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Meet the Press

How the author learned to love his grandfather's 150-pound wine press.

My grandfather wasn't abandoning his family when he fled his Lithuanian shtetl one night in 1911, his only baggage a heavy, unwieldy wine press that he'd strapped to his back. The next morning, he was due to enter the czar's army for 20 years. Nyet. So his getaway plan was simple. Traveling by night, skipping across borders without a passport, he would somehow make his way to New York, where he would scare up passage for the rest of his clan. The curious contraption on his back would only slow him down, but he needed those 150 pounds of jury-rigged metal--a reminder of hearth and home and his honored role in the shtetl he'd left behind.

He was an artist of the vine. Seven years passed before he could send for his family. Unable to bear the sweatshops of New York, he had ended up in some place called Minnesota, where he could breathe fresh air, like in the old country. And during that interval he had reclaimed his title as the maker of the best old-country wine anybody had ever tasted. It was sweet yet not cloying, and three glasses of it could knock a mule to the ground.

My grandfather shared this elixir with his neighbors, but there was one thing he refused to give up: the recipe, which, according to centuries-old family tradition, was revealed to only one person per generation. In the 1970s, near the end of his 86-year life, he at last spilled the secret to my father, his longtime winemaking apprentice.

My father continued the annual tradition, enjoying the laborious process that began each fall with stacking empty wine kegs and bushels of purple grapes high in our driveway. We now lived in an assimilated suburb, and watching him work, I occasionally caught glimpses of our neighbors peeking through their windows, wondering--or so I imagined in my adolescent embarrassment--what sort of tribal nuttiness was going on over by our garage. As in the old country, the search for the perfect red Concord grape never ended. Doing his own research, my father chose a farm in St. Joseph, Michigan, to provide annual shipments of 400 pounds of grapes, which were delivered outside our house in 20-pound "lugs," or crates.

While my older brother and sister showed about as much interest in this ancient family craft as they did in goat herding, I was drawn to it. For years I pulverized grapes in our driveway, using the wine press my grandfather had taken through Ellis Island sometime during the Taft administration. Although my father permitted me to do many of the gofer tasks connected with the winemaking, he never let me in on the formula.

Somehow, I'd always felt that the secrets of the wine press would reveal the secrets of the man. My grandfather had never learned English, and all I had left of him when he died was his battered ice-fishing boots and a Smithsonian-ready Electrolux vacuum cleaner with a plug that had been taped together so often that it crackled ominously and emitted sparks whenever I'd dared to use it.

I'd always wanted more. Certainly, I knew more about the wine and that press than I did about the old man himself. I knew that he was a poor Orthodox Jew who didn't speak English. I knew that during Prohibition he'd been granted a government dispensation to make sacramental wine for his synagogue. Since he never charged for it, nobody seemed to care if he also supplied his immigrant Scandinavian neighbors--those Swensons and Thorsons, who understood his language no better than he did theirs.

Finally, in 1998, almost a century after my grandfather brought his grape crusher to America, my father told me that it was at last my turn to learn the secret recipe. Like Marlon Brando passing over Fredo and the law of primogeniture in The Godfather, he skipped my older brother and sister, who were actually quite pleased to abdicate any claim to the backbreaking "honor" of making the old wine the old way. I, on the other hand, had earned the alleged privilege by helping my father make the wine, just as he'd apprenticed himself to his father.

 

When those perfect red Concord grapes arrived in mid-September from that Michigan farmer, my father and I set the crusher atop a barrel. As he loaded grapes into the top, I cranked the handle until sweat poured out of me, I'd lost all feeling in my right arm, and the 40-gallon barrel below the press was brimming with a thick purple liquid.

Taking stones and wooden two-by-fours, we crushed whatever remained unmashed into an ocean of purple crud. We then poured in 80 pounds of sugar (about four pounds for every gallon we hoped to produce), covered the top and, twice every 10 days, stirred the potion with a plank. For the next six weeks or so, my father taught me the secrets of the old wine world, beginning with how to funnel out the dross of sticks and seeds.

Meanwhile, I was taught the proper way to pour the good stuff into five-gallon casks and the art of tasting for proper smell and flavor. I learned how the weather could affect fermentation, altering the wine's putatively perfect kick. That winter in Minnesota was particularly cold, so we had to place propane heaters next to the casks of fermenting wine in the garage and let the liquid sit for longer than the usual six weeks. Taken for granted was that I would tell no one how all this was done.

One day my father summoned me home. The wine was ready. After toasting the final product, we corked the quart and 12-ounce bottles of Karlen's Purple Foot Special. "And that's how you do it," he said. "That's your grandfather's wine--the family wine."

Last year, when we'd started again, I wondered if our family couldn't make its wine some other way. Some way that didn't make my torso go numb and my arms feel as twisted as Gumby's. There were catalogs selling streamlined, high-tech presses; there was the Internet. Yet I realized that the ridiculous-looking press, with its ancient top-loading metal grape crusher that gave it the appearance of an alien's head in a grade-C Ed Wood sci-fi picture, is the only connection I have to my grandfather. Through it I see that farm boy, half as old as I am now, running halfway across the world from the czar, then from the sweatshops, only to settle among initially unfriendly neighbors. I see his young hands turning this very crank to make the wine that will win over those neighbors. Then I'm alive myself, and see an old man with arthritis, whose language I don't understand, taking the honored first crank of the new winemaking season.

A quarter century after my grandfather's death, I could finally see both him and where he'd come from. I kept cranking the wine press until my arm hurt so badly that I forgot him, and anything past my shoulder.

But I kept cranking.

Neal Karlen, the author of Slouching Toward Fargo (Avon), is currently writing a book about the Kabbalah for Simon & Schuster.

Published October 2000
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