As a young boy, I remember spying through a keyhole on Uncle Frankie and Dad making wine in the darkened wine cellar of our Providence home.
It’s how I learned to sing in Italian.
The messy sight actually looked fun to a boy of nine years old.
The cement floor was a blood red sea of liquid. Tiny twig-like stems were everywhere. A large wooden “tub” was in the center of the room, filled with grapes and oozing with purplish juice.
The best part came when a barefooted Uncle Frankie, a behemoth of a man, rolled up his pants to his knees, jumped into the mix and stomped the grapes into submission. My dad would tap his feet and clap in rhythm. Years later this scene would re-appear in my memory banks whenever I saw Anthony Quinn playing Zorba the Greek.
The tub juice would eventually be siphoned through a garden hose into big cement jars with heavy lids. The liquid would rest in the dark for months. The “winemakers” would check on their blend from time to time, adding ingredients, stirring and tasting.
I don’t know if the wine was any good. I never tasted it. But my mother, now 93, says it was good enough to put everyone who drank it into a dancing mood. That’s worth a 90-point rating, I believe.
Uncle Frankie and Dad are long gone, but the desire to follow in their footsteps — well, not the barefooted kind — lives on.
The Wine Goddess would never allow me to turn the basement into a wine-making operation, so I’ve been limited to buying other people’s concoctions. Until now. That’s because I’ve come across a way to make wine at someone else’s place and in a most elegant way.
All I have to do is select the kind of wine I want, ferment it, rack it, clarify it, and wait six to eight weeks for the grape juice to turn into Wine Novice Barolo Reserve, Lot 1, and bottle it with my own label.
Where is this heavenly place?
Vintner’s Circle in Westford, located in the new Cornerstone plaza, is part of a craft wine-making franchise launched by David Schmeltzle in 2006-07 in Hackettstown, N.J. There are now seven franchises on the East Coast.
While skeptical at first, a recent visit to Westford assured me that the Vintner’s Circle process is fun and leads to good quality wines. In fact, after touring the gleaming facility with Mike Ziethlow, the franchise owner, I was impressed enough to give it a try. I’ve signed up for an introductory group session in which the Wine Goddess and yours truly will make four international wines — Greco di Tufo (Italy), Shiraz/Viognier (Australia), Chenin Sauvignon Blanc (South Africa), and Bonardo (Argentina). After six weeks, we’ll collect two bottles of each wine — eight total — and carry them home.
Ziethlow, a most pleasant guy, said Vintner’s Circle picks up the cost of all the supplies, including pre-processed grape juice, wine bottles, fermentation ingredients, carboys, corks, and labeling — all for the price of $159.
Ziethlow and his business partner, Brenda Sartoris, will baby-sit the wine in their shop as it goes through the transformative process. No wine leaves before its time, so to speak. There is little fuss and no mess. In fact, Vintner’s Circle has all the bright and shiny equipment needed to make this an enjoyable — and stain-free — experience.
Personally, I liked the feel of the place. Zeithlow is good natured and unassuming, meaning you shouldn’t be shy about asking questions or feel intimidated about a first-time winemaking adventure.
The key to making good wine resides in the quality of grapes, so I put the question to Ziethlow. How do I know what I’m getting?
Vintner’s Circle uses premium bulk wine featuring the “Celebration di Mondo” brand is produced and packaged at the Advintage manufacturing plant in Montreal. Advintage is a subsidiary of Rudolf Keller SRL, a leading international producer of varietal grape products located in Reggio Emilio, Italy.
Wine managers buy grapes from vineyards throughout the world, including California’s renowned Stag’s Leap District, pasteurize the juice and package it in 6-gallon boxes found in Vintner’s Circle shops.
The juice is between 97 percent and 100 percent varietal grape, and contains minimal amounts of chemical preservatives like sulfites. Because Vintner’s Circle wines are made to drink — and not to age in a cellar beyond two years — sulfites are limited to less than half the amount found in commercial products on local liquor store shelves. These are food friendly — and chemical friendly — wines indeed.
Once the winemaker selects his grape varietal — there are up to 21 reds and 10 whites to choose from, including blends — Ziethlow and Satoris guide him/her/team through a four-step, six-week process to complete the wine (more complex wines take eight weeks). The steps are fermentation, racking, clarification and bottling.
Winemakers get to learn about the wine they are making, and can shape its flavorful characteristics by adding oak chips and other ingredients.
In between, Ziethlow and Sartoris baby-sit the liquid in a 6-gallon glass bottle, checking on it daily as it releases carbon dioxide, changes color and gains character. Each bottle bears a card with the winemaker’s name.
A winemaker can expect to make four trips to the shop, including the initial fermentation.
“The idea is to enjoy the experience of making your own handcrafted wine,” said Ziethlow. “You’re taking the wine and beautifying it.”
Vintner’s Circle guarantees that you’ll like the result. “We’ve never disappointed a customer,” said Ziethlow, who hails from Michigan and lives in Billerica.
The shop offers three winemaking packages, all of which yield 28 bottles of wine. They are:
* The Reserve Collection Wine List at $279, which includes every-day drinking California Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo from Italy, and New Zealand Pinot Noir;
* The Grand Reserve Selection, $349, which includes full-bodied wines like Eden Valley Australian Shiraz, Italian Cabernet and Chilean Merlot and;
* The Private Cellar Wine List, $449, which includes premium, structured wines like Amarone, French Chardonnay, and Sicilian Nero D’Avola.
As Ziethlow pointed out, the average cost for producing a bottle of wine is $10 for the Reserve Collection, $12.46 for Grand Reserve, and $16 for Private Cellar stock.
That’s an excellent quality to price ratio for bargain hunters.
“For someone who likes to drink wine, the process yields a good foundation for every-day drinking wine and wines that might be aged for 2-3 years,” said Ziethlow. “This is wine to share with friends and family and have for special occasions or to give away as gifts.”
Ziethlow said several couples have made wine for their wedding day, creating a customized label to commemorate the special occasion. Others have put photos of pets and children on the bottle. One sample of every handcrafted wine remains at the shop. The names are unique: Sanity Vineyards, Liquid Awesomeness, Beach Dog Vineyards, Sunset Estates, Sassafras Pinot Noir, etc.
When I told the Wine Goddess we’d be taking the plunge, she immediately asked if she could design the label for the first vintage produced by Wine Novice Estates. “Of course,” I said without hesitation.
The fun has already begun.
Vintner’s Circle is located at 9 Cornerstone Square, Westford. For more information, call Mike Ziethlow at 978-490-3232 or email him at VC108@VintnersCircle.com