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.