Grandparents knew value of good red wine for everyday celebration.
As we raised our glasses high, Papa's words sang out over the dining table, "Saluté per chinto Anno," his deep, rich voice as hardy and pure as the red wine he held in his glass.
"Good luck, for a hundred years," his dinner guests echoed back.
I remember how Papa's face beamed with pride at these joyous occasions and how our meal never began until each family member had repeated the traditional dinner toast and sipped from our small glasses of red wine.
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Wine was always a part of our family's holiday meal. I was introduced to its flavor, as well as its medicinal benefits, at an early age. As each family milestone occurred--baptisms, first holy communions, confirmations, birthdays, graduations and marriages--another bottle of Papa's homemade red wine was uncorked. Bottles were also poured on Sundays, holy days of obligation and all national holidays--there was always cause for celebration in Papa's house.
Grandma often put the benefits of red wine to good use as a medicinal cure. It was administered in moderation as a remedy for arthritis and to purify the blood, cure anemia, alleviate stomach cramps and prevent infection. During World War II, when cases of trench mouth and whooping cough reached epidemic levels in the U.S., Grandma administered the rich red wine to each grandchild as a preventative mouthwash and gargle. It must have worked because none of us ever contracted either disease. We did, however, develop a profound liking, in later years, for chianti, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Grandpa often walked me to the chicken house to get my fresh egg. He then cracked the egg in a glass, poured in his wine and watched happily as I drank my breakfast.
Can you imagine a child today going to school with the smell of hearty burgundy on his or her breath? I shudder to think of the consequences.
As a teenager, I recall the looks of astonishment on the faces of my non-Italian friends as they watched Papa fill my dinner glass with wine. To those who objected, Papa would simply say, "Wine is served in church at the communion rail, is it not? And it was served at the Last Supper." End of discussion.
Papa's house was a peaceful one and a place where he felt happiest. He eliminated the extraneous and engaged in living a simple and satisfying lifestyle. His home was well-balanced, filled with the practical things he needed and the people he loved. He had his own quiet corner to which he retreated after a robust meal. It was his belief that the soul sighs after eating a large, traditional dinner and that one should spend time in contemplation and reflection. Papa reflected at least an hour after every meal--the sound of his snoring vibrated though the house.
October has always been my favorite time of the year, when the air is brisk and leaves turn a vibrant rainbow of colors. Papa looked forward to this autumn month, too, but for a different reason. October is the traditional time of year for winemaking. It was then that he assembled paraphernalia and ingredients for the making of his hearty burgundy.
Winemakers on the East Coast had to wait for good winemaking grapes like malaga and zinfandel to come in by rail car from California. But this valley's winemakers, like Papa, were lucky enough to have the plentiful grapes of the Napa and Almaden valleys practically in their back yards. They only had to arrive in their pick-ups to local vineyards to buy boxes of the finest grapes. Some old-timers nurtured their own tiny grape vineyards for the express purpose of making homemade red wine.
Devoted winemakers, like Papa, usually owned their own grape-crushers, while others rented or borrowed one each fall. After the crush was finished, the juice was poured by funnel into the huge oak barrels that had been cured with sulfur smoke.
Here's where the talent for good winemaking would come in. One mistake and the winemaker's barrels would be filled with vinegar instead of wine. But, like Papa, most winemakers had inherited their skills from the Old Country and rarely made a bad batch.
My favorite memory of winemaking was how the family gathered together at the ranch house to help Papa make the wine. The hub of activity was usually in Grandma's kitchen, where the ladies were hard at work making homemade pastas, sausages, raviolis and hot tomato ketchup, in preparation for a grand October feast. The aroma of roasted bell peppers wafted through the air from Grandma's hot oven every fall, filling our nostrils with their wonderfully pungent smell.
In the fall, the men in the family gathered in the cellar to cure the wine barrels and to help Papa set up his wine press. Some of the men helped Papa haul in the grapes, others set up the grape-crusher and some cured the oak barrels.
As a child, I remember hearing Papa and Nonna speak of the renowned vineyards of Brolio Castle, the baronial estate of the Ricasoli family, an area famed for its chianti. It is said that wine has been made in this region of Italy since 1000 CE. It was this revered standard of chianti that Papa tried his best to clone.
Years ago, Mama and Papa never had to call in a baby-sitter to watch the kids. There was always an older family member available for this chore. One of my favorite of these family baby-sitters was my great-grandpa, Vincenci. When it was his turn to watch the kids, he'd begin by telling us a long, colorful story of his days as a Cavalry soldier in the Italian army. Along with Granddad's story, we were also treated to a hot wine drink, similar to zabaione. To keep us occupied after supper, grandpa gathered us all around a crackling fireplace, and as he told his story, he handed us each a large cup. In the cup he placed a raw egg and a teaspoon of sugar. We were then instructed to whip the egg until it was very frothy. By the end of great-grandpa's exciting tale, our eggs were ready for the boiling water and jigger of marsala wine. After drinking down this rich zabaione toddy, we kids--and great-grandpa--were all ready for a good night's sleep.
Today, America is having a love affair with wine. And authorities tell us that drinking a glass of red wine a day can increase longevity. But Papa and Nonna, who lived well into their 90s, knew of these benefits early on.
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