M ore than 50 people flit around a refurbished factory, as happy as the fruit flies circling the stacks of ripe grapes piled in the center of the room. Sounds of whirring machines and laughter fill the air. Wine flows from bottles on long folding tables, and food—from cheese and cracker trays to stacked pizza boxes to homemade meatballs and pasta—abounds.
It’s a peak night at The Wine Press on Quinnipiac Avenue in North Haven, a people’s winery in a customized space tucked behind loading docks. Seven groups of friends and families buzz about while crushing and pressing grapes to make their very own wine. The open doors invite the chill of the October evening, but the warmth of the amateur winemakers, including frequent offers to try our wine!, balances the temperature.
Owner and co-founder Ray Iannucci brings everyone together with his passion and expertise, and he certainly knows how to welcome a guest: his daughter Lori, the event manager, asks everyone who comes through the door, “Would you like a glass of wine?” She walks around with a bottle and two extra glasses on busy nights like this, just in case she’s missed anyone.
Naturally, the first step when making your own wine is deciding on a grape or blend, which means doing some tasting. Ray used to work in construction and designed his own bar right inside The Wine Press, where you can sample from the nine reds, four whites, and six blends they have to offer. Beyond that, Ray is happy to special-order grapes if you have something particular in mind for your barrel, but, whether custom-ordered or not, “It all starts with good grapes,” says Lori. “We trust my father’s instincts” when it comes to selecting them. “He’s been making wine since he was a boy; he learned from his grandfather.”
Crushing and pressing are the next steps in the year-long process. California grapes arrive in September/October and Chilean grapes arrive in April/May at The Press; here tonight are Kevin Diadamo and his family, who make two barrels a year, one for each grape season.
As Diadamo and his group await their turn to crush a blend of Petite Syrah and Zinfandel, they sample the fruit, getting a taste of the raw ingredients. Then they push a dozen crates of the grapes along a conveyor and dump them into a machine which compresses and de-stems, the remainder flowing through a tube into a red rubber vat where Ray uses a tiny metal cylinder, like a James Bond spy gadget, to take a sample and test the sugar levels.
Now that the crushing’s over, the resulting mash will sit about 10 days or until the sugar level drops to zero; then timing becomes critical. Pressing—or squashing the mash with what Ray calls a “bladder”—must happen within 72 hours. Then it’s funneled into oak barrels, from which Ray offers samples of the not-yet-wine using a wine thief resembling a turkey baster.
“They do it the right way [at The Wine Press]. It’s not like making moonshine in your backyard,” says Dee Guarino, one of Ray’s “nieces,” a term used loosely considering his nickname is Uncle Ray.
This year marks Guarino’s fourth time making wine. She teams up with a group of 10 cousins and friends, and they each invest in a share of the $2,900 wine barrel, which produces 240 bottles. “What’s better than taking a bottle of your own wine to a party?” she says of the two cases she gets. Her group has learned a few tricks along the way, such as using French Oak barrels, which yield 280 bottles. Barrels come with their own price tag: $100 to rent per year, or $350 to buy and then barrels can be used for several years.
After the crushing and pressing, Guarino and the other winemakers here will wait several months, then return in February for racking. That’s when the barrels are temporarily emptied, sediments are cleaned out and the wine goes right back in. By summer, it’s usually time to bottle, though not always. “We tried our Cabernet Sauvignon in August and it had a bite, so we decided to leave it for a little while,” says Guarino.
But they trust Ray and time. “The grapes really do keep getting better and better. Every time we do this, it’s better than the last,” says Deb Notorino, who makes wine with Guarino.
“Ray really is an oenologist,” says Art Riccio, one of Kevin Diadamo’s relatives. “I get four or five cases every year, and my friends are all waiting for it now!”
Ray’s daughter, Lori, isn’t the only Iannucci family member involved in the enterprise. Ray’s wife Angie handles the accounting, and his son Ray Jr., and grandson, Ray III, all help with winemaking.
The Wine Press is a family business in another sense, too: More than corporate teams or groups of friends or co-workers, families are their biggest customers. “So many families tell us: ‘We used to just see each other at weddings and funerals. Now we get together four times a year to make our wine!’” Lori says.
Especially useful during the crush and the bottling (when you get to add your own customized labels that Lori creates in house)—the first and last stages of the process—the space features a full kitchen for food prep. “The food is key! Everything’s around the table. We break bread!” says Notorino. “It’s as much about the socializing in between as the final product.”
To that end, every year Lori organizes a wine swap where wine is traded and friendships are made. Lori says the wine tasting is good research to get guests inspired for what varietal to make for their next barrel.
“My dad is an old-fashioned guy,” Lori says. “He’s not into Facebook or the computer. He thinks gathering people together for something special is what’s important. For him it’s all about families making memories together.”
The Wine Press
118 Quinnipiac Avenue, North Haven (map)
(203) 777-WINE (9463)
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.