Crate after crate of California grapes spilled out onto long metal tabletops Sunday inside a barn in Finksburg, where the Liberatore family’s Highlandtown wine-making tradition has grown into an event expected to yield 450 bottles of cabernet sauvignon and Sangiovese this year.
The mechanical grape crusher is more “moderno” than the hand-cranked one Nicola Liberatore used in his East Baltimore basement, if you ask his 86-year-old widow, Cristina Liberatore.
But in their first wine-making get-together since Liberatore’s death in August 2017, his son, Dante Liberatore, reminded the group why they were there: “family, and tradition, and togetherness.”
“It’s a great pleasure to continue this tradition,” he said, toasting the purple-handed crew. “Whatever it is you’re doing, do it together, with warmth and will. … It’s with great sincerity I say, ‘Salude!’ ”
Dante Liberatore, and his longtime friends Jack Lancelotta and Nick Pirone expanded the operation several years ago, moving it to Pirone’s farm in Carroll County, and inviting a wider, rotating cast of family and friends to get their hands sticky.
“It’s a fun way to get together,” said Robyn Pirone, Pirone’s wife.
Due to the introduction of the mechanized crusher, which they borrowed from a friend this year, the most labor-intensive part of Sunday’s process involved moving the mounds of grapes and plucking leaves, stems and any overripe ones from the clusters on the long tables.
The machine cranked the grapes three times as fast as the hand crank, Lancelotta said.
“The first barrel took 40 minutes or so,” he said. “We’ll probably refine the process — keep more grapes off the ground.”
Chrissy and Scot Redding’s son, Izzy, plays soccer with Liberatore’s son Francesco, and they’ve become friends over the years. When he invited the Finksburg couple, and their kids, to the barn Sunday, they were intrigued.
“Anytime you’re with this guy,” Scot Redding said, gesturing toward Liberatore, “it’s going to be an adventure.”
Their daughters, Sonny, 11, and Piper, 9, got their turn plucking leaves and stems. Leaving them in makes the wine bitter, said Tom Lynch, a 30-year friend of Liberatore’s who taught the new volunteers.
“You just kind of pull it through, separate it out,” he said, demonstrating with a cluster in his hand. “As we get a big pile of grapes, we push it to the bucket and we make wine.”
This year was Marlene Walsh’s first time at the plucking table.
The Eldersburg woman said she enjoyed the hands-on experience and was looking forward to enjoying the fruits of her labor.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I can’t wait to drink the wine.”
Plenty of previous years’ batches were available Sunday for drinking, but this year’s wine will require a wait.
After going through the crusher, which removes any excess stems, the grapes are pressed and then aged in oak barrels for six months, with an open breathing cap for the first two weeks to allow fermentation.
Each night before sealing the barrels, Nick Pirone will come out to the barn to stir them, releasing an intoxicating aroma as the grapes begin to ferment.
It’s quite a process, he admits. But it’s worth it.
“The wine,” Pirone says, “tastes so much better when you make it.”
While Liberatore owns several of his namesake Italian restaurants in the area, including in Eldersburg and Westminster, the home-brewed batch isn’t sold there, or anywhere. The families who make it take bottles home and serve it to guests or give it to friends.
“This is never to be ever sold,” Liberatore said. “My father was adamant.”
The first-generation Italian immigrant brought the tradition from the old country.
“If it wasn’t for him,” Pirone said, “we wouldn’t be doing it.”