Lizzie Smith

Following up on their coverage of the Santa Fe Grape Distributors in the October 14th issue, here Leo Williams introduces the wine fermentation process and several local equipment sellers who can get you started.

Little Italy is bounded by I-90/94 and Ashland Avenue to the east and west, and the Eisenhower Expressway and 16th Street to the north and south, roads that draw out the shape of a trim square. Within that square, much of the neighborhood has changed over the years. The development of the Illinois Medical District and the University of Illinois at Chicago, aided by the city, pushed out and displaced thousands of resident families, many of them the original Italian-American inhabitants whose businesses once lined Taylor Street. Outlasting the shuffle, though, is one storefront that has remained open for almost a hundred years: Chiarugi Hardware. 

Chiarugi’s presence and purpose is made clear by the catalog of services outlined under its bright scarlet awning: Glass, Keys Made, Plumbing & Electrical, Wine Making Supplies. There’s no queue here, nor are minutes spent wandering aimlessly through aisles—Paul and Carole Rinaldi, the longstanding owners, are those rare, look-your-customers-in-the-eyes shopkeepers with an unwavering commitment to keeping their clients happy. The business’s testimonies from Google Reviews are united in their praise: at this mom-and-pop shop guided by the gracious, your keys will get cut right away, orders made over the phone will be ready on the same day, and brewing supplies will be dependably available.

Chiarugi’s current storefront has a homestyle feel, and is possibly the de-cluttered, post-Marie Kondo equivalent of their previous two locations. Their first location (on 1014 West Taylor Street) satisfied the hardware store hunger and more, with a robust range of items from motorcycle tires to rows of the family’s trademarked grape presses. The grape crushers have a story: one day, Harold Rinaldi, Paul’s father, noticed a photo of the Italian-American bodybuilder Charles Atlas’s bent legs holding up the world. A bright bulb of inspiration sent him to tinker with the legs of the grape press and experiment with tilting the legs to an angle until the mechanism worked even better than before. Among the rows of grape crushers were also wooden barrels for the super thirsty or those with basements big enough for wine cellars. The Rinaldis have calculated reasons for stocking products. They once sold malt for beer brewing, but stopped because the malt was almost literally a time-bomb: if they didn’t sell the cans before summer temperatures rose, they would explode. 

Paul Rinaldi, owner of Chiarugi’s Hardware. Photo by Olan Mijana

These days, the hardware store, especially that big-box-orange-one-that-shall-not-be-named, is no longer where vintners search for fermentation supplies. Chiarugi still has its loyalists, though: repeat customers visit the shop to acquire certified oenological dry yeast, bottle cappers, sodium metabisulphite, and yeast nutrient from the Rinaldis. When visitors inquire about where to obtain grapes for their own small-scale production, Paul will direct the inquisitive toward Santa Fe Grape Distributors on 35th and Racine since, after all, he grew up with the owners. 

Just as Santa Fe Grape Distributors is the go-between for homemade wine, South Siders in search of equipment, counsel, and an atypical taproom experience can visit the one-stop-shop Bev Art Brewer & Winemaker Supply and Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery located on the Far South Side, in Beverly. Open since 1992, Bev Art Brewer has grown to become owner Greg Fischer’s dream—a supply shop able to expand into meadery and winery. Fischer originally set his sights on the Pacific Northwest vineyard business. Eventually, though, he decided to open up shop in Chicago, his home since 1985 and a desirable location, since Illinois’s wine market is one of the largest in the country.

Beverly is a curious place for wine. Dry laws, remnants of Prohibition, are still upheld in the neighborhood, restricting the sale of liquor. This ruling is visible all along Beverly’s stretch of South Western Avenue, where the west side of the street has remained wet and the east side has remained dry. After years of navigating tricky alcohol bureaucracy, Fischer’s shop moved from Western in 2017 to a new location along Hermitage Avenue, in a less-restricted area of Beverly. The move allowed Fischer to finally serve his own product in a new tasting room. All the Wild Blossom beverages are available for visitors to try, including both their wine and mead. Inside the tasting room, you can purchase sample flights and beverages by the glass, all at very reasonable prices, leaving little surprise why people come to this outpost from all over the Midwest. 

Mead is an ancient fermented beverage in a class entirely of its own, made from honey, water, and yeast. Yeast is perhaps the most vital ingredient, responsible for converting all that golden sugar into alcohol. Wild Blossom is Chicago’s very localized version of mead, produced with purified Lake Michigan water and honey from Fischer’s own beekeeping operation. These bees live among the city buildings, some hives scattered atop the Marriott Magnificent Mile, while others are over on the Ogden Dunes and Kankakee Trail within Indiana Dunes National Park. The rest are hidden among the ruins of the former U.S. Steel Works, currently called Steelworkers Park.

When I asked Fischer how he was first exposed to the world of beverage-making, and wine in particular, he told me his grandfather used to produce their home’s supply when they lived in New York. He and his grandfather would go to the Bronx Fruit Market to pick out grapes to take back to their home to crush and store in the basement for safekeeping. Greg still picks out grapes, but they’re usually sourced from the Sierra Foothills and Sonoma wine regions in California, or Washington. He approaches wine with a generous vision, aiming to educate people on how to make good wine correctly from start to finish. You’ll have no reason to distrust his creed: there is a crystalline confidence in his voice, assurance from years of teaching. Tied into his dedication to teaching his trade is a powerful belief, which he sums up in a single sentence: “If you know how to make wine at home, and a good one at that, you’ve produced something with a soul.” Those who adopt his self-sustaining practice will instantly taste, know, and feel the difference. 

In his experience, customers on a mission to make wine have often had relatives with a background in vinification. The trend, he says, looks like this: the grandfather makes wine, and then over time the family stops vinting. The children grow up, and they start their own families. The grandchildren find grandpa’s press and a new generation of winemakers resurges, often aiming for higher quality and more complex wines.

Part of the Bev Art Brewer model includes winemaking classes offered weekly where people can make small batches of wine, typically five gallons. In these classes, Fischer guides curious students through the wine fermentation process and presents instructions on how to properly bottle their wine. Together, the class transfers the juice to a vessel, bottle it, and eventually picks it up once the liquid has fully matured. Some customers have taken their newfound knowledge and skill and run far, such as Tim McEnery, Bev Art Brewer alum and founder of the Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant group. Twice a year, Greg hosts a “Barrel Club,” a meet-up designed for winemaking enthusiasts who are more advanced in their oenology skills and want to experiment with the quantity of production. The club explores tastes together and compares notes as a group about aging their wines in barrels (a barrel can produce two hundred and fifty to three hundred bottles of wine).

However you consume your wine, and regardless of how you acquire it, consider this read a gentle push towards exploring homemade wine if and when the opportunity presents itself. If you want to know more, we recommend visiting Chiarugi Hardware for the equipment, Bev Art Brew & Wild Blossom Meadery for the expertise and tastings, and Santa Fe Grape Distributors for the fruit. Just keep in mind that the do-it-yourself taste is a reward and joy you cannot commodify.

Chiarugi Hardware, 1412 W. Taylor St. Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm; Saturday, 9am–4pm; Sunday, 10am–2pm. (312) 666-2235. 

Bev Art Brewer & Winemaker Supply, Wild Blossom Meadery & Winery, 9030 S Hermitage Ave. Tuesday–Friday, 9:30am–7pm; Saturday, 9am–6pm; open Sunday and Monday by appointment only. (773) 233-7579.

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Becoming a DIY Vintner 

Visually, the process of making wine looks like this: pound your grapes in a tub and let them sit in the juice with all the skin and seeds for up to ten days. Your grapes in their new tub form have become “must,” the juice vintners rely on to get the fermentation started, until they transfer the combination into a grape crusher to be pressed. I asked one of our experts about the process; Rinaldi advised me you have between seven to ten days for your grapes to ferment. Any issues with your wine start with the crush, and the inevitable result is a bad ferment. If all goes well, the grapes rise to the top of the tub after the seventh day of fermentation, but only once the grapes recede back down will you know your ferment is ready to be juiced and then transferred via a siphon into a glass carboy (or demijohn, depending on the quantity). One more tip, courtesy of Delta Packing’s website, before you roll up your pants to crush your berries in their tub: all non-organic grapes are considered by the Environmental Working Group to be part of the “dirty dozen” of produce—a name given to them for their high concentration of pesticides—take the time to soak them in water with salt and vinegar for ten to fifteen minutes. 

Grapes in general are a cluster of potential: nearly every part of the berry has a use. Pomace is the mound of pulp left after all the juice has been squeezed out from the grape press; it’s a viable heap of grape residue that can be transformed into yet another product by way of fermentation. With pomace, you can produce vinegar, grappa, cognac, or other versions of brandy liquor. (For the alcohol, you will need a distiller.) 

Fermentation is full of wonder, and so are the combined methods for preservation. Take sulfites, which prevent your wine from oxidizing and spoiling within a year. Adding potassium or sodium metabisulfite to the must kills or stuns stray yeast strains that could interfere with the wine-making process. This allows for wine maturity and deeper flavors. Far back in history, antimicrobial sulfites were used by ancient societies as an intervention to prevent wine from turning into vinegar. In fact, the ancient Romans would burn candles made of sulfur in empty wine containers—sulfur also has the added benefit of disinfecting barrels. Too much sulfur will result in a rotten-egg aroma, not typically a desirable characteristic to most wine aficionados.  

Fischer explained to me how yeast is used in the winemaking process and how different yeasts achieve and complement the flavors of different wines. Yeast’s scientific name, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, translates as “sugar-eating fungus.” It can grow on a variety of sugars, including sucrose, glucose, and fructose. There is a wide array of yeast strains available that allow vintners to craft their wine to match specific tastes and satisfy palates. Bev Art Brewer provides ten to fifteen different commercial yeasts at any given time, but hundreds of yeast strains exist on the market for those interested in the art of winemaking. For example, there’s a yeast that brings out specific characteristics of a Syrah, uncurling earthy tones or floral and spicy notes such as violet, cassis, or even black pepper. In fact, depending on the commercial yeast you choose, you can control how fruity, bold, or tannic your flavors are. Yeast is highly important, and the lifeline of ferments. The yeast used in mead is often identical to the yeast used in wine, but not all yeasts can be used to make wine. Fischer says most wine makers do not use wild yeast, as it is harder to control and will prevent consistency between batches. The world of wine is one of convictions, with some arguing commercial yeast takes away from the individuality of a wine, and lean in more on wild fermented wines. Naturally occurring yeasts intervene in nature all the time: if the skin of a berry splits open, yeast organisms will insert themselves and dig into their sugar feast and convert it into alcohol. Wild yeasts are popular and have a fervent following, but no doubt there is great trust in commercialized yeasts.

You can be taught the whole process of crushing grapes, incorporating additives, bottling and aging, or you can also purchase the juice itself. Paul Rinaldi has firsthand experience bottling with the Californian Regina-brand juice that Santa Fe Grape Distributors distributes. Both Rinaldi and Fischer offered a few tips for homemade wine, such as keeping wine in the basement where temperatures are optimal for storing and aging. They also attest to the ease of using the juice method, which is both cleaner and more of a guarantee. You may wonder about authenticity, and romanticize the labor of crushing your own grapes, but Fischer assures home vintners that going the juice-to-bottle route is not cheating and can be just as rewarding. You may find the juice a little more economical too, Rinaldi explained, since you never know how long the boxes of grapes have been in transit, and therefore how much juice they’ve lost along the way.

Next fall, interested parties can grab a four-page misty-blue pamphlet from Santa Fe Grape Distributors for home brew guidance. The Regina-brand juice that SFGD sells is never made from concentrate and contains zero additives (especially appealing to those who would like to avoid preservatives). When you buy your product you will simply be acquiring quality juice kept fresh by a temperature-controlled storage container at an even thirty degrees—otherwise fermentation begins. Before beginning to ferment your Regina grape juice you’ll need to maintain the juice at a precise seventy degrees Fahrenheit for reds, or sixty degrees for whites. You’ll be grateful for a funnel, and need a stopper and airlock, a pail, two Carboys, a corker, a siphon, and several vessels for bottling. If you want to impress friends, or even yourself, consider obtaining a spigot to keep your homemade libation on tap. Make sure your equipment is sterile and then you’re ready to begin. Stir your Regina juice pail and then fill up a Carboy, using a funnel—place an airlock on the bottle mouth and wait (full fermentation will be achieved eighteen to twenty-four days later). A hydrometer is a more advanced step, and allows for monitoring the sugar levels of your beverage, helping you decide and control the sweetness or dryness of your wine. The next step is a process known as “racking,” a practice which involves moving wine from one container to another for aeration, and for filtering out Lees, the noticeable dead yeast cells that will collect at the bottom of your vessel. Using a four-page leaflet and the accompanying photographs provided by SFGD, the most novice of hopeful vintners can guide themselves through adopting a home viticulture practice from the comfort of their own homes.

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Leo Williams is an artist and writer from Miami, FL currently living in Bridgeport. Leo’s writing explores food justice and history, fermentation, and gender. Their favorite flavor this Fall is anything astringent. Follow (and connect with) them on Twitter & Instagram @kefir_daddy.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your interesting article that you wrote about wine making Leo. Your nice photographer stopped in to see us & told us it was published & gave us the website. We would love to get a hard copy. There weren’t any pictures on the website & he took a lot of them. We would love it. Paul & Carole Rinaldi, Chiarugi Hardware, 1412 West Taylor Street, Chicago 60607

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