Thomas J. Iacoboni took a big sip of a glass of merlot yesterday at the fourth annual Highlandtown Wine Festival, smiled as he swallowed and declared: "Her father's got the best."
Iacoboni gestured to Loredana Petrucci, who spent the sunny afternoon pouring generous glasses of wine crafted by her father, Domenic Petrucci, and about 19 other local winemakers.
Domenic Petrucci makes the wine in a small cellar in Highlandtown using "old-school equipment," his daughter said. He adds nothing to the wine, she said, and simply lets the fermentation do its work.
Judges agreed with Iacoboni, awarding Petrucci, a frequent festival winner, first place in the reds category for his blend of California and Maryland grapes. The Maryland grapes were grown at a vineyard at the Hayfields Country Club in Hunt Valley.
First place in whites went to a jug of Chardonnay-Malvasia blended by Sal Ranieri, a winemaking instructor and Little Italy resident.
The competitions - teams also played all afternoon in a bocce tournament - took a back seat to casual conversations in English and Italian in the courtyard of Our Lady of Pompei Roman Catholic Church on Conkling Street.
From the red, white and green flags draped on fences to the toddler wearing an "Italian in Training" T-shirt, yesterday was all things Italiano.
"A lot of people don't realize this is the other Little Italy," said Dan Schiavone, who helps organize the festival each year and runs an art gallery in the neighborhood.
A $20 entry fee bought festivalgoers five tastings of local wine and a souvenir glass. Proceeds will go toward community and church projects, Schiavone said.
"The wine festival," said Don Arnold, president of the Highlandtown Community Association, "is a mission of love."
By late afternoon, about 500 people had turned out. A band playing Italian music and the aroma of freshly cooked beef and sausage were drawing a steady stream of newcomers into the courtyard.
Joe DiPasquale, owner of DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace and an organizer of the festival, showed off the dozens of wines that had been entered in the competition.
He pointed to a bottle of "gabernet" crafted by Petrucci. "He thinks cabernet is spelled with a `G,' his accent is so thick."
DiPasquale sells many of the grapes used to make the wines. Most are fermented in Highlandtown basements and consumed by friends and relatives of the winemakers.
Father-son team Domenico and Davide Parravano entered three bottles of white and six reds. Son Davide Parravano said he felt "very confident with the whites." The two have placed first, second or third in every competition since the first wine festival in 2003.
They took second place yesterday in whites.
Schiavone said the judges were "amazed by the evenness of quality" of this year's wines.
Iacoboni needs no convincing, particularly when it comes to sipping his friend Petrucci's wines.
"I'm not a wine connoisseur, but I know what I like best," he said. "I'd rather have his wine than any store-bought wine."