Highlandtown pours it on

Wine: Highlandtown's annual festival celebrates the area's amateur vintners.

April 17, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Watch out Napa, look out Bordeaux. Here comes ... Highlandtown.

The East Baltimore neighborhood may not resemble more famed winemaking regions, with their sweeping vistas of endless rows of grapevines basking in the sun.

Highlandtown remains classic urban Baltimore, with its Formstone rowhouses and multiple bridal shops. But behind that facade, it turns out, is a long-standing tradition of amateur winemaking. Tomorrow, these basement vintners will be celebrated by the oxymoronic-sounding Highlandtown Wine Festival.

The festival will be held at Our Lady of Pompei Church, which opened its doors 80 years ago to serve a burgeoning community of Italian-Americans moving east from Little Italy. They were already making wine. And they still are.

"I would say in a six-block neighborhood there are at least 40 winemakers," says Joe DiPasquale, the proprietor of DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace on Gough Street behind Zannino's funeral parlor. DiPasquale supplies most of the grapes to Highlandtown's winemakers.

This Highlandtown neighborhood around Our Lady of Pompei, on the east side of Patterson Park at Claremont and Conkling streets, is far more solidly Italian these days than Little Italy. And every other basement seems to harbor a winemaker.

"They don't all get their grapes from me now," DiPasquale says. "But I keep count. I know who makes it."

He carries on the work of the Rev. Roberto Petti, the revered pastor of Our Lady of Pompei, who served the church more than 30 years until his death in 1984. The wine festival takes place on Petti Lane behind the church.

Petti used to go to Napa Valley to buy grapes for his parishioners, says Sam Culotta, the church's pro bono attorney since he passed the bar in June 1951. The grapes usually arrived in October in a freight car that stopped on a siding by the railroad bridge over Eastern Avenue.

"Finally the great day arrived," Culotta recalls, "and everybody would gather down there with trucks and wagons. One would take ten cases, another a hundred. And the rectory would reek with the delightful fragrancy of the wine fermenting. It would be all over the church, everywhere, while it was fermenting."

Seven or eight men would be in the basement making wine for Petti.

"I remember they had four or six big barrels down there," says Culotta, who's nearly 80 now. "Cardinal [Lawrence] Sheehan used to say it was the best feeding house in the archdiocese. Father Petti liked a good table. And the wine was good. He liked bringing people together and feeding them and giving them something to drink."

When Petti died in 1984, he was interred in a mausoleum at his hometown near Monte Cassino, Italy. The Rev. Luigi Esposito, who is the pastor now, helped judge the wines last year. But neither he nor Joe DiPasquale goes to California to get the grapes. DiPasquale buys them from a wholesaler.

"We have people who go out," DiPasquale says. "They give you feedback on what looks good."

Dan Schiavone, a relative newcomer in the neighborhood who has an art gallery on Highland Avenue, says the winemaking still starts in October as it has for decades in the neighborhood. He and DiPasquale launched the first festival with the Highlandtown Improvement Association's blessing last spring. Twenty-four winemakers entered wines last year. Schiavone and DiPasquale expect as many as 40 tomorrow.

Judging began last night and will continue today.

"Last year we tasted 24 wines in one night," Schiavone says. "But you can't taste 40 in one night."

The judging location is top secret, and the judging is a blind test. The wines are numbered and the bottles put in a plain brown bag. Winners get a medal, gift certificates for wine and grapes, and bragging rights.

"I look for visual clarity in the wine first of all," says Frank Lotman, who was a judge last year. He trained as a wine steward when working for Sheraton Hotels. "I swirl it in the glass and I try to get the aroma, fruit, or a real earthy smell, or whatever. And then I taste it and when I taste it, I chew the wine."

But winemakers don't have to be Italian or from Highlandtown to enter a wine. In fact, first place among the white wines last year went to a Seyval Blanc from a vintner in Mount Washington named David Savory. Savory, a splendid moniker for a winemaker, is an Americanization of Savi, the name of his grandfather, who came from a town near Parma, Italy.

Basically the few rules say entrants have to make their wine within 100 miles of Highlandtown - winemakers from Pennsylvania and Delaware are expected this year - and the wine must be made from grapes. Nowadays many home winemakers start with pre-squeezed grape juice, which is a fairly foolproof way of making wine. The selection, crushing and pressing of the grapes is eliminated.

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