With his white hair, round belly, and jolly
smile for motivation, my mind quickly locates and plays back flawlessly
his broken English voice, “Don’t forget boys, the grapes
are coming on Saturday and I’ll need you all to help. Make
sure you tell your mothers, because we have to make the wine for
Every Fall that big red truck would squeeze up North 4th Street
from Bloomfield Avenue, scrapping the branches of the old maple
trees - loaded to almost overflowing with boxes of red and white
grapes. It came chugging much to our delight and excitement, because
this event kicked-off a series of other events that became our Fall
neighborhood ritual. Little did we realize then as we do now, that
this was an important re-creation of our grandparents’ homeland
tradition when grapes were harvested and wine made for the winter
and special events.
Mr. Russo was the grandfather of Ralph Serio one of the boys in
our neighborhood. They both lived in the same house, a very common
occurrence on our block to have extended family either in the same
house or in a house nearby. In fact, almost every house for two
blocks on our street, with only a few exceptions, was inhabited
by “paisanos” With the Fall came the many traditions
and smells of the coming Holidays.
As soon as the truck stopped, the men and boys would begin unloading
the magic grapes while Mr. Russo took care of business with the
drivers. Up the alley they went and down into Mr. Russo’s
basement where a big wine press was waiting to gobble them up. No
grapes went in until Mr. Russo was ready to supervise the process.
Soon the press was squirting out rich grape juice as we watched
with our mouths agape. “Look at that flow! Looks like Welch’s
Grape Juice”, someone would exclaim.
Then the bottles were filled and neatly placed on their stone
shelves. The area around the press was lovingly designed in a semi-circle
of stone and brick to hold the bottles while the wine aged. Mr.
Russo knew his art. “You tell your mothers that before Thanksgiving
we are going to have some very nice wine. I will call when it’s
time for each of you to come here and bring your mother back a bottle
The big reward for helping Mr. Russo was we could take the wooden
grape boxes and use them for scooters. We had plenty of wood leftover
for other important projects too that kept us busy after school
and on Saturdays. How excited I remember being at the prospect of
being able to take those old grape boxes apart and use the nails
and wood to make all sorts of “stuff”. We even made
wooden pinball machines, using nails and elastic bands to make the
pockets for the marbles we used for balls.
Do kids today make such things? How many have seen wine made?
Do their grandparents have accents? Have they roasted chestnuts
or smelled that unforgettable aroma? Did they ever walk down their
street in the Summer and smell tomato gravy being made by hand (crushing
tomatoes using a pointed strainer and a wooden roller)? I guess
my skills at making scooters out of grape boxes and the two ends
of metal roller skates is a lost art. Not much demand for that sort
Back to the wine.
When the wine was aging sometimes I would get to go into Mr. Russo’s
basement to turn the bottles and imagine what was going on inside
them. Perhaps in my child’s mind I expected a sign to appear
on the bottles saying perhaps, “I am now wine!” Or maybe,
a bell to go off, announcing that the grape juice had suddenly become
wine. Mr. Russo, “When do you know it’s ready?”
I would ask. Then I would get that big smile. “I’ll
know he would tease….I’ll know”.
Every morning we would pass Mr. Russo’s house on the way
to school and you could smell the remains of the grape skins slowly
turning to mulch in his backyard, not too far from the big rain
barrel that collected the water for his garden. You knew something
special was going on in those bottles in his basement. We waited
for him to call our mothers.
About 8 weeks later, the phone rang on a Saturday morning. “Anna
(my mother), Anna, Signore Russo….the wine is ready. Send
Harry.” This was it, the big day. I flew to Mr. Russo’s
house to find other neighborhood boys there too. “All right
men, he would say, the Holiday wine is ready. Now be very careful
with your bottle and go straight home, no stopping”. Then
he showed us how to cradle the bottle. “Walk slow and watch
your steps.” I never remember a bottle being broken.
I don’t think I can ever drink wine without thinking of
Mr. Russo. Every Fall, my mind sends me a tantalizing whiff of those
old fermentation smells from Mr. Russo’s basement; and I think
about the old wine press, the big truck full of grapes, and Mom
so happy to get a bottle of home-made wine.
I vividly remember one hot summer day when our youth provoked
all kinds of trouble and Mr. Russo gave us a stern talking too.
Then he sat us down in the shade and told us stories of his hometown
back in Italy. He calmed us down and had us listening open-mouthed
to his long-ago tales.
Probably that same summer, we had the big race between Mr. Russo
and his friend Mr. Ambrose who was building a new house on the previously
empty lot across the street. Mr. Ambrose and he were joking and
calling each other “old”, and the next thing we knew,
the two were racing down the street to see who was fastest. Their
wives were yelling at them as the two senior citizens were huffing
and puffing their way across the finish line. They later had a good
laugh and a glass of wine to celebrate their joint victory.
That was 4th Street. Always something happening.
Mr. Russo…….thanks for the