Getting from vine to wine

Beads of sweat covered Lorraine Nedell’s forehead as she bent over a cluster of merlot grapes one sunny fall morning at Sannino’s Bella Vita Vineyards in Peconic, New York. Inching along the row of vines, she grabbed the purple berries, snipped them with a clipper and dropped them, over and over, into a plastic bin.

“After you do something like this, you never look at a bottle of wine the same way again,” said Nedell, a retired optician from New York who discovered Sannino’s make-your-own-wine program three years ago. This year she is sharing the cost of a $4,500 barrel with a friend, and revelling in the experience – grape-stained hands, sweaty brow and all. A year from now, after helping to pick, crush, press, rack, blend and bottle her fermented grapes, she will end up with 138 bottles of wine at a cost of about $16 per bottle.

“Vine to wine” is what Anthony Sannino, owner of this North Fork vineyard with his wife, Lisa, calls the program he started in 2007. Customers first choose the grape from the varietals he grows on his two and a quarter hectares in Cutchogue – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc – or from those he buys from vineyards nearby. Then, with his guidance, they participate in just about every step of the process.

Although Sannino’s is rare in offering a chance literally to get your hands dirty in the fields, it is just one of several do-it-yourself wine operations in the New York City area. There is City Winery in Manhattan; Brooklyn Winery, which opened this fall in Williamsburg; Piazza Brothers Wine Room and Staten Island Winery, both on Staten Island; and Make Your Own Wine, which calls itself Westchester’s School of Winemaking, in Elmsford, New York. (New Jersey is also home to several make-your-own-wine operations).

Sannino, a building contractor by trade, had been making wine at home and helping out at Long Island vineyards for 12 years before starting his business. He’d heard of the success of California wine schools like Crushpad in Napa, and figured he’d try something similar.

“The ideal time for starting the whole process is in January, with the pruning of the vines,” Sannino said. “That way you’re following the grapes from beginning to end.”

But in reality Sannino’s gets very few takers for its midwinter vine prunings. Autumn harvest time, on the other hand, is like a family reunion on member days. Sannino’s parents, immigrants from Naples, Italy, work all morning in the kitchen so that lunch can be served on the patio after the picking. Sannino moves from table to table, pouring wine.

“They always put out a ton of food,” said Rich Belsky, a glass artist from Shoreham, New York. “You come out here and spend a day and you feel rejuvenated.”

After lunch, the group drives six kilometres to the production plant and tasting room Sannino’s shares with another winery. Plastic bins of grapes are stacked, ready to be fed into a stainless-steel de-stemmer that separates the grapes from the stems and also crushes the fruit. (When someone asks to stomp the grapes by foot the old-fashioned way, Sannino obliges by dumping some fruit into a plastic tub.) Some members – as those who buy shares in a barrel are called – step up to empty the bins into the de-stemmer. Others listen to Sannino as he explains how the crushed grapes will be collected and inoculated with yeast, then left to ferment for one to two weeks.

This mixture of grape skins, pulp and juice, known as the must, will then be transferred to a press to separate out the liquid, which will be pumped into barrels – another step in the process that members are encouraged to participate in.

In February or March, everyone is invited back for racking: the removal of sediment from the barrels. Members like to show up for this step, the traditional time for tasting, when the mixture begins to take on the complexities of wine. Blending sessions follow in mid-to-late summer, when customers decide, with Sannino’s help, which grape varietals they want to mix, and in what proportions. Finally, there is an assembly-line bottling operation at the end of August, when they affix labels of their own design and, if the wine is ready, take it home.

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