Beneath our streets of notoriously double-parked cars and SEPTA buses, in alley garages and behind bulkhead pavement doors exists an underground society about which few people know.
Its members share trade secrets. They borrow equipment from each other and compare notes. Their alliance does not have a name, a mission statement or a political agenda.
What they do have is an 8,000-year-old craft in common. They are homemade winemakers and they operate approximately 1,500 cellars throughout South Philadelphia alone.
I spent a recent Friday evening getting to know one of them — wine expert and director of the annual Vendemmia Festival wine competition, Vince Novello.
He has been making his own wine since 1997 and participating in the festival for about as long. He’s garnered respect from his peers for his 2008 Brunello, for one, which took first- and second-place the following September in the annual homemade wines competition.
Today, Novello serves as the contest director so he no longer competes, but by no means should this imply he’s not competitive
“We [local winemakers] get together often to share tips, insights and materials.But there’s not one of us who doesn’t aspire to make the best,” he said.
It is possible that I gleaned more about wine and winemaking in three or four hours I spent with Novello than perhaps I did attending numerous seminars during the 12 years I worked at the Saloon Restaurant, 750 S. Seventh St., in the 1980s and ’90s.
This time, the place was Novello’s living room at 21st and Porter streets, and then the wine cellar he shares with winemaking partner, Paul Policarpo at 19th Street and Passyunk Avenue.
He is a contractor and cabinetmaker; a heart transplant survivor; and the grandson of an Italian immigrant who made wine to help make ends meet. Though these attributes are seemingly unrelated, I may be able to propose the contrary.
His kitchen in the spacious brick twin tells me three quick facts about him: He pays meticulous attention to detail; relishes the Italian tradition of centering family through shared meals (the kitchen he designed can comfortably seat 30 people and its put to the test each Sunday); and making wine is not a labor that puts food on his granite countertops, but one of pure pleasure that undoubtedly took root as a boy with his grandfather.
Further, there is a common denominator that flows in and out of our conversation as fluidly as Novello pours his wines; it’s an approach to living.
While we swirled and sipped the award-winning Paolo and Vincenzo (produced by the two locals) zinfindel, Novello signaled a glimpse of that philosophy – “Never save your best wine for tomorrow,” he said. He knows better than most that tomorrow has not a guarantee.
So instead of saving one of his best for last, Novello proceeded to bring me full circle as he called my attention to the different characteristics of the prized 2006 red zinfandel he had selected to both kick-off and conclude my crash course.
It was fun like a guessing game.
“What flavors do you detect immediately?” he asked.
“Vanilla, cherry and tobacco,” I said.
“Yes,” he said with a bit of excitement.
The otherwise soft-spoken winemaker proceeded to explain how each of those flavors became present in the wine.
“Now, pay attention to what you detect on the back of your tongue and throat,” he said.
Then we went to the wine cellar just a few blocks away.
The sampling started with an all-time favorite — amorone.
“This is one of the most difficult wines to make and among the richest to enjoy,” he said with deference as though he was telling me about a royal family.
“What do you like about making wine,” I asked.
“It’s a process, and at the end of it, you have something beautiful to share and to savor and to experience as it changes over time,” he said.
In the damp, little cellar while sampling the mix of other Paolo and Vincenzo wines brewing, I understood, perhaps for the first time, a subculture that transcends continents.
It doesn’t take a viticulturist to realize that Philadelphia is not geographically conducive to growing grapes due to our climate, landscape and lack of land for farming.
Novello explained, most local winemakers purchase their grapes and grape juices from wholesalers like Southwest Philly’s Procacci Bros., where importing grapes (primarily from California) is a key component to their business.
According to Len Procacci, more than 2,900 winemakers from Philadelphia and surrounding communities purchase grapes and grape juices from them alone.
Each year around this time, the local winemakers make their pilgrimage to the market to select their grapes and juices. But only a bunch of very serious downtown ‘vino’ producers like Novello use an instrument called a refractometer — a telescope-shaped tool with a rectangular glass plate at one end used for measuring the percentage brix, or sugar per weight, contained in the fruit. This measurement will ultimately determine the percentage of alcohol content in a fully fermented wine.
For homemade wine producers, many of whom do not have the luxury of space for a lot of equipment, resourcefulness is a must. This sometimes means mixing old techniques with new shortcuts. But “patience,” Novello said, is the most critical skill needed for this pastime.
So, my little journey underground exposed a few secrets I hadn’t considered; a really good wine takes more than grapes and yeast and time. It takes the calm and care of an artisan, the value of tradition and an attitude of enjoyment. SPR
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Setting the field
The Vendemmia Wine Festival and annual winemakers’ competition will mark its 15th anniversary 2 to 6 p.m. Sept. 25, 2011 at Girard Park, 21st and Porter streets.
There are 39 viticulturists and wine aficionados who will serve as judges with some hailing from as far-away places as Mexico and Europe.
Moreover, there is software for tracking winemakers’ submissions; a brown bagging and tagging effort to keep winemakers’ identities secret; and, entries are will be stored overnight in a locked vault at Prudential Savings Bank, 1834 Oregon Ave., the night before the judging takes place!
Judging will occurs outdoors on the morning of the annual Vendemmia Wine Festival after the veiled wine bottle entries arrive by truck to the event location. Winners will be announced later that day as the festival draws to a close.
For information on entering the competition, and for tickets, tables and sponsorship options, visit www.vendemmiafoundation.org or call 215-551-3859. SPR
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