A repeat of my October 2012 Blog
I grew up during a period of time when jugs of table wine were, and still are, a part of the Italian-American culture, dry red wine that kids were allowed to sample and rarely wanted more. In fact, I was an adult before I sipped my first glass of bottled wine—white, sweet, and served over ice of all things, to which my mother raised her brow in disapproval when I described the abomination to her. As for the wine gracing my grandma’s table, it never occurred to me that the early phases of winemaking started with quality grapes, appropriate equipment, and the eventual harvest.
Of course, Hubby D knew all about the particulars, better yet his Uncle J, because they had experienced it firsthand on the family farm, its vineyards heavy with concord grapes imported from California, its basement equipped with gigantic vats for creating the home brew. And what D and Uncle J described in great detail to me became an integral part of my Italian/American saga, The Family Angel, an excerpt of which I’ve included below.
The year is 1929, the beginning of The Great Depression and the height of Prohibition, its demise still a few years away. Immigrant bootlegger Carlo Baggio and his brother Jake, whose reckless choices got both of them run out of Chicago, are now busting their butts mining coal in Southern Illinois, along with another immigrant, Mario, who with his wife Irene owns the boarding house where they all live under the same roof.
The Roselli Farm, St. Gregory, Illinois
Earlier that year Carlo and Jake had spent long hours with Mario and Irene, working side by side to plant a large vegetable garden of lettuces, spinach, zucchini, squash, eggplant, potatoes, corn, and tomatoes. By summer the resulting harvest proved so plentiful that Irene opened a vegetable stand and sold what they couldn’t eat fresh or put up for the winter. Besides the garden, a healthy vineyard that Irene’s parents had established years before stretched in long rows down one side of their five acres. Mario expected a bumper crop in September, red and white grapes he would press into fine table wines, a nice addition to the ample supply stored in his cellar.
One evening Carlo, Jake, Mario, and Irene sat around the kitchen table, playing pinochle to take their minds off the 90-degree temperature that should have let up when the sun went down.
“Well, I’m out,” said Irene as she folded her cards. “Looks like another win for Jake.”
Jake swept his hands over the coins. “Hell, with money so tight even forty cents makes me feel rich.”
“We may not have much money but we sure eat and drink well,” Mario grumbled. “I never thought it would come to this. Too many mines, too many miners: that’s what the newspapers say. There’s plenty of coal waiting to be mined and now the country don’t need it.” He poured more wine for himself and passed the jug. “So, Carlo, whadaya say, any ideas how we can make some extra dough?”
“We’re looking at it.” Carlo poured to the level of his three fingers. He took in the aroma and held up the glass to admire the wine’s color and clarity. “I say, sell your wine to Benny Drummond. What he can’t bootleg in St. Louis, he’ll sell on the Illinois side. This vino rosa beats any that Pete Venuta supplies.”
“No shit.” Jake held up the bottle Carlo had passed to him. “So that’s how Pete bought his new truck.”
Carlo took a sip, smacked his lips “Hell, Pete does more than bootleg cheap wine. He waters down whiskey and makes his own hooch.”
“Hooch?” Irene asked. “What’s hooch?”
“Christo, where you been all these years?” Mario said. “Carlo means bootleg whiskey.”
“Well I don’t like this talk about bootlegging.” She stood, walked behind Mario, and pressed her fingers into his shoulder. “And you know better. Bootlegging is against the law.”
“Well, it’s still a free country and just talking about bootlegging ain’t against the law. Besides, it’s a dumb law that nobody follows.” Mario ignored her massage as he directed his words to Jake and Carlo. “I say it’s worth a try. We already have a head start in the cellar. Jake, about the Drummond fella: how ‘bout asking Pete to put us in touch him.”
“You don’t know about Benny Drummond?” Irene applied more pressure with her fingers. “For god sake, he’s one of the biggest gangsters in all of Southern Illinois, maybe the entire state.
Mario reached over his shoulder and patted Irene’s hand. “A few inquiries can’t hurt. It makes sense; this wine as good as ours should be worth something to those less fortunate.” He opened his palms into a shrug. “So we make a little money.”
Irene threw up her hands. “You won’t make much with that dinky set-up downstairs. Just remember this: if you make wine to sell, the government says it’s illegal. And that makes the three of you bootleggers too.”
“Irene, honey, we’re talking small potatoes.”
She stomped out, banging the screen door in her wake.
Carlo leaned over his elbows. “You know, Mario, Irene’s right about one thing: your setup, it’s way too small. Jake and I could help you build a bigger one, like what our parents had back home, with vats and barrels taking up the whole cellar.”
“Sounds like more than I can handle. If you and Jake help me all the way, I’ll give each of you part of the profits.”
“No shit?” Jake said. “You’d do that for us, even though we don’t share the same blood.”
“Blood ain’t everything and so what if I don’t make a killing the first go-around. I ain’t up to messing with this by myself.”
Just the words Carlo wanted to hear. He could almost smell the ripe grapes, taste the infant wine, and revel in its maturity.
Over the next ten days the three men worked as a team, digging out two more feet of dirt from the cellar floor and then carting it in wheelbarrows to feed the gullies located at the far side of the Roselli acreage. After leveling out the floor to a smooth finish, they bitched and cussed and nearly came to blows but still managed to construct a gigantic wooden vat called the latina. It measured eight feet deep by ten feet across and occupied an entire corner. By that time Mario was calling Jake and Carlo partners; they regarded him as their older brother. Next, they installed a galvanized metal trough from the cellar window directly into the vat, which was accessible by way of a wooden ladder on the floor. In the opposite corner they built a second vat, smaller at one hundred gallons but just right for fermenting white grapes as good as the purple but not as plentiful.
Six weeks later the grapes were ready for picking, a crop so prolific Mario enlisted some trustworthy helpers, a dozen miners and for the most part, Italians. His friends readily agreed to work in exchange for all the cheap beer, good wine, and home cooking they could consume during harvest day. At six o’clock on Saturday morning he stood at the end of the driveway and greeted each man with a shot of whiskey and a slap on the back. As soon as the dew lifted in the vineyard, Mario lined up his workers on both sides of long arbors filled with firm, luscious, reddish purple grapes. Using their favorite knives honed to fine, sharp edges, the volunteers severed the fruit clusters from their vines and tossed them into bushel baskets. Mario and Carlo lugged the first of the filled baskets onto a horse-drawn sled and circled around to the outside cellar window where Jake waited with a grin on his face.
“What a sight,” he said, rolling his tongue over his lips. “Already I can taste the vino rosa.”
“And the money,” Carlo added.
Mario unloaded the remaining baskets, Jake dumped grapes into the grinder connected to the trough, and Carlo cranked the handle, rotating the four rollers inside to crush the fruit. Juice and pulp poured from the trough into the vat, its bottom lined with straw that served as a filtering agent. While Jake and Carlo were getting more grapes, Mario went down to the cellar. He wrapped string around a straw bundle, and pushed it into the spigot of the vat.
“Whatcha doing that for?” cracked a youthful voice. Sammy Falio stepped out from the shadows of the cellar.
“When the moon is full and clear, I’m gonna pull this out to check on the fermentation,” Mario said. “Now, here’s a question for you.”
“Yeah?” Sammy asked, the fat cheeks of his round face overtaking his eyes.
“What’re you doing down here when I gave you the best job up there?” Mario pointed to the stairs. “Now get a move on before my thirsty workers start griping.”
Sammy hurried up the cellar steps and into the morning sun. He had a knack for ducking work whenever he could but had begged for the coveted job of keeping the workers supplied with buckets of beer. Using Tony’s little red wagon, he started lugging buckets back and forth. By ten o’clock the beer was lagging and so was Sammy. Mario found him barfing behind a tree so he alternated the beer distributor’s job between two of the thirstier miners, and Margherita sent Sammy to bed.
While the men were busy with the grapes, Margareta helped Irene prepare lunch: fried chicken, beef stew, pork salsiccia, polenta baked with cheese, risotto, garden-fresh spinach and hard cooked eggs laced with vinegar and olive oil, firm, sweet sliced tomatoes, crusty fried eggplant, and a mix of tuna, cannellini beans, celery, and onions with more vinegar and olive oil. Margherita’s specialty was frituro dusa, creamy pudding dumped in a pan to set firm before cutting it into diamond shapes that were rolled in cracker crumbs and fried in equal parts of butter and oil.
Five hours after the harvest began, all the grapes, including the whites, had been picked, transported, heaved, and ground into the vat to begin the fermentation process. The men lined up at the outside pump, using lava soup to scrub purple stain from hands already stained with coal. Those who couldn’t wait for the outhouse hurried behind the barn to piss away their beer. When order seemed restored, Irene nodded to Tony and Frankie. Together they clanged the bell and yelled, “Mangiamo, mangiamo!”
Sitting at sawhorse tables under the shade of Linden trees, the harvest workers devoured the bountiful spread, washing mouthfuls down with jugs of wine and more buckets of beer. When they had their fill of food but not of drinks, the men remained at the table to bend their elbows and chew the fat. After the stories turned stale, Leo Gotti brought out his guitar and strummed the familiar songs of his youth. Thirty minutes of singing and little else brought Moon Sabino to his feet.
“Dammit, Leo. What you trying to do—send us back to the Old Country.”
“Hells bells, Moon. Ain’t it time you went back?” bellowed Rooster Williams. “How many years you been telling us about that little filly waiting in Italy? She’ll be too old to trot by the time you’re ready to mount her.”
“Christo, look who’s talking. I don’t see no ring attached to your nose.”
“No, and you ain’t about to either. As it says in the Old Testament, God meant for certain men to please more than one woman. And I’m one of the chosen.” Rooster paused to raid his mind for a good yarn. “I ever tell you ‘bout my Uncle Jeb?”
“Not that I recall,” Amos Carter said, setting up the story.
“Well, sir, according to Uncle Jeb, Beelzebub stuck him with the meanest, ugliest old lady this side of the Mississippi. That would be Aunt Oma. Uncle Jeb always said he couldn’t stand the sight of the bitch, although some thought he might’ve exaggerated a bit. Well, sir, one day she sent him to the drugstore for her spring tonic. On the way back Uncle Jeb poured out half the tonic. The old fart peed in the bottle to fill it up again. Lemme tell you, Aunt Oma done away with that special potion in three days time, said it were the best she ever drunk. After that, she couldn’t keep her hands off poor Uncle Jeb.”
“Come on, Rooster. That’s pure disgusting.”
“You better believe it was. Poor Uncle Jeb like to never got over that ungodly smell oozing from the pores of Aunt Oma.”
Rooster slapped his knee and spewed out a spray of beer along with his belly laugh. After that each story got raunchier than the one before. And when the beer went dry and the sun went down, the contented miners went home.
End of excerpt
To read The Family Angel in its entirety, please go to