Both sides of my family made wine at one time or another, but after my grandparents died, no one continued
to do so. Neither my father nor his brother learned winemaking from their father. My uncle, Nicola, on my mother's side,
didnít start drinking wine until he was 60. But there are stories and recollections of their parents' winemaking and of their
My grandfather (Papa) came to America from southern Italy in 1918. He started work as a general laborer and then worked his way to becoming a chef at
some of the major hotels in Boston. At home, Papa made just about everything - as was the way for most of the immigrants of that time.
Papa made his own wine, sausages, prosciutto, jarred tomatoes, pasta, stock, soap, and more. You would think that he lived on a farm
somewhere, but this was all in the city neighborhood of Somerville, just two miles north of Boston. In the 1940's Papa
would make his way to the local slaughter house to get the stomach linings of slaughtered cows which he would bring home, still warm,
to make tripe. At one time he even had live chickens in his back yard.
My aunt Mary came home from school one day only to find a dead pig in the hallway that Papa was planning to butcher for the winter. Then
there was the time when Papa had put a live eel in the bath tub - which escaped - and my grandmother chased it around the house while my
father hopped up on a chair and screamed for the fire department. (To this day my father will not eat eel.) Different times.
The motivation for making so many things at home was largely out of necessity, but not entirely. Papa didn't trust things made "outside"
the house. In many ways he could have been from anywhere - not much different from someone in America's rural Midwest or upstate New York
or wherever: very skeptical of "big" anything - including pre-made or packaged foods - and all politicians for that matter. Growing up in
such a place, as my grandfather did in Monterosso, Italy, makes your life much more tied to the land.
Papa made wine in the basement of his house in Somerville, and I can still remember the musty smell walking into the cantina (winemaking room)
down there. It was a cement room with a few small windows. Big barrels and demijohn (glass storage container) bottles were there along with a
press that was cast into the cement. For the Italians back then this was quite standard, the same way we think of having garages for our cars
today. You just had one as part of the house. Some people had better setups than others, but most had one none the less.
When it came to drinking the wine Papa always used the same glass decanter with a glass top that had a cork embedded in it. The wine was poured
into small narrow glasses (what we would consider juice glasses). I never saw a wine glass in his house. There were no corks in the wine
bottles since he mostly used jugs. He and his family and friends drank the wine through the winter and then more was made the following fall -
and so on - year after year. No need for wine cellars for long-term storage.
On the other side of the family (the de Magistris's), things were a little different as far as winemaking went. My grandfather Filippo's (Nonno's)
family made wine in the small mountain village of Candida Ė just north of Naples. They owned the land, grapes, and a cantina where the grapes were
crushed. My great grandfather used to sell his wine commercially, but that did not continue in the family after he died. Today the winemaking is
left to a few relatives and friends in the town who tend the land. They make the wine, keep some for themselves, and give some to my aunt and her
family who still live there.
One day when I was crushing grapes at home for our home made wine, my grandmother came down and told me to be careful that I didn't pass out while
crushing the grapes. As I found out later, in their cantina in Italy, a man had almost died when he passed out in the middle of a big crush.
All of the crushers were in a large room up to their thighs in must (unfermented crushed grape pulp). The crushing process can produce CO2
if the must starts to ferment and this poor guy must have passed out from it.
So - my ancestors were not, purely, winemakers - but everyday people who made wine as part of their lives as a way to get by as well as to enjoy life.
Winemaking was simply a part of life. As the lifestyles of my family changed over the years, winemaking became less and less of a priority - along
with making jars of tomatoes and other such things. Today, we are left with more garages and fewer cantinas. Happily, more people are beginning to
restore these traditions and are turning those garages into cantinas.
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