Homemade Wine: A Sestina Story
by M. S. Mabrito
Late on a warm fall afternoon many years ago, I had planned to meet friends behind the abandoned bottle factory and drink as much beer as I possibly could but as I passed my grandfather sitting on our porch drinking a glass of his homemade wine, he intercepted me and began to lecture me about my lack of drive and imagination. I was the only son of his only son and he desperately wanted me to imagine a life beyond what he called, with some contempt and some sadness, the small, unexceptional world of my youth. After all, he had taken a chance and crossed an ocean as a young man because he had imagined a better life for himself and warned me if I didn’t think about my future, I would have regrets when I was old. He talked for a long time about why this was important and how things were when he was a young man while refilling his glass until the bottle at his feet was empty and the afternoon had become the twilight. Out of respect for him I stayed and listened – mostly- though this gave me no pleasure. Long before my grandfather finished what he had to say, I realized that I was not leaving the porch that afternoon to see friends or drink cold beer and I regretfully abandoned that plan.
By the time he had concluded his monologue, my grandfather, however, had come up with another plan. He decided that he would help me work on my lack of imagination. As the head of our family, this was his responsibility and to do so would be not only his duty but a pleasure. Slurring his speech just a bit, he informed me that beginning the next day, I was to help him make his yearly 200 gallons of red wine, the limit the government allowed a family to make for their own use, just as he had helped his grandfather make wine in the old country when he was a youth. When he announced this, I was glad he couldn’t see my grimace in the twilight. I couldn’t see his face clearly either, but in the semi-darkness of the porch, he almost sounded like a boy, and not someone who was old.
My mother worried a great deal about her only son and did not think making wine was a proper activity for a boy who was twelve years old. But my father, a good Italian son who went out of his way to show respect for his father, convinced her of the worth of my grandfather’s plan. So, after his shift at the plant was over that next afternoon, my grandfather and I got into his Plymouth sedan and arrived in the Union Pacific rail yards at twilight. There were hundreds of boxcars in the yards filled top to bottom with crates of grapes from California - many more boxcars and grapes it seemed than anyone could ever picture in their imagination. I followed my grandfather through the crowd of buyers and we approached an open boxcar to wait our turn there, where, unloading the boxcar, was a husky, dark-haired youth. Taking cash only, the young man unloaded crates of grapes from the boxcar and placed them into open car trunks, the flatbeds of pick-up trucks or tied them to the tops of sedans with thick twine, working quickly and with pleasure.
When it was our turn, my grandfather made a show of slowly and carefully inspecting the grapes but quickly settled on a price and I was surprised to see how this simple exchange gave him such pleasure. I had never known him as anything other than old. But in that moment, he looked almost as young as the boxcar youth. I knew he was pleased that I was with him and that he had thought up this plan. As our crates of grapes were secured in the trunk of his sedan, he smiled at me, and I wondered if he could see himself as a boy in his imagination. We were both happy as he drove us home in the fading twilight.
We arrived home just at the end of twilight. Under the cover of darkness, we attempted to avoid the notice of our teetotaler neighbors and smuggled crates from the car into the basement so as not to reveal our guilty pleasure. We laughed for we knew that, in spite of placing newspaper with scotch tape over the basement windows so that no one could see us at work, the scent of the ripe and soon to be fractured and fermenting grapes would permeate the entire neighborhood and leave little to the imagination. We knew exactly what to expect as this family ritual was old. But different this time as I was now part of the plan. And in this way, my grandfather would ensure the ritual would live on by passing it on to the family’s youth.
To my surprise, it turned out that my grandfather had not merely been putting on a show for me at the rail yards but actually had been inspecting the grapes carefully and purchased barely-ripened, large grapes similar to a variety he had known in his youth. He claimed that these grapes made the best wine and one afternoon, weeks later, after we had crushed, fermented and squeezed the grapes, we worked for hours to finally bottle the wine, finishing as we had first began the process - at twilight. My grandfather then poured two small glasses of the new wine to mark the successful completion of his plan. The wine was strong, dark, bitter with a hint of sediment, and it made me choke at first swallow, but I had made it and I eventually drank it all with pleasure. Salute! my grandfather had said before we drank, which is a toast that’s old. It comes from the Latin word for health and as we finished our glasses of the homemade wine, I pictured all those generations of our Italian forebears wishing us good health and raising their glasses in my imagination.
I didn’t plan what happened that fall day of my youth. My grandfather’s imagination made it possible in the mysterious half- light of twilight. It was a pleasure that was unexpected and I still remember it even though now, as my grandfather was then, I am old.