Christopher S. Miller
SMALL HOME WINEMAKERS have existed as long as wine has been made. Even a few of today’s larger producers, like the Gallo and Mondavi families, have a history closely associated with home winemaking. It started during Prohibition, when the thriving California wine industry came to a screeching halt, financially devastating many wine families. To survive this tough time, the Gallo and Mondavi families started selling and shipping wine grapes (both their own and their neighbors) to individuals in eastern cities, especially Chicago and New York. Neither family publicizes its humble beginnings (Gallo downright denies it, but I have seen photographic evidence); nonetheless the craft of home winemaking was integral to their respective successes, as well as their survival during Prohibition. In fact, many alcohol beverage companies have dubious beginnings involving transportation and production of illicit beverages during Prohibition—ever heard of Seagram’s?—and there are others, but I better not piss off too many industry executives in one article. Still, it is an intriguing part of the wine industry that deserves more attention and research (but by someone other than me, I still need to work in the industry).
I don’t usually have access to homemade wine because today’s home winemakers are mostly producing for their own enjoyment and entertainment, but recently I tasted a wine that really shows the potential of homemade production. For the record, a good homemade wine has a rustic note and tight aggressive tannins with a definite alcohol burn.
Recently, armed with a cell phone number and a name, Charles Ambrosio, I found my way to a group producing “Fat Boy Wines” (one of their labels in flux, but more on this later). As it goes with these homegrown stories, one August evening Charles gave me directions to his winemaking “center” on the North Fork, well almost. No street names or house numbers, just some vague landmarks: “Turn right after the sign, bear to the left and look for the volunteer fire vehicle at the end of the col du sac…” Well at least I had his cell number, that is until Charles called to give me a different number because his cell died, or was lost, or his dog ate it. Of course, the other number was for a plumbing supply store that one of his winemaking partners owns.
When I arrived at the winemaking facility (a house with nine barrels of wine aging in the basement), I was met with a very familiar scene, one reminiscent of my brother-in-law’s house (a third generation Sicilian Mason who prefers to be called “The Distinguished Gentleman from Haddam”). There were bottles of un-labeled wine on the kitchen counter and several gentlemen were drinking and eating from a lovely spread of Salumi (Italian cold cuts – Prosciutto, Capocolla, Salsiccia), Tomato and Mozzarella and bread, all from Aiello Brother’s Pork Store in Centereach. After introductions, we adjourned to the patio, which overlooked a field and a pen with goats, the old world right under our noses in a North Fork suburb.
The wine (red, the only color wine is meant to be) had a pleasant aroma of subtle red and black raspberries and a touch of spice. The palate was gentle, but full and lush, with very good balance for homemade wine. Homemade wines often have some issues with controlling the alcohol content and the tannins because the wine is allowed to make itself without adequate temperature control and “punching down” of the grape skins and seeds. This group of winemakers uses old world temperature control (keeping the fermenting tanks and barrels in the basement) and their teenage sons for doing much of the “punching down” of the cap (grape skins and seeds) during the fermentation. These methods help to produce a very good wine, as do the qualities of their equipment, barrels, and grapes (a blend of 75% Alicante and 25% Zinfandel from California via Canarsie Boulevard).
The current winemaking team came together slowly over the last nine years. It was started by John Domenico when an acquaintance asked if he had an interest in helping to make wine at his house. John agreed to help in exchange for 100 gallons of the wine.* As agreed, after making the wine, they transferred 100 gallons of it to a small barrel and drove it from East Quogue to Eastport on a warm fall afternoon. When they arrived, John heard (and felt) some rumbling coming from the barrel and mentioned it to his partner. The “seasoned” winemaker, in an attempt at nonchalance, responded that this was normal and he would gently relieve some pressure from the barrel. A big HISS and POP later and both winemakers were covered with 80 gallons of still fermenting red juice, as was John’s house. For John this must have been a good sign, because he has made and improved his wine every year since.
The wine barrels used for ageing the wines are bought from local wineries after they have been used for two years. The barrels are French and hold 224 liters of juice (about 50 gallons), so each year John would give bottles to friends. Some of his friends asked to be involved the next year and each year the project has grown with each “member” getting a barrel of wine from the vintage. My contact man, Charles Ambrosio, gained entrée into the group by bartering electrical contracting in exchange for wine and a slightly smaller bill.
Currently, the group makes seven barrels of “traditional” wine (Alicante and Zinfandel blend of Californian grapes). This year one of the members, Jon Ferris made two additional barrels, one a Cabernet Sauvignon—Cabernet Franc blend and a Merlot (both from North Fork grapes). The Merlot was quite good and the Cab blend was typically aromatic. A touch of green notes, caused by the Cabernet Sauvignon being a tad under-ripe, made this wine much more aromatic than their “traditional” style, but one I can appreciate and I think it will get better with each vintage they make.
The members of this group of North Fork home winemakers are: John Domenico and his teenage son Tyler; Phil Domenico and his son Philip, Jr.; Jon Ferris and son Michael (the wine is made at their house so Michael is responsible for much of the “pumping over”); Charles Ambrosio; and Sean Culhane. It’s Jon Ferris who calls his portion of wine “Fat Boy Wines” (sometimes). The other partners label their allotment with their own label names and creations, however these change from vintage to vintage (which is what I was referring to earlier about the flux of the “labels”).
This is a committed group of winemakers who strive to make their wines better every year. They are always asking professional winemakers for any hints and the improvement shows. A few years ago, Jon Ferris discovered a Syracuse home winemaking contest that would analyze an entrant’s wine and give feedback on how to make improvements. Last year Jon entered their wine hoping to gain a little insight on how to improve it, and their wine wound up in the finals of the competition, eventually winning one of 17 Gold Medals out of 500 entrants. This year they entered the wine again and it was awarded a Bronze Medal.
Due to the volume of wine they make, their grape source in Canarsie delivers the grapes directly to their facility (basement). They use 800 pounds of grapes for each barrel at a cost of about $1500. Originally they used old Whisky barrels to age the wine, but they quickly upgraded to used wine barrels, which they try to replace every three years. The 2004 vintage was the first one that they blended the barrels together before bottling. This is unusual for a small wine operation (commercial or homemade), as it is much easier to bottle wine directly from the barrels, although doing so causes “bottle variation.” Blending the barrels before bottling creates a more consistent wine. Also, “Fat Boy” and co. wines are unfiltered and unfined, the makers rack the wines instead. Racking, a system of separating the wine from particles known as lees, eliminates any sediment so that fining and filtering are less necessary; the process is akin to siphoning gas from your neighbor’s Hummer (suck and pump). Factoring in the costs of equipment and materials, the cost of each barrel is probably close to $2000, that’s about 560 bottles of wine, or about $3.50 a bottle.
As I left the “Fat Boy” facility, one of the winemakers kindly invited me back to “observe” the winemaking this fall. I look forward to this, however I am suspicious that they are looking for more free labor. After all, the $3.50 cost of a bottle doesn’t include countless hours of labor, years of trial and error, and the cost of renting a power washer to get Burgundy stains off the house.
* During Prohibition (1919 – 1933) home wine makers took advantage of a law allowing each home to produce 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating” cider or fruit juice. In 1978, the Feds changed the law to allow a family to make up to 200 gallons of wine per year, or up to 100 gallons per individual. 200 gallons will produce about 560 normal sized wine bottles, or one and a half bottles per day everyday of the year.