You asked me to relate the story of the time in my youth when my father (Luigi — the grandfather you never knew) made some homemade wine.
Well, we have to go way back to, I believe, the year 1940. We had recently moved to Swanzey, NH. The house Dad had bought was a two story white stucco, with a full cellar that perched on the side of a hill called “Honey Hill.” The length of the house faced south, and had a clear view of Mt. Monadnock. On this side of the house was a long, probably 10′ x 40′ open porch. By open, I mean it had no roof. The roof of the house itself was blue asphalt tile. So Dad had my future father-in-law (we didn’t know this at the time, but it was Noni’s dad, Charlie Wright) that made and installed this bright orange awning over the front porch. Between the blue roof, the orange awning, and the white stucco, it became quite the showpiece in what was then a quiet, rural farming town. Years later, Swanzey would become more posh and suburban and act as a bedroom town for people who worked in Keene.
The reason I spent so much time describing the porch is that what was under the porch will set the stage for the main purpose of this story. I mentioned that the house had a full cellar, meaning it extended in every direction to the inside of the poured cement foundation that outlined the house’s floor plan. This cellar was huge. On the northeast corner was a large room my mother used to store hundreds of bottles of fruits and vegetables she would can or preserve during the summer months. Freezers weren’t invented in those days. Still on the north side and next to this room was a large coal bin. Yes, we heated the house with coal in those days, and guess who was in charge of stoking the furnace? I was thirteen that year. I remember it well because it was the year I lost all trace of the eczema that had plagued me since I was born. Also that year I received an electric motor-driven jigsaw machine for my birthday that I used to make all sorts of things. In the southeast corner of the cellar was another room that was under the sunporch. This was where I did my jigsaw work. Next to the coal bin was a huge coal furnace. The rest of the cellar was all open — sort of “L” shaped. It was so big, we used to have a regulation size pool table with about 10′ clearance on three sides, and maybe 70-80′ on the east side.
The entire cellar had a cement floor which I used to sweep quite regularly, since we used to spend a fair amount of time there playing pool, jigsawing, stoking the furnace, and building things. It was the fall of that year that my dad and two brothers (mario and Gino) decided to go into the wine making business. My dad was no piker. When he did things, he did them in a big way.
One day that fall, a truck showed up with a grape crusher, a wine press, four 55-gallon oak barrels, three 15-gallon oak casks, and a few other small items used in making wine. The next day, another truck showed up filled with crates and crates of grapes Dad had bought in Boston or Lynn. All of this stuff took up about a third of the cellar space for at least a while.
And so it began. The grape crusher was placed over one of the barrels that was open on one end. The grapes were placed in the crusher, which was turned by hand crank. We all took turns, but I did the brunt of this work. The crusher removed the grape stems and most of the skin, which in the old world was done by foot-stomping in huge vats. When the barrel was full, I think they added yeast, covered it, and let it ferment for a few days. The pulp and liquid was then transferred into the wine press, squeezed, and the grape juice ran into a big pot, then poured through a funnel into one of the big barrels. Any excess went into one of the smaller casks. The barrel had been placed on its side in a stand. There was a bung hole on the top into which a device was inserted that allowed gas build up inside to escape, but prevented air from entering the barrel and spoiling the wine.
The south wall of the cellar ended where the house ended, but a third of the way from the west end was a door. Through this door was what was called a root cellar. It had a dirt floor, no windows, and ran the full width and length of the aforementioned porch. About four feet from the west end of this, a three foot wall was installed, and the entire area filled with sand. Above the wall a couple of cupboard doors were fitted. Mother would keep her root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, etc. buried in the sand where they would keep all winter long.
The rest of the root cellar was where Dad kept his wine barrels and wine press. And that’s where they sat for almost a year, while the wine inside was aging. Now we can fast forward to the fall of 1941. WWII had been going on for a while. I started my freshman year at Keene High School, which was then on Washington Street, and is now called the middle school.
It was that fall that Dad cracked open the first of his three barrels of wine. It was pronounced a success, and during the celebration, I was allowed a very small glass since I had been involved in making it. Dad guarded that barrel jealously, but did share it with friends and relatives on special occasions.
Fall of 1942 saw the end of barrel numero uno, and the opening of numero duo. This one was much better than the first. After all, it had been aging for two full years. This one lasted a full year, which brings us to the fall of 1943. That fall, I turned 16, and got my driver’s license. We were living in a house Dad bought in Keene at 101 Court Street. I remember driving down to the factory on Railroad Street late one afternoon. Usually one of my older sisters would drive down to take him home after work. Because of his heart condition, Dad had never got his driver’s license. Before he called home to summon his ride, I asked him if he was ready to go home. He looked at me kind of funny, and said he was. So I told him I had come down to take him home. See, he didn’t even know I had taken and passed my driver’s test.
We went downstairs and he got in the car with some trepidation. I drove very, very carefully, and when we got to the house, the butterflies in y stomach had settled down. He seemed pleased and proud, so from then on I became his official driver. The car we had then was a blue four door Chevrolet. We used to call it the blue bomber. That was eventually traded in for a Buick, and later after I got out of college, Dad went all the way and got a black Cadillac. I used to take him to Lynn to visit old friends, or he would have me transport important business associates to and from train stations. However, I have digressed.
Let’s go back to the summer of 1944. We were living in Keene, but still had the house in Swanzey. It was an exceptionally hot summer. The third and final barrel of wine had been opened, and after three years of aging, turned out to be the best ever. People were comparing it to fine champagne.
I was working at the factory that summer, so I was driving back and forth to Swanzey where we spent the summer months. Mom had planted her usual huge vegetable garden. We had had a string of hot days, and on Friday, Dad decided to head home early. When we got home, he asked me to make him a peach cooler. I was old enough now, so I was allowed to drink wine (in moderation).
A peach cooler was a tall glass filled with wine and a few ice cubes and several slices of peaches added. I took two glasses down to the wine/root cellar and was so thirsty, I filled one glass to the brim and chug-a-lugged it down. Then I refilled it and the other one, and made the coolers. We sipped these in the coolness of the kitchen while Dad and Mom talked. When we finished the coolers, Dad said, “Come on, Leonard, let’s go weed the garden.” We each grabbed a hoe, and I started in on the lower part, while Dad worked on the upper part. A short while later, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Dad said, “I think you better go down to the house and take it easy.” I turned to him and said, “What’s wrong — don’t you want to get this done?” He said, “Not this way! Look at what you’re doing!” Instead of hoeing the rows horizontally, I was proceeding in a diagonal direction and soon realized I was drunk as a skunk. So much for my wine drinking days. Dad never made any more wine after that batch was finished off, probably because we spent most of the year in Keene, and the Keene house didn’t have a wine cellar like the one in Swanzey.