Bad Wine, Great Memories

A writer remembers his grandfather's basement-made wine.



My grandfather was a self-taught winemaker. The grapes he used weren’t wine grapes, but locally grown Concords. And his winery and cellar was the dark, cool basement of his two-bedroom house in a working-class neighborhood outside Boston. 

For bottles, he used mason jars that had once held everything from pickles to pig’s feet. And for the better part of 40 years he continued to churn out jar after jar of his barely drinkable, sweet red wine.

Our traditional Sunday meal included mountains of pasta and meatballs, and homemade sauce. To my grandfather, the meal wasn’t complete without his homemade vino. After tearing into his food and washing it down with his red, he would lean back, belly full, and declare, “soddisfatto.”

I once asked why he never bothered to label his jars, or keep track of vintages. He sat back in his favorite chair, with a big grin holding a glass of wine, and said over and over, ‘una bella cosa,’ which means a beautiful thing. Labels weren’t important, he explained, the proof of any wine is simply what’s in the glass.

In broken English he would insist madre natura bestowed upon him his winemaking gifts. And he was always saying how making wine at home was an Italian tradition, and a practically mandatory custom in his family. 

He was proud of his wine—sometimes a bit too proud. If a sip elicited anything but an oh-this-is-delicious smile, his thick, bushy eyebrows would rise as he muttered a few Italian curses. 

But most of the time his pride was evi-dent in his desire to share his creation with neighbors, friends and family. My grandfather believed wine was a rite of passage, especially for the men and boys in the family. By allowing me to assist him and even taste a little of his often-pungent batches, he hoped I would develop a lifelong appreciation for wine.

It worked.

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