them. If cold kills the yeast before fermentation is complete, bad wine. This being Vermont, Vic’s not taking any chances. So as Husband Bob finishes crushing the grapes, Vic and Brother Bob hang a wall of tarps, insulated with blankets and sleeping bags, around the barrels. The aforementioned kerosene heater is brought into the space and blows hot air into the now-insulated microclimate.
“Given that this isn’t California, we’ve just created it,” Brother Bob says. To what temperature, I ask? He guesses at somewhere between 60–65 degrees. This year, someone gifted Vic with a remote sensor thermometer so he can monitor the temperature of the space from inside the house. Vic also has another important job for the next two weeks: visiting the barrels twice a day to stir the juice, an act that will yield more juice, and thus more wine.
The buzz of the crusher is replaced by the whirr of the heater which flashes—and startles me—each time the built-in thermostat starts it up. The little space gets warm and crowded so I step outside the garage for a moment.
Sugaring, I realize. This is like a sugarhouse. There is work to do and equipment to manage and a process to follow, but also plenty of time for jokes, mildly sarcastic suggestions, and laughter. Similar to in a sugarhouse, there are snacks aplenty, work for everyone, and a collective understanding that the human effect on nature’s gifts is certain but limited.
“It’s all in the grape, ”Vic says. “You can’t make a good wine out of a bad grape.” But you can, he concedes, screw up a good grape.
As they finish insulating mini-California and cleaning up, the crew begins to migrate into the house and I realize another benefit of this winemaking ritual: the dining room table is set for a feast, tables added, and chairs brought from bedrooms and basements to make room for everyone.
Kids play in the kitchen as Annette shuttles back and forth to the outdoor oven where she’s baking calda calda, a flatbread made from chickpea flour. Marianne makes a salad, and someone makes sure there’s a wineglass at every place. Annette brings out fresh focacina bread, sliced meats and cheeses, roasted red peppers, and homemade minestrone soup in a huge tureen.
“The only reason we make wine is so we can eat,” Marianne says as we sit. Bottles of several sizes are produced and decanted and glasses are filled. There’s a rambling discussion as to the best vintage.
“To the start of the 2012 wine season,” someone proclaims, and glasses are raised in a toast. Quickly the room elevates with the buzz of a half-dozen simultaneous conversations. I’m thrilled to be included.
By the time I arrive on the Saturday morning two weeks later, the blankets have come off the microclimate and are folded on the porch. The top layer of grape skins in each barrel has dried, and there’s a gurgle from within one of the barrels. “What kind of gas is that again?” Vic asks for my benefit.
“CO2,” Brother Bob responds, coffee in hand. “Don’t mistake us for the science guys,” he says to me with a laugh. “We’re philosophers.”
“We’re not the science guys,” Vic clarifies, checking the equipment, “but we know what has to happen for it to work and you can’t skip any steps.”
Annette and Laine Lucenti, Brother Bob’s wife, haul the demijohns downstairs to be rinsed in the backyard. Husband Bob and Andy Duback, a friend who’s joined the team, get to work screwing the base of the press to the floor, finding the three holes drilled in some past year for that purpose.
Brother Bob then uses a basic gravity siphon system to pull wine from the barrels to fill the demijohns. This juice is the “primo,” or first; after it’s safely in the demijohns, the skins will be pressed for the “secondo,” or second, wine, which will be more tannic and bottled separately. Vic calls for glasses as the first batch of juice fills the bottles.
“The breakfast of champions,” someone says as they try a sip of the two-week-old wine. I try too—glad to have eaten breakfast, as it’s barely 10:00 a.m.
“It’s the right color,” Husband Bob notes.
“It’s got a nice start—it’s kind of sweet,” Annette says. “But you never know how it’ll turn out.”
The press is assembled, and as each barrel is emptied of its juice, the skins go into the press. The press itself—the whole process, actually—is a lesson in the physics of simple machines: the screw and lever of the press, and the pulley that brought the grapes to the top of the garage on day one. The sun begins to shine through the garage windows on this gorgeous Indian summer day. “At least it’s not snowing, ”Vic remarks when I comment on the weather. “We’ve done this in snow.”
Andy and Husband Bob turn an empty barrel on its side to get out all the skins. “I can’t get all the way in,” Bob says, reaching this arm in to the deep barrel as far as it will go, which isn’t far enough.
“This is probably what it’s like to be a large animal vet,” Andy suggests.
Marianne works the press, pushing and pulling to activate the ratcheting function. “This is what they’re doing in Sicily right now,” she says. As the skins get pressed, juice drains out the bottom into a clean bucket.
The floor gets slippery. I’m glad I wore boots. Everyone’s constantly in motion, and the best a casual visitor can do is stay out of the way. Marianne recruits me for a turn cranking the press, and it’s satisfying to pull and push the lever and watch the wine appear in the bucket.
I ask about the number of bottles that one barrel yields, which leads Husband Bob and Brother Bob, both former educators, to mull over liter-to-gallon-to-barrel-to-bottle conversions in a discussion that would make a math teacher proud and that leads to this consensus: a whole lotta wine.
The operation gets smoother as the morning progresses. “The good thing about doing five barrels is that by the end, you’ve got the system down,” Husband Bob says. “But with a year in between….”
“It’s like doing your taxes,” Andy says. “You have to relearn it every year.”
As the demijohns fill, Vic sets about capping each one with an air-lock stopper that will let CO2 out, but nothing in. As long as it’s fermenting, CO2 will escape, and you have to keep it fermenting to get the sweetness out.
Soon, nine demijohns are filled primo, two with secondo, mini-California has been re-created, and the wine glasses are shuttled to the dining room for yet another celebratory meal. But the process isn’t over just yet.
Every couple of weeks the wine will be racked, or transferred, into new demijohns, leaving sediment and solids, called pomace, behind. After a couple of months of racking, the wine will be bottled and divided up among the friends to enjoy all year…until it’s time to start all over again. I begin wondering what kind of do-it-yourself ritual I can start with my friends, hoping it will be half as much fun as this.
“I’ve got my Italian class on Monday,” Husband Bob says as we finish cleaning up. “They always ask what you did this weekend.” Knowing the Italian for “I made wine, ”Vic and Brother Bob exclaim in unison: “Ho fatto vino!”
Photo of Bob Lucenti siphoning wine from barrels into demijohns,
by Nina Thompson.