5.30.2012

Wine column no. 33: Bringing people together in good times and bad

It's strange to think of all that's true -- and that part of what makes it true -- is because of wine.
Like when Alfred Zepeda and Albert Elias laughingly confessed that being an alter boy in Los Angeles "was the only way you could get wine without having to pay for it."
Or when Harold Slappy, a buoyant "91 years of age," said he mixed wine with gin during the Prohibition, before he saw Ella Fitzgerald perform at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
And then there's Manny Diaz. He turned grapes thrown onto the sidewalk into wine his family traded for a whole pig that fed 10 families in his New York tenament house -- during the Depression.
"There was no surplus food program in those days," he told StoryCorps, an independent non-profit organization that records interviews with ordinary people like you, me and Greg, so that people like us can honor those who came before us.
Yet somehow, Manny said, the U.S. Army used to send in trucks occasionally to dump fruits and vegetables onto the streets or sidewalks. And the day Manny and his neighbors all looked forward to
was the day the trucks came in and dumped grapes.
"Oh yeah! Oh yeah!" Manny recalled to his friend, Blanca Vazquez, at http://storycorps.org. "The grapes are here! The grapes are here! Everybody used to run, with the baby carriage, with push carts, with pillow cases, to pick up the grapes that were dumped by the U.S. Army trucks. And then we would bring those grapes home, and this was during Prohibition, mind you. And we would put the grapes in the bathtub, crush them, and then go to Woolworths on 116th Street, where you could pick up the burlap bag to cover the grapes, the yeast, the sugar ... so we would cover this bathtub, and let it sit for about a month, which is what it takes to ferment."
What happened if they needed to take a bath? Well, Manny and his family would just use someone else's bathtub in the tenament, since this was a neighborhood that was used to sharing -- and to trading, to be more exact.
"We produced wine in the middle of the Depression, and we would sell a quart of wine for 25 cents, and we would give wines to our neighbors," Manny told Blanca. "In exchange, we would get other things from them. For instance, there was an Italian seaman ... He would buy a whole pig. Then we would go up to the rooftop and roast that pig. And everybody ate from that building with that pig. So everybody ate the pig from the Italian guy, and everybody drank the wine from the Diaz family. In a sense, that's how you survived through a Depression -- you know, when everybody's poor and nobody feels poor."
That's when everyone feels connected, too. It struck us, when our friend Jennifer Farless told us about StoryCorps, just how much even a simple bottle of wine can be a common thread, whether it's to celebrate, to trade, or to just try something you've never had before.
There's a winery out in Oregon that seems to believe in that connection, too. It's called Brooks Wine, and it's very small. It was founded in 1998 by Jimi Brooks, a Portland native who was trained in
the Beaujolais region of France, before he died suddenly, leaving his family to take up the mantle. Now, his son, Pascal, who looks to be about 13, has his own "corner" on the www.brookswine.com website, and the strength of that connection, in the form of an essay about his
summer, is that it's personal.
You're not looking at a conglomeration of wine brands when you read Pascal's words; you're not thinking of net profts. Instead, you learn how he spent about a third of his summer money on a U.S. Open hat, only to regretfully lose it later on to some strong Hawaiian winds. That one of his summer jobs was to light fireworks within view of Mt. Hood, there in Oregon, on the property used to make his family's wine. And that he values -- really values -- his family: His uncle, his aunt, his 93-year-old great-grandmother.
So think of all of this when you open a bottle of the 2009 Brooks Janus Pinot Noir, which we found wasn't necessarily fruity. This Willamette Valley creation with 13.8 percent alcohol had body and silky substance, earth, and was slightly tart. It also took a while to open up in our glasses. It was something that took a bit of time to appreciate, but that when we did, we had a better sense of what Pinot Noir could be. And we also thought about how lucky we are that we get to have it at all, for $27 from Binny's in Chicago, without having to trade part of it for a whole pig.
Jimi believed that, in order to make a good wine, you had to take good care of the vineyard. And that "what does not kill you makes you stronger and sometimes ... meaner ... but most of the time a better
human being."
What would Manny think? We're not sure. But making wine part of the story would probably be a good idea.

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