Aged for Vendemmia


This the first in a series of profiles previewing the Sept. 25 Vendemmia Festival .

When Dr. Jerry Vernose, chairman of the Vendemmia Foundation and Festival first told me about Johnny Staircase, he referred to him as a renaissance man.

Hmmm. Cliché I wondered? I felt compelled to Google the term.

Wikipedia says a renaissance man (or woman, I guess) is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.

Immediately I conjured images of Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Michelangelo, Walt Disney and even (dare I say) Madonna. 

However, one I could not possibly have imagined was homegrown John “Staircase” Tenaglia, a master wood craftsman from South Philly who wears a pencil over his ear and has a foldable wooden tape measure wedged in the back pocket of his jeans. 

That is, until I met him. 

Understated? Absolutely. Cliché? No way.

Carpentry is just one of the professions of Tenaglia who serves as owner/partner of John’s Custom Stairways and Millwork Co., 2115 S. Eighth St. 

He has acquired a few other titles since grad school: Professional baritone, classical pianist, teacher, master winemaker, music director, banquet facility purveyor, husband and father. 

Because the Bridesburg resident is a humble man, he doesn’t talk about his career path. However, Vernose loves to point out that Tenaglia did a stint of pre-med at New York University. It’s part of the doc’s bragging rights as the avuncular figure responsible for discovering this renaissance man — at least in his wine-making capacity; Tenaglia has been a preeminent, award-winning winemaker at the annual Vendemmia Wine Festival for the past six years.

He laughingly says, “that and $2 will get me on a bus.” 

Now, I am not a wine connoisseur nor classical music authority, but, like most, I know what I like. And I thoroughly enjoyed sipping Tenaglia’s pinot noir, while listening in an almost private audience to his powerful, yet too short appetizer of “O Sole Mio.”

I felt the table in front of me vibrate as he struck the crescendo, “sta ’nfronte a te!” and my beautiful garnet pinot pitched against the side of my glass.

What could be better than this, I asked myself: An interview with a guy from my own neighborhood, indulging me in a palpable cultural experience, while members of his posse — veteran workers at the mill shop Ralphy Pultrone and Steve Giannone — tossed me a salad with John’s homemade wine vinegar, and sliced up some Faragalli’s bread?

I’m not sure if it was before the grappa (but it was definitely after “O Sole Mio”), when I finally asked Tenaglia why he had chosen the mill shop over professional opera singing.

“I’m a family man,” he said contentedly. “I wanted to be around my kids when they were growing up. And, I was around the mill shop my entire life. In fact, some of the equipment I still use today belonged to my grandfather who started the business. When I’m here, the musical part of my brain is elsewhere, and vice versa.”

But it is there, beneath the mill shop, where another passion flourishes. 

The basement is home to his wine cellar. From my perspective, it is an unfinished cellar like those of many South Philadelphia homes I knew during my childhood with a statue of the Blessed Mother on a windowsill, exposed organic stone walls, and a makeshift kitchen (so as not to dirty the real kitchen upstairs).

And down there, just like the goings on above ground, the winemaking is a meticulous obsession. From tasting grapes before buying them each season to the science by which Tenaglia chooses sugar, acid, nutrients or yeast, it’s all about passion and perfection like any other art form.

When Tenaglia is not making wine —or stairways or doors — he still sings professionally, but selectively. He is the music director at St. Peter’s Church in Merchantville, N.J.

He once sang with Luciano Pavarotti. 

“[Pavarotti] brought back opera to everyday people in the ’70s like Mario Lanza did in the ’50s. He made himself and opera a household name. He knew his voice and how to use it. 

“Personally, I found him to be, well not as humble as he should have been. I believe your personality shows in your singing. Of course, that’s just my opinion . . . and he was Pavarotti, and I’m here sucking sawdust.” 

OK. OK, so this is a very talented guy, but a renaissance man living among us? After all, he hasn’t invented anything yet (unless you consider, as I have, the discovery of Tenaglia’s home-cured earthy prosciutto and spicy sopressata, or his homemade grappa that goes down as smoothly as aged single malt Scotch).

Well, don’t hold your breath. One never knows what a shining mind like Tenaglia’s might have in store next. For now, he is no doubt a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.

The Vendemmia Wine Festival, which is open to the public, takes place 2 to 6 p.m. Sept. 25 at Girard Park, 21st and Porter streets. The Vendemmia Foundation is a nonprofit that supports the educational needs of students of Italian heritage in South Philadelphia. Visit for more information.