Harvest is here, and for Frank DiFebo, friends and family, that means it’s time to make wine. Which explains why, on Sunday, Oct. 18, one of the few perfect afternoons in all of October, about 20 people gathered in the yard behind DiFebo’s Classic Properties storefront, 1009 Madison, to begin the annual and ancient rite (roughly 30 years in DiFebo’s case) of crushing grapes.
But not with their feet. A machine does the job now. It not only crushes, it also de-stems. DiFebo purchased his hand-cranked wonder machine on Craigslist. The previous owner shipped it from San Francisco.
The grapes come from California (merlot) and Michigan (cabernet franc). California varietals are shipped to a wholesaler, Santa Fe Grape Distributors, 3500 S. Racine, where the “lugs” (boxes of grapes, averaging 36 pounds each) are taken off the railcars and stacked in refrigerated trucks. Then they notify local winemakers like DiFebo with postcards that it’s time to take their pick. He and his vintage buddy, Robert Petitti (they go all the way back to OPRF High School, class of 1970), picked up the grapes the day before ($32 per lug). The crates happened to be adorned with “Frankie Boy” labels, which made their choice easy.
“Had to,” said DiFebo, a lifetime Oak Parker.
The Michigan grapes are another story. DiFebo knows the grower, who called to tell him they’d had a frost the previous week, so they needed to come right away. The crew drove up to Berrien Springs that morning, arriving at 8 a.m. “and the parking lot was already full,” DiFebo said. The 200 pounds of cab franc cost $1 a pound. The grapes were picked the previous day.
DiFebo says the quality of the wine depends on the grapes. He knows the grower in Michigan, but in California, local vintners get first crack. The grapes that reach Chicago are what’s left over.
“That’s my excuse,” DiFebo says. Wine grapes are smaller, more tightly clustered and much sweeter than table grapes. The merlot has a 24-percent sugar content, he explains as he passes around samples. The difference is, indeed, dramatic.
The clusters are fed into a bin on top and volunteers take turns cranking.
“Watch your fingers,” warns DiFebo.
“What fingers?” quips Petitti.
The skins need to be broken or they won’t ferment. The resulting slop slides down a funneled tray into basins on the ground that fill up quickly and are transferred to a 55-gallon white plastic drum, where the “must” (grape skins, seeds, juice and a few stems) will sit for the next week during the fermenting process. If you want white wine, you have to extract the skins up front.
Next comes the cabernet franc. “So nice, so righteous,” Petitti says, holding up a cluster in the brilliant sunshine. DiFebo’s German shepherd, Wolfgang, tries to inspect but is chased away. “No dog slobber in the wine,” says Petitti, who serves as unofficial emcee.
“Which way do you turn the crank?” asks one volunteer.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way,” Petitti parries.
Acknowledging all the help, he observes, “It takes a neighborhood to make wine.”
The cab franc glop fills a separate drum.
DiFebo will add the yeast the following day, at which point the cooking commences. The yeast literally digests the sugar, producing three by-products: heat (the must actually bubbles), carbon dioxide (what produces the “sparkle” in sparkling wine if you retain it) and alcohol. The reason wine is always around 12-percent alcohol is that the yeast gives out at that point. If the alcohol content is less than 10 percent, DiFebo says, the wine will go bad in a year. If it’s higher, that means the maker added booze (which explains the greater potency of “fortified wines” like port and sherry).
There are 200 to 300 varieties of yeast, DiFebo says, and he learned the hard way never to ask a professional winemaker what kind he or she uses because it’s a closely guarded secret, the primary factor determining the difference between one winery and the next. DiFebo doesn’t take such matters so seriously. He’s here for the fun of it.
Legally, amateur vintners are able to make up to 200 gallons of wine before regulation kicks in. DiFebo learned the process from his Italian immigrant grandfather. When his grandfather died, he rescued the wine press (which relatives wanted to use as a planter) and decided to continue the tradition. He started in the basement of DiFebo Realty at North and Fair Oaks.
“The odor was incredible,” he recalls. “It was like someone threw two cases of wine down the stairs and left it for a couple of months.” Over the years, he learned and refined. He would never think of selling his vintage. He keeps it for himself and shares it with friends.
“You can buy better wine,” he admits. When friends ask him if there isn’t an easier way to make it, he replies, “If I wanted easier, I’d buy it in the store.”
Besides, he says, it’s not rocket science. “You squeeze ’em, you put it in a barrel, you add yeast and let Mother Nature take its course.”
Petitti, who happens to be a chemist by profession, calls it “Chemistry 101.”
Actually it’s a little more involved. After primary fermentation (four days to a week), the mixture goes into his grandfather’s old wine press, which separates the solids from the cloudy juice that DiFebo likens to “grape milk.” That goes into 5-gallon, sterilized, carboy bottles (usually recycled from Hinckley & Schmidt), where it continues to bubble in “secondary fermentation.”
The sediment drops and starting around Christmas, the clarified wine is siphoned into new Hinckley & Schmidt bottles – repeated two or three times during the winter. A fermentation lock allows any gas to escape without letting air get in. Occasionally errant bacteria will make a bottle go bad, but it hasn’t happened very often, DiFebo says. They add potassium metabisulfate as a fungicide/preservative.
“God bless Louie Pasteur,” says Petitti.
DiFebo estimates his crop of merlot will produce 30 gallons of wine and the cab franc about 20 gallons.
After the wine has aged sufficiently, it is ready to be “racked” (bottled and corked – he has a machine that does the corking). Several of DiFebo’s helpers are doing just that with the 2007 vintage, led by his main apprentice, Jack Grondwalski (a friend’s son), a seventh-grader at Roosevelt Middle School, who has become “as serious as a heart attack,” DiFebo says, about winemaking. Jack hopes someday to attend the nation’s premier vintaculture program at the University of California Davis.
“He has as much a foot up as anyone not named Gallo,” says DiFebo.
His own son and some of his friends used to help, but they’re away at college now. Because of the great economic downturn of 2008 the Red Brick Winery, as DiFebo calls his amateur enterprise, suspended operations last fall for the first time in about three decades. But the two-year aging process of the 2007 wine seemed to agree with it, judging by the samples available for tasting during the wine-crushing party.
He creates a new label every year, usually based on photos taken at the party. “Color printers make it easy,” he says.
DiFebo knows some people are wine snobs, but he isn’t one of them.
“I know what the guy went through. Even if a wine isn’t a 10, somebody went through some work. I sympathize with the winemaker,” he says. “It’s the journey, not the destination.”
Friends sometimes tell him he should go into business, but “turning a hobby into a business takes the fun out of it,” he says.
Commercial vintners, DiFebo notes, have “created a mystique” about the process that he doesn’t buy into.
“I’m not a sommelier,” he says. “I know about wine production. It’s just grape juice. In reality, it’s a simple, natural process.
“It’s as good as the grapes we’ve got.”