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Here: In Pittsburgh's Strip District

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Story by Bob Batz Jr. ~ Photos by Steve Mellon

Click photo for larger image.

It's wine-making time here in one of the world's great wine regions.

Oh yes -- making homemade wine is a strong tradition in the Pittsburgh area that goes back generations. Multiple generations keep it going.

You can get a taste of this at Consumers Produce in the Strip District, a longtime hot spot for winemakers from as far away as Harrisburg. Now a huge modern warehouse at 21st and Railroad streets, it was adorned about a week ago with a small hand-made sign, ringed with fat red, white and green Christmas lights, that reads, "WINE SUPPLIES -- Barrels, Grapes, Juice, Demi Johns -- EXCELLENT QUALITY."

It was still dark when the place opened at 5 a.m. last weekend for the season's first Saturday. It wasn't long before buyers were lined up at the order counter set up in the refrigerated room, up to a dozen deep. They were delighted to find, amid the towering stacks of grape boxes and juice buckets, the ingredient that really gets things fermenting:

Ronnie Casertano.

From mid-September through Columbus Day, while Consumers brings in the grapes from California, the supervisor and lifelong produce man gives his life over to wine season, which he's worked here since 1986.

He remembers his customers, and they remember him.

Like one codger who curses him in Italian words and hand gestures as he waits to order his grapes.

"You bring the money?" asks Casertano, clicking at the computer and grinning.

"Somebody told me everything free today," the man replies in a thick Italian accent. He laughs.

And so it goes, back and forth, between Casertano and the three Dellicarpini brothers of Aliquippa -- John, Paul and Dominic -- here with John's son John and his son John.

The middle-aged John's order is a piece of cake, but, "I need to drink before I deal with them," Casertano cracks about the brothers. He's not just joking: He reaches back and presents one of several bottles of last fall's wine that customers have brought for him, along with amaretto cookies and candy.

He can see they have to do the whole ritual first, so he jumps out from behind the counter, muscles a 36-pound box of white Malvoise to the ground and opens it for them to taste. "This is the best grape I have in the building!" They check out red varieties, too, labeled with beautiful art such as the chiquita with flowers in her hair on the "Ma-Ma-Mia!" brand. "The Sangiovese," Casertano advises, "is beautiful."

The brothers have the prices on the sheets of paper they've been intently studying, but Casertano is ready for their "How much?" and answers in staccato Italian. Back and forth and the deal is done, sealed with crushing handshakes.

While workers stuff the family's two trucks with grapes, the brothers help themselves to the steaming hot sausages that have been set out with meatballs and buns and big bowls of hot pepper slices and onion chunks. They also each have a Styrofoam coffee cup of wine. It's about 6:30 a.m.

"That's not mine -- don't blame it on me," warns Casertano, whose prowess as vintner is well-known.

He's an expert, too, on the local tradition, which is as heavily Italian as some customers' accents. Not so long ago, he'll tell you, the busiest days were the rainy ones, when the Italian concrete workers and masons had the day off work. Nowadays, the ethnic trade is augmented by hobbyists ("They all want to be Robert Mondavi"), and Consumers sells a much wider range of grapes. But it still sells tons of white Muscats -- Moscatos -- and black Alicantes, which get mixed roughly 3-to-2 for what many makers affectionately call "dago red."

Even that can be a sophisticated process. McMurray's Bob Argentine and his brother Peter, of Mt. Lebanon, use their late grandfather's old wine press but push the quality by using cultivated, rather than natural, yeast. Bankrolled by their father and assisted by their sons, they grace their bottles with labels featuring their grandfather's photograph and the words, "Vino de Fratelli Argentine": wine of the Argentine brothers.

It's a lot of work to hand-turn the crank to crush the 18 or more boxes of grapes that go into a barrel, and a lot of patience to wait for it to be ready around Easter.

But these people aren't just making mere wine. They're making time together. They're making Sunday dinners and Christmas gifts and toasts to things that last.

"C'e piu spirito in un barile di vino, che in una chiesa piena di santi," goes the saying that Casertano taped up, with its translation:

"There are more spirits in a barrel of wine, than there are in a church full of saints."

Click photo for larger image.


An index to Here, a weekly feature produced by Post-Gazette photographers and writers who roam the region to capture close-up slices of life here.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930. Steve Mellon can be reached at smellon@post-gazette.com.

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