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American Wine Society - Spring 2003

A Family History in Wine

By Dick Rosano

THE WALLS ARE CEMENT BLOCK AND CONCRETE, AND THE FLOOR IS plain-swept and clutter-free. You would think it were an empty room-even soulless-unless you had stepped in through the same doorway on an autumn weekend, bustling with the activity of the harvest. S&S is a family business in Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood and it's been around for over 70 years. It survived for three generations by providing fruit and vegetables to the Baltimore- Washington region, but it thrived by providing wine grapes to the legions of home winemakers that pack its warehouse each September and October. Italian, Portuguese and Greek families make up the biggest percentage of customers, but amateur enologists of all stripes have become regular customers of the Sudano family's business. Together, they give this sometimes-cold room a patina of warmth, and transform it for two months out of the year into a very special club. Home winemakers, Brian and Ben Sudano, cousins and proprietors of S&S Grapes and Wine Equipment, now occupy the owners' chairs, but the pictures on the wall and the stories that still echo in the rafters harken back to the days of sepia photographs and wooden milk trucks. In 1932, Sebastiano Sudano started a fruit business with his brothers. It was the last year of Prohibition and commercial wine production and sales were illegal. But during the 12-year stretch since the 18th Amendment prohibited wine in 1920, many Americans had discovered how to ferment their own, and they thumbed their noses at the collective insanity of the Volstead Act. Some businesses were created out of this newfound populist industry. They grew and harvested their own grapes, then delivered the produce to the big cities throughout America. No less than the Mondavi and Gallo families began their wine empires by sourcing grapes for home winemakers during Prohibition. Businesses that specialized in "legal" fruit were also pressed into action. Sebastiano had customers asking him for grapes and, considering his contacts in the agricultural community, it seemed logical to comply. When Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, the demand for grapes throughout the country waned, but not for long. At the dawn of Repeal, Americans were ecstatic about the simple pleasure of buying wine at the store again, a pleasure so long deprived that many gave up on the barrels and wine press­es they had tended for the last several years. But there were others who continued the practice, some pleased that they had rediscovered an ancient village craft and some who just preferred the independence it provided. Sebastiano's business, now called S&S (to recognize his and his brothers' partnership), continued to supply grapes in the fall, a seasonal bookmark in the otherwise monthly familiarity of selling table fruit. The demand for the grapes ebbed and flowed over the years, but never completely disappeared. By 1933, Sebastiano and his wife, Giacomina Impallaria, had a family. Their sons, Benjamin and Joseph, were 10 and 8, respectively, when Prohibition ended. They would late~ make up the brother-and-brother team and continue the tradition of S&S. And true to their Italian heritage, they would continue to provide grapes, brought in by train and truckload from California to local winemakers. Their customer base spread .beyond" the contours of the city's Italian neighborhood, some coming from Washington and its suburbs, some from as far away as Philadelphia and the Carolinas, converging on the little warehouse in Baltimore each fall to pick up their boxes of grapes and cart them home for the annual "crush." During the 1950s and 1960s, following the euphoria of a well-executed World War, which raised the stature of America, the national psyche changed. Americans were more “American" and European traditions were less popular on this side of the Atlantic. The idea of gathering family and friends around a pile of grape boxes, a hand-cranked crusher, and a fermentation vat had less appeal, so the demand for grapes fell off. This continued into the 1970s, and affected all those in the business of selling grapes.

But in the mid-1970s, Americans began discovering wine-on the retail shelf as well as a cultural icon. This new interest in wine, referred to widely as the "American wine boom," was mostly a reflection of a, newfound desire to drink commercial wine. But it coincided with the "back-to-nature" movement. During the 1960s and 1970s, young Americans were romanced by artisanal crafts and "growing their own." They were also drawn back to their roots, ethnic and cultural. In his famous book, Unto the Sons, Gay Talese said, "the process toward Americanization for Italians began 'by learning to be ashamed of our parents.'" But this new generation of Americans was resisting that dark temptation, and reaching out to redis­cover its heritage. Along the way, many Americans decided to return to the crafts and industries of their European ancestors. What set winemaking apart was that it was more than an academic exercise; it was a craft that had a pleasurable payoff. During the 1980s, the demand for grapes once again rose, and fruit dealers found themselves devoting more time in the fall to this enterprising corner of the business.

In the case of S&S, sons Ben and Joe had by then grown up and were the proprietors of the family business. Their customer base grew mostly by word of mouth but, once a customer, few people gave up. Ben and Joe saw their profits increase as the number of truckloads of grapes grew over the years. Joe married Doris Cramer and Ben married Margaret Toomey, and both stayed in Little Italy, a neighborhood that was quickly becoming one of Baltimore's toniest. Their warehouse on Carolina Street also evolved with the times, and they added fanciful arches of brickwork to celebrate their success. But the building, the business-and its proprietors-retained their Old World culture. Joe and Ben made their own wine, too, but they were more interested in established methods than in heeding the siren call of technology. To them, wine was tradition-it didn't need any improvements. As a result, they made creditable wine, though seldom great, but they did it without specialized yeast strains, sulfites to prevent oxida­tion, or even bottles. They tapped the wine from the barrel when it was ready, slowly draining the contents, then moved on to the next one.

The business continued to pick up when Joe's son, Brian, and Ben's son, Ben, took over as partners. Today, these young men carryon the tradition first cast by their grandfathers and protected by their fathers, with a very important difference: They not only supply grapes in the fall each year, but they now also stock barrels, bottles, and demijohns, presses of all sizes, fermenters, corks, capsules...even the yeast and chemicals at which their fathers snubbed their noses.

Whereas Sebastiano started in 1932 only bringing in about five varieties of grapes from California, customers are now looking for more options, so S&S has developed contracts with growers for over 40 varieties. The quantity has grown from a modest four truckloads per year in 1980 to seven in 1990, to a whopping thirteen truckloads of Golden State grapes shipped to this little warehouse in Baltimore in 2000. This amounts to about 250 tons of grapes a year-about 500,000 pounds~ enough to make 165,000 bottles of wine each autumn. And like their grandfathers and fathers, Brian and Ben make their own wine. They choose their grapes carefully and set aside some of several varieties to make their families' supply each year. And while Ben and Brian respect the Italian tradi­tions that have brought the Sudanos such success, they embrace the advances made in enological science over the years. So wine yeast and sulfites and cork-finish wines are not as unusual in the S&S production line as they were years ago.

Their grapes all come from winegrowing regions in California, and are sourced primarily from purveyors such as Sunniland Fruit and Pia, although recently they began buying premium grapes from Valley Oaks. So, as I stood in the morning chill of winter in this mostly empty room, my mind drifted back to the warm autumn day that I was last here. The late- September sun was bright and friendly, and the aromas of ultra-ripe grapes (filled the air. The winemakers-some seasoned with many vintages and some just experiencing their first-gathered around the upturned barrels, pulling corks from last year's wine and pouring samples for all to taste. It's a friendly gathering, not meant to inspire competition. But as you peer into the eyes of those sharing their wine, you know that the finest moment in the year is when someone standing next to one of those barrels tips a glass, raises his eyebrows, smiles and says, "Hmmm, now THAT'S a good wine."

Dick Rosano writes about wine, food and travel for many magazines, including the JOURNAL. He also wrote the book Wine Heritage: The Story of Italian- American Vintners (see fall 2001 JOURNAL), and is writing another with a wine history theme. If you want to reach the Sudano clan at 2300 Severn St., Baltimore, MD, the phone is 410-625-2115. SPRING+2003

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