About 15 years ago, when walking the streets of the northern suburbs, it was not unusual in late summer or early autumn to get an intriguing whiff of fruity fermenting wafting over back fences.
In quiet pockets of areas such as Brunswick, Collingwood or Coburg, you could detect where older southern European neighbours were busily engaged in a tradition they had brought to Australia many years earlier.
They were making their own wine – and making enough to last the year ahead.
These days, a stroll through the same suburbs turns up much less evidence of this home industry. The reasons are several, and not all are demographic.
It is certain that many of the older generation have either died or are simply no longer able to do the same level of physical work they once did.
And many have moved farther out as the yuppification of the inner suburbs continues. But it also seems the next generation is not so keen to take on the wine-making habits of their elders.
All part, perhaps, of an involuntary cringe caused by what they may see as the daggy ways of their elders. But still with us are some inveterate old wine-makers who make their own wine, every year without fail.
And it seems a fortunate few have formed enough of a wine-making fraternity – for now – to be able to help each other when the labour gets a little daunting.
At age 69, Pasquale Spataro is at the younger end of the older generation of Italians. He still makes his own wine every year – with a little help from his friends.
“I have a brother who helps, and friends come to help too,” he says. “We all help each other.”
Spataro says he will keep making his wine for as long as he can.
“I will make wine for as long as I live,” he says. Everybody needs wine – and old men need wine more.”
Spataro came to Australia in 1958 and lived in North Fitzroy for many years before moving to a bigger house in East Preston. Now, every week, five or six old friends gather in his garage/winery to share a meal.
“We decide who will bring the meat, the goat, the lamb or fish. And we cook and we drink,” he says.
Friends will usually be on hand at wine-making time to keep the supply going for these and other such occasions. A constant help and friend is Giuseppi Matarrazzo, 72, who lives in Sydenham but was once a closer neighbour in Brunswick.
Matarrazzo also makes his own wine, and the two friends help each other with their labours each year.
Wine is made in about the second half of March, though Spataro says it used to be the first half. “I think the seasons have changed,” he says. “Now it’s later.”
Makeshift little grape markets – usually no more than a temporary unloading place for trucks or semi-trailers loaded with boxes of grapes – will spring up in vacant blocks across the suburbs around wine-making time.
A hand-painted “uva” (grape) sign propped on the street may be the only evidence of what’s behind the fence.
The Italian newspaper Il Globo will carry small advertisements for its readers, telling them where these ‘uva’ markets are.
Apart from supplying libations for his own get-togethers, Spataro also supplies his wider family with wine.
“Every night they have a couple of glasses with dinner, and when they run out they come and get more,” he says. So he considers his task each March an essential contribution, well worth the effort.
Giovanni Gaetano echoes Spataro’s sentiment that wine-making is a family duty. Aged 68, Gaetano still lives in Brunswick, his home since he came to Australia in 1954.
“I give some to friends, but I give a lot to the family,” he says. “Someone comes over and they go with a bottle. Someone else goes with two bottles.”
And of course there’s personal use. “Every meal I will have a glass – or a bottle. It depends on the meal.”
So though wine-making can be a lot of work, Gaetano still considers it worth the effort, both economically and gastronomically.
Every case of grapes will yield about 12 litres of wine (“we used to get about 15 litres, but I think the cases are smaller these days”, Spataro says).
A case of shiraz grapes – Spataro’s preferred variety – cost him about $18 in 2009. “A few years ago I paid $33, but last year I paid $13, the year before $14.”
Each vintage Spataro tackles about 60 to 70 vases, Gaetano about the same. It’s a prodigious amount of wine for a niche operation, and is quite a responsibility given such a wide circle of family and friends relies on their expertise. It is also, or course, quite an investment of funds.
Admittedly, the grape glut must have contributed to the recent low prices. The grape price Spataro pays works out to $1.50 a litre.
“And that’s pure wine,” he says. “No chemicals, no water, no dried blood” (which he says some makers of cheaper wines add to give colour). “And you know what has gone into your wine. You know it is good, because you made it yourself.”
Gaetano is also enthusiastic about his wine’s quality, not so much as compared to gold-medal-winning commercial wines, but simply because he has made it himself. The results, he says, make the work lighter.
“You feel proud that you have done it, you feel good that you have made something everybody can enjoy. And wine is a necessary thing. You must have wine.”
Gaetano has been making wine here since 1957, and remembers when getting the grapes was not so easy. “I was one of the first to help bring grapes to Brunswick. My brother-in-law had a farm in South Australia, so he brought a truck here for all of us. Later, more trucks came, because everybody wanted grapes.”
The younger generation doesn’t seem to be too interested. “No younger people make wine,” Spataro says. “They don’t care.” Gaetano says when the wine is mature, the younger family members will help drink it, but few will help make it.
So, as the years pass, who will pick up this wine-making tradition that has been a part of life for generations? Spataro still has his hopes.
“Before, Australian people don’t drink wine, they don’t eat spaghetti. But now, plenty of Australians eat more spaghetti than me I think. They drink more wine too,” he says.
“When I get too old and can’t do it any more, I think maybe some Australian people might try to make wine.
“Maybe they reach 40 years old, settle down with their family and think, ‘Why do I have to buy bad wine? I’ll make my own good wine’.”
“The grape wants to be wine”
How to make wine: The basics
Crush a bunch of grapes and the yeast that naturally occurs in the skin starts to break down the sugar in the grape juice, starting fermentation. The by-products are carbon dioxide and alcohol. The former dissipates into the air, leaving the latter behind in the juice.
In ancient times, and for thousands of years since, wine-makers simply made use of this naturally occurring process. Rumi, the Sufi poet, quite rightly sang: “The grape wants to be wine.”
People can still make wine this way – squash a few grapes, let it bubble away for a while, and press the resulting wine from the skins.
Wine made by this method, however, can be very hit-and-miss. Today’s art of good wine-making comes from combining certain variables to influence the end product; the type and quality of fruit, using better yeasts instead of wild varieties, the make and type of vessel the wine is contained in, and many other tricks that more sophisticated wine-makers have up their purple-stained sleeves.
Getting all the variables right can produce a very good tipple.
This article first appeared in the Herald Sun Weekend magazine, April 2007