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Baltimore Magazine - August 2003

Vintage Fun
By Dick Rosano

Seven decades after it began, a family-run business is still providing home winemakers with what they need to create their very own cabernets and zinfandels.

It will start around the end of this month, and go on into early October an annual pilgrimage of pickup trucks and SUVs, hatchbacks and station wagons, all converging on a parking lot outside a nondescript little building in south Baltimore. Their license plates hail mostly from Maryland, but their plenty from Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and even North Carolina.

From out here, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on inside the building the only clues are the sound of laughter coming from within, and the crates of grapes the visitors carry out as they leave. There’s no way to know that here, far from the rolling green hills of your stereotypical vineyard, you're witnessing a winemak­ing tradition that began before the end of the Prohibition and has continued through three generations.

It's called a festa, a celebration of a new batch of wine, and it's something Baltimore's S&S Wine Grapes and Winemaking Equipment, a family busi­ness that has been supplying grapes to avid home wine makers since the 1930s, has hosted for 70 years.

Each Saturday and Sunday for two months, as many as 50 people come through the door at 2300 Severn Street to taste the new year's grapes and lug the crates home to make another vintage. It's also a time to pull out bottles from the previous year's harvest and share them with others who share this passion for homemade wine.

"Everybody brings a bottle," says Sal Guaragna, a gas-station owner and automotive consultant from Bowie who, together with his father, has been buying grapes from S&S for 30 years. "You eat cheese and bread, and sample each other's wines. Buying the grapes would only take 15 minutes, but it's in the middle of the afternoon, you're drinking wine, and it ends up taking you three hours."

THIS PIECE OF BALTIMORE HISTORY began with a piece of American history: When Sabastiano Sudano started a fruit business with his brothers-called S&S Produce to honor the brothers' partner­ship-it was 1932, and Prohibition was still in effect. But Sabastiano's friends and neighbors in Little Italy were accus­tomed to drinking wine with meals. So they did what they had to do: They prevailed upon him to find grapes they could make into wine. Sabastiano developed contacts with grape growers in California, then shipped the produce east on rail cars to sell out of his warehouse in Baltimore's Little Italy. At first, he only had enough buyers for a couple of trucks filled with just five vari­eties of grapes. But over the years, the business grew-with help from Sabas­tiano's tough salesmanship, which was perhaps necessary to build a business in post-Depression Baltimore. "He was a tyrant," laughs his grand­son, Brian Sudano, who now is co-owner of the business. "If people would argue with him about the price of grapes, he'd swear at them, throw things around, and tell them to 'go buy their fruit some­where else, then.'" The strategy seems to have worked S&S continues to sell fruit to the restaurants and markets of Baltimore, albeit with less temperamental the­atrics. The business was passed down to Sabastiano's sons, Benjamin and Joseph, in the 1950s. Then their sons-Ben and Brian, respectively assumed the reins. Brian took over in 1985; Ben joined him as partner in 1988. Today, while S&S may not be the only place to buy grapes in the region, it's certainly the biggest and longest running operation around. The compa­ny recently moved to the purple-painted building on Severn Street from its for­mer warehouse on Caroline Street in Little Italy, but Ben and Brian continue to do what their fathers did before them-selling fruit year-round, and get­ting set for the crowd's that descend upon them in the fall. For them, the annual Festa is a family tradition.

"Every year, for as long as I can remember the people would come," says Ben. "It was our family business, but it was also a way of life." IT'S A WAY OF LIFE THAT MORE AND more people are starting to share. For years, S&S's market base depended mostly on Old World immigrants who brought their winemaking traditions with them from such countries as Italy, Spain, and Portugal. But recently, the Sudanos have seen their business boom, thanks to a new breed of home wine­maker. These guys-and a smaller con­tingent of women-have embraced the science of winemaking. They obsess over such esoteric concerns as pH levels, stem-to-berry ratios, and cap submer­sion. They buy carloads of fancy equip­ment, from commercial-size crusher­stemmers to basket presses-which S&S also sells. They also get made fun of a lot by the old- school crowd, whose wine­making process tends to be a lot simpler. "My dad calls me 'Professor,' because I read a lot about wine," says Victor Car­bone, an electronic parts importer from Annapolis who has been buying grapes from S&S for more than 10 years. But if you care to get into it, home winemaking can be very complex.

The calm before the festa: The showroom of S&S is ready for the crowds who come to sample this year's grapes and last year's bottles. containers-barrels, glass carboys, what­ever-and left to settle. Over the course of the next several months, the wine is repeatedly "racked"-carefully poured or siphoned to separate out the sediment. Finally, it's bottled, corked, and labeled (often with fanciful or humorous person­alized labels- which S&S also sells) and left to sit again and age until it becomes drinkable.

All in all, winemaking has a lot to offer one's inner geek, which is part of the attraction. "The difference between good wine and great wine is just a cou­ple of little things," says Carbone. And some of these wines made at home do actually deserve to be called great- or at the least, very good. This is also part of the hobby's attraction. "There are some very refined wines being made with these, grapes," says Lindsey Duvall, a lawyer from Anne Arundel County who's been making his own wine for three years, "some that could sell for $40 [a bottle]."

Crates of grapes cost $20 and up, and a crate (or "lug," as it's known to seasoned winemakers) makes 10 or 12 bottles. After the original investment in equipment and in the bottles, corks, and labels, a bottle of good homemade wine can be had for under $3. Really, it's the most economical way to be a wine snob. "It's a great leveler," Duvall says. "It doesn't matter whether you're a doctor, lawyer, or construction worker: Your pride is in the bottle."

BUT HOME WINEMAKING ISN'T ALL test-tubes and economics; it's also a hobby rife with opportunities for social events. There's a festival atmosphere that accompanies it, and most winemak­ers foster that. Eric Weinstein does, turning the annual ritual of grape-crush­ing into a huge party at his family's Washington, D.C. home. He even takes the previous day off from his job as a senior program manager for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to prepare for the yearly event. "In terms of fun and celebration, it ranks right up there with New Year's," Weinstein says.

And then there's the festa itself, where winemakers get together to dis­cuss (and sometimes argue) the finer points of their craft, sample each other's work, pick out the coming year's grapes, and just generally revel in good compa­ny and a convivial atmosphere.

"After a while, you're no longer just a customer, you feel more like a member of an extended family," says Mike Pearlman, a doctor of internal medicine from Reisterstown.

That's a sentiment you hear over and over from S&S regulars, and they always credit it to the Sudanos.

"They always want to make it fun, like family," says Frank Vitale, a utility con­tractor from the southern Maryland town of Croom who's been buying from S&S since the early 1990s. "When I get up there, Ben and Brian won't let me leave. They want to know how the family's doing, they want you to have something to eat-and, of course, something to drink."

"That's the best part of the year," says Duvall. "It's like an Italian movie: the hugs, the food, and-oh yeah-the wine."

Freelancer Dick Rosano writes frequently about wine and is the co-author of a book on Italian­American winemakers. This is his first article for Baltimore.

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