Cheers to homemade wines

Festival: An annual event in Highlandtown showcases vintages while strengthening family and community ties.

April 18, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Springtime in Baltimore has brought forth yet another generation of red and white wines -- from the basements of the city's Highlandtown neighborhood.

The quality of this year's vintage of homemade wines from the old Italian enclave around Our Lady of Pompei Church seemed to delight the hundreds of people who turned out yesterday for the third annual Highlandtown Wine Festival.

"There wasn't one that didn't taste good. I was shockingly impressed," said Bob Santoni, owner and president of Santoni's Market, a son of Highlandtown who helped judge this year's entries from 31 winemakers -- three-quarters of them from Highlandtown.

Organizers and participants said the increasingly popular wine coming-out party is helping to strengthen families, rejuvenate the traditional fabric of the community and welcome its newcomers.

"Ideally, through a project like this ... you build a stronger community, you bring people together," said Don Arnold, president of the Highlandtown Community Association, which co-sponsors the event.

More than 1,000 people stopped by the church's convent courtyard yesterday to taste the wine, renew old friendships, and share in the Italian music, antipasto, pit beef, sausage, pork loin and rapini.

That's up sharply from the 100 or so who showed up for the first festival in 2003, and the 700 or so who turned out last year, according to Daniel Schiavone.

Schiavone is an artist and director of development for an information technology company who was pushed east from Fells Point and Canton by gentrification.

He was a relative newcomer to Highlandtown when he noticed his neighbors getting busy each October with their winemaking rituals.

Fascinated, he began learning the craft from them. And in 2003, he teamed up with Joe DiPasquale, of DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace, to organize the wine competition and festival.

They saw it as a way to preserve the traditions of the old country, while giving the neighborhood a new one of its own.

The annual gathering is now becoming a focus for Highlandtown's growing Latino community and the descendants of Eastern European immigrants as well, Schiavone said.

Yesterday, everyone seemed Italian amid the sunshine, the music, wine and food that spilled into the convent courtyard and the adjoining South Dean Street alley.

The alley was renamed Father Robert Petti Lane, after the beloved pastor who served the Roman Catholic church for 30 years until his death in 1984.

Community volunteers spruced it up this year and installed more than 230 feet of new concrete sidewalks.

The festival has also encouraged the community's winemakers, Schiavone said.

"Every year we're seeing more activity, as the children and grandchildren of the older Italian men are picking up on the tradition."

One of them is Davide Parravano, 32, who works with his father, Domenico, in the family's masonry and concrete business.

The elder Parravano, 54, came to Baltimore in 1971 from Frosinone, south of Rome.

"When I was a little boy in Italy, I helped my father and grandfather make a lot of wine," he said. "We used to have barbera, zinfandel, some muscat."

He began making wines at home as soon as he arrived in Highlandtown, he said.

And when they were old enough, his sons lent their youth and muscle to the business of squeezing grapes, transferring wines and hoisting containers.

There have been a few years when the physical labor and time demands of the winemaking took their toll on the wine's quality.

"We argued over it," Davide Parravano said.

Father and son were frustrated by their lack of time and by their results. But a first-place finish in the "reds" category at the first Highlandtown Wine Festival reinvigorated the enterprise.

The younger Parravano has moved the family's winemaking into a dusty garage at the rear of a storefront building a half-block from the church.

He's also replaced laboriously hand-cranked grape presses with powered devices and switched to stainless-steel fermenting containers that are easier to clean than wood.

"I had a couple of arguments," Davide Parravano said. "My dad, he likes the woods."

Yesterday, the crowded garage was fragrant with the winter's production of reds and whites, which the Parravanos were dispensing by the jug to supply the festival's tasting tables.

The family made about 600 gallons this year. Much will be enjoyed by the family, Davide said, but, "I give a lot away to customers and friends. We'll sit in here and eat something and drink a glass or two."

What isn't consumed will be saved for another time. Davide has dug out a cool, 9-foot wine cellar beneath the building.

Most of Highlandtown's additive-free wines are made from California grapes. But this winter Davide Parravano returned to the Italian farm where his father and grandfather grew up, and he obtained clippings from the same vines his father and grandfather worked.

Yesterday morning, he planted them on family property in White Marsh.

"I called my grandmother [in Italy] this morning and told her. It was a happy day for us, that's for sure," Davide Parravano said.

And before the day was out, the Parravanos' homemade wines had nabbed third place in the red and white categories at the festival.

Del. Peter A. Hammen, who represents Highlandtown in the General Assembly, helped judge yesterday's contest. He was impressed.

"I was really surprised at the number of people that still make wine in their cellars," he said. "It brings home what this community once was and still is."

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