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Black Rock Vintners Produces Quality Wines From an Unlikely Location

The labels on the bottles of red wine crafted by Black Rock Vintners depict the Fayerweather Lighthouse, which stands at the mouth of Black Rock harbor. The company's white wines carry a more modern drawing of the landmark lighthouse, visible across the waters off the tony neighborhood near St. Mary's by the Sea.

Yet this is Bridgeport, so it's fitting that the award-winning high-end varietals are created in the back room of a cinder-block garage filled with dozens of heavy-duty trucks located in a hardscrabble industrial and residential neighborhood near the intersection of the Metro-North tracks and I-95.

The delicate operation that occupies such a rough place opened 10 years ago under the supervision of Anthony Izzo, a commercial real estate investor in the county who decided to try winemaking as a hobby.

The label also indicates that these are California wines, since the grapes come from the Golden State. The only local tip-off is the winery's name. State law requires that wines can only carry a Connecticut appellation if 25 percent or more of the grapes are local. But in the Northeast, the growing season is short, creating a challenge for Connecticut winemakers. Izzo is dedicated to producing high-quality product; he is not trying to fool anyone.

Black Rock's first wine, a cabernet sauvignon, hit the market in 2006, and Izzo has stuck to common varietals, including merlot and pinot grigio, though he has followed some recent trends by releasing an un-oaked chardonnay (which highlights the fruit) and a malbec (created from grapes grown in Chile).

"People are surprised that the wine is made in Bridgeport, but they're also happy that it's made so close to where they live," said Jessica Beal, who helps out with everything other than crushing the grapes. "They are willing to try new things, and what we offer is definitely something different."

The wines are sold only in-state, at a dozen restaurants and over 50 liquor stores. At the Bijou Square Wine Shop in downtown Bridgeport, the Black Rock's Barbera varietal can be found in the California section, though the name on the label piques people's interest.

"When I tell customers that the wines are made down the road, they don't believe it and start asking a lot of questions," said manager Ryan Betas.

Around the corner at Barnum Publick House, a glass of the 2008 cabernet sells for $10. The winery's distributor recommended the brand and the local origin has been a "big selling point," said Thomas Siano, the Barnum's general manager.

Indirectly, the endeavor remains all in the family. Izzo's cousin owns the building that houses the winery, and another cousin supplies many of the grapes. The inspiration came from an uncle who made homemade wine with a high alcohol content and little attention to detail or quality.

Izzo's uncle and friends "used tricks to up the alcohol content and called it red wine, but they aged it in old whiskey barrels," Izzo said. "It tasted like whiskey and had a definite bite and odor. It wasn't very good; the only way to drink it was with soda."

Born and raised in Westport, Izzo perfected the fine wine craft, and issues about 400 to 500 cases per vintage. Prices range from $11 to $23 a bottle. The challenge, he said, is "being accepted in the big leagues."

The winemaking space at the garage is split into two parts. Upstairs, a whining air conditioner keeps the climate optimal for storage. Chin-high stacks of cases are positioned upside down so that the corks remain moist, and a bottling machine sits in the center of the room.

Downstairs, where most of the slow-motion action happens, 36 oak barrels emit a woody smell. Stainless steel fermentation tanks that would look familiar in any brewery occupy one corner, and an industrial stove adds a practical ambiance to the social gatherings that occasionally take place in the space.

Pointing to a pair of rubber boots, Izzo shakes his head, saying they're there for "cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning."

Like all winemakers, Izzo and his assistant, Wayne Stitzer, combine the artistic touch with a scientist's precision as they move the grape juice from the parking lot to the fermentation tanks to the oak barrels to the bottling machine, a process that takes 12 to 18 months. Like chemists, they constantly check ph balances and bacteria levels to ensure that their product retains its high quality.

For Izzo, the wines reflect their provenance. "Anything that's good takes work," he said. "These are real robust wines born of Bridgeport. If you're looking for acres of vineyards with bumble bees and butterflies, that's not going on here. We just create high-quality wines that happen to be made in Black Rock."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun