Grape sellers attract flow of winemakers to their place

October 09, 2002|By ROB KASPER

THE CEMENT block building in Southwest Baltimore would never be mistaken for a chateau, yet that is where I was last week, looking for wine grapes.

Dodging freight trains and large trucks, I made my way to S&S Wine Grapes and Winemaking Equipment Co. at 2300 Severn St., a few blocks away from the old Montgomery Ward complex near Carroll Park. Many makers of homemade wine already know how to find this place. From mid-September through October, when the annual harvest from the fields of California arrives by refrigerated trucks, winemakers beat a path to S&S and load up with 36-pound boxes of grapes, 6-gallon jugs of pure juice, bags of corks and maybe an oak barrel or some other winemaking paraphernalia.

The customers who buy grapes in the Southwest Baltimore building don't make wine for a living. Instead they make it for fun and to honor tradition. They toss the grapes in the back of their pickups and ferry them to basements and garages. There, following recipes handed-down for generations or pulled off the Internet, they crush the grapes, press the skins and allow the liquid to ferment.

Some months later their homemade wine appears, either in conventional wine bottles sometimes bearing handmade labels, sometimes not, or in demijohns, vast vessels that look like oversize straw-wrapped chianti bottles.

It is pretty good stuff. The red wine I tasted had been made last year by Brian Sudano and his cousin Ben Sudano and is now being poured at family gatherings in their White Marsh and Kingsville homes.

According to the piece of tape that served as its label, the wine was a mix of 80 percent sangiovese and 20 percent merlot. It was a light, pleasant table wine, a perfect companion for a supper at home. And the home front, Brian said, is exactly where this kind of wine is found.

The cousins preside over S&S, a wine-grape business that also has a wholesale-produce component that was passed on to them from the fathers. The business was started in 1932 in Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood by their grandfather, Sebastian Sudano. It moved to Caroline Street and Eastern Avenue. Then, five years ago, the operation took up residence on Severn Street.

On a recent afternoon, the Sudanos, along with a few local winemakers who were buying grapes, told me about the customs, procedures and personalities of the homemade wine enterprise. Baltimore, they said, is a stronghold of homemade wine because the region is blessed with ethnic groups that appreciate grapes, in particular Italians, Portuguese and Greeks.

In the Little Italy home where Brian, 40, grew up, a small glass of homemade wine was served to children at family meals. "You got yelled at if you didn't drink your wine," he said. Ben, 32, added that his father, like many men of his generation, would refuse to sit at a table that did not have a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine sitting on it.

A number of Greeks living in Baltimore also make homemade wine, the Sudanos said. "The Greek guys buy the Carignane [grape]," Brian said, "and they want to rack their wine when the moon is full."

Then there are the Portuguese winemakers who drive to S&S from the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington to get supplies.

Last week, for instance Aderito "Eric" Mateus had driven from Riverdale to pick up boxes of Alicante and Barbera grapes that he uses to make his batch of red wine the way his father, Jose, taught him in Cela, Portugal. Mateus said he prefers the taste of homemade wines to those coming from a winery. "Homemade always tastes better," he said.

That is probably an exaggeration. Danny Villanueva of White Marsh, recalled that when he started making wine 10 years ago, some of his initial efforts were "foul." "I was using a concentrate from Canada," he said referring to a shortcut method for making wine. Since then he has shifted to making wine with freshly pressed juice and has picked up a couple of medals in competitions for his homemade zinfandel and merlot.

Villanueva, whose father is Peruvian and whose mother is Finnish, said he was drawn to winemaking by curiosity, not ethnic heritage. "Winemaking is magical. ... it is a great hobby," he said.

But, Villanueva said, there are pitfalls to winemaking. Some winemakers get excited around Thanksgiving and open a bottle of wine that was made only a few weeks earlier. Usually, he said, this makes for an unhappy holiday. Veteran winemakers wait about 12 months before sampling their work.

The Sudanos said their fathers, Joseph and Benjamin, had strong minds - they made deliveries relying on their memories, not on store-bought maps - and strongly held beliefs, especially about cutting the price on a box of grapes.

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