Virgilio Guglielmi, a white-haired 77-year-old whose cheeks were a little red after a few glasses of his homemade red wine, claims that he was born in the vineyards and started drinking wine in Italy as soon as his mother stopped breast-feeding him. Don't laugh. "That's not a joke," he said.
Wine, he intoned as bocce balls clinked in the background, is the best solution for managing stress. "Sometimes I'm down and I go down to the wine cellar and a few minutes later I'm happy," he said.
The wine philosophers were out in force yesterday at the sixth Highlandtown Wine Festival, a celebration of home winemakers, Italy, old-fashioned neighborhood spirit and yes, the healing powers of that ancient concoction.
With the rain agreeably holding out for most of the afternoon, hundreds gathered in and around Our Lady of Pompei Church to see old friends, play bocce ball, eat meatballs, find out who won the wine contest and of course, taste the chardonnays, merlots, pinot noirs and red zinfandels that were lovingly crushed, filtered, fermented and bottled in basements all over the neighborhood and beyond.
Anyone with doubts about the seriousness of the neighborhood love affair with wine need only check out the new church courtyard and garden. Refurbished by neighborhood boosters who donated the materials and labor, the courtyard now is in a wineglass shape and is studded with red-stained stones depicting wine bottles and wineglasses.
And the first-place winners were both locals: Tony De Pala, in the white category, for his chardonnay; and Pepino Gizzi for his barbera.
Winning matters - immensely to some - but for others, the event truly is about the community.
Daniel Schiavone dreamed up the festival years ago, after noticing a flurry of activity every October, as people carted crates of grapes around Highlandtown. He persuaded a neighbor to show him how to make wine and eventually, with several other wine-loving cohorts, local businesses and the community association, the annual festival was toasted into existence. The first few years, old Italian men from the neighborhood marched up and down the street waving the Italian flag after the event.
"It's really been great for morale," Schiavone said. "Also for people reconnecting."
Every year, about two dozen winemakers submit wines. According to the rules, the wine must be made from grapes (no shortcuts using grape juice) and come from amateur winemakers living within 100 miles of Highlandtown. At first, the wine judging by a rotating panel of experts took place on the Saturday before the festival - after a neighborhood cleanup that's also always part of the ritual. But after a judge missed the festivities, thanks to a hearty hangover, the official tasting takes place on Friday nights, in what Schiavone describes as "a secret location several miles below the Earth's crust."
As always, this year's entries include some pretty sophisticated wines - and a few bloopers.
"There was only one that required immediate spitting," said Joseph DiPasquale, a co-founder of the festival and the proprietor of DiPasquale's Italian Market, an event sponsor. He was busy pouring tastes - attendees are entitled to five with a $20 ticket.
"The most difficult thing to do is control your facial muscles," he said. "We follow EPA guidelines when we dispose of them."
Schiavone piped up with the same diplomatic line he uses year after year. "They're not without their charms," he said.
Domenico Parravano, who ended up taking third place for his trebbiano, learned how to make wine when he was 6 years old from his father and his grandfather. A general contractor who moved in 1970 from Italy to Highlandtown - where he still lives - he has a very basic explanation for the winemaking fanaticism on display.
"Italian people, they love wine," he said. "Second of all, I like doing it."
Wine, naturally, was at the center of festivities. People swirled their reds and waited on line for their tastes. They talked chardonnay. They got tipsy. Many warmly commended the wines - though nine times out of 10 couldn't remember what on earth they were drinking.
"I'm on my fifth glass," said Les Luca, who was there with his son, a neighborhood resident. "It gets better as you keep drinking it."
There was also a serious bocce ball tournament inside the church, serious Italian meats, live music and an official unveiling of the courtyard.
In a lull in the rush at the tasting stand, DiPasquale had a moment of pensiveness.
"We're celebrating 60, 70 years of people making wine in this area," said DiPasquale, whose grandfather opened the neighborhood market that bears his name in 1914. "The people who taught it and handed it down - I hope they can see us somehow."