A Quest for Italian “Moonshine,” Hand-Crafted Negroamaro

A Quest for Italian “Moonshine,” Hand-Crafted Negroamaro

Our cousins in Sammichele di Bari, Puglia, Italy, home to my father’s side of the family, had invited us to dinner. My father was making his last visit, accompanied by me, my sister, her son, and my niece. After being treated to meal after meal by relatives, including a super massive pizza party, we wanted to reciprocate all their generosity by at least bringing a bottle of wine to our latest invite. I drove around the inland town a good fifteen minutes before giving up. In the small southern towns where shops can close before dinnertime, finding anything open can be tough. I returned to our B&B, La Maison, and while the family readied for dinner upstairs in our two suites, I asked the proprietress for help. The family-run hotel and restaurant were well equipped, so I hoped they could sell me a bottle or two.

In my quest for wine, the proprietress of La Maison, our B&B in Sammichele di Bari, Puglia, Italy, sent me on an unforgettable journey.

The proprietress shouts toward the kitchen. A man in his twenties approaches. They speak to each other in Italian. He extends his hand and introduces himself as Andrea, the owner’s grandson. He whips off his apron and gestures for me to follow him.

I figure we are going into the kitchen or maybe the wine cellar. I realize that is not the case when he leads me outside. The last of the sun’s rays splash gold across the stucco buildings. It’s just past 6:00 p.m. We are expected for dinner in less than two hours. I follow Andrea to a well-used Fiat and we climb in.

The narrow streets of Sammichele di Bari, where barely any SUV or van can travel, made my search for wine even more difficult.

Andrea drives the slender streets with more ease than I was able to in my over-sized rental van. Even in small towns, Italians sometimes drive with a wild abandon. We take the corners at high speed. We narrowly miss a woman walking a dog. The dog’s barking fades as we continue down the road.

I attempt to make small talk, but my Italian is minimal. I’m trying to figure out where we’re headed. Andrea and I communicate the best we can. Contrary to the stereotype, Italians are rather quiet people. I’m guessing he is taking me to a friend’s house who has a few extra bottles of vino. Feeling embarrassed already, I gaze out the window.

Sammichele wall (2)
The crumbling knee-high stone fences in Sammichele di Bari, Puglia, that once divided personal properties before Mussolini nationalized the local agriculture, stand as reminders of the past.

The town of 7,000 is mostly quiet for this February evening. Haze from grills and fireplaces drifts over the streets. I can smell the popular carne di brace, grilled meat, everywhere. I know this will be our dinner at our cousin’s. Someone who might be Nigerian or Somalian walks down the street chatting on her cell phone. A group of teen-age boys wearing soccer shirts laugh and poke jabs at each other. Elderly men ride rickety bicycles, still reliable enough to get them to the ufficio di pensione, barbiere, or the solatto for a game of briscola. They have probably ridden the same bicycles since they were young men commuting to and from work in the surrounding olive and cherry groves. We drive closer to the edge of town where in the fading light I can see the old stone fences that once divided personal properties before Mussolini nationalized the local agriculture industry.

I wonder if Andrea even understands I’m in a quest for wine. I ask a few more questions. I don’t learn much. He veers back into the center of town and we bounce along more pock-marked streets.

Andrea finally parks on a hilly street and I tail him out of the car. It’s now completely dark. A few paces away, he stops before a large oak door and rings the buzzer. Within seconds a splash of light hits us. Smiling at us from the foyer is a man in his eighties. I don’t assume by his warm welcome that he was expecting us. Residents of this small community welcome people into their homes whether they are expected or not. Andrea introduces him as Vito. Behind him a woman approaches, also grinning. She’s Vito’s wife, Angela. She greets us with kisses on our cheeks. The older couple speak lacasale, the local “house language,” a dying dialect used only by my father’s generation. The younger people, including Andrea, just barely understand it. The couple learn my last name and brighten even further. Angela gives me another big hug. In Sammichele, my surname is as common as “Chang” in China.

I can smell the familiar aroma of grilled meat. We probably interrupted their dinner. I try to apologize, and this makes them even more accommodating. Andrea is eager to take care of business. We follow Vito down a long, narrow set of darkened stairs. At this point I realize I’m about to experience some local moonshine.

But what meets my eyes in the basement leaves me chuckling in awe. There is no household tub with a few plastic tubes sticking out of it. It’s a full-fledged production line. Aluminum pots as tall as basketball centers stand along the back wall, at least six. These are modern fermentation tanks, glistening and shiny and clean.

Vito stands proudly before the aluminum vats where he stores his high-quality red wine in the basement of his stucco home, Sammichele di Bari, Puglia.

Vito the Vintner allows me to absorb everything. Under the fluorescent lights, his crystal-clear eyes twinkle proudly. He gestures us toward one of the vats. I watch closely as he pours me a taste from a tap. Veins pop out on his hands like spaghetti noodles. The elderly in this hill town have the clearest skin—it is only their graying hair and hard-worked hands that tell their ages.

The burgundy wine trickles smoothly and glistens amber. For a moment I wonder if my family might be wondering where I’ve disappeared. He releases the tap and hands me the plastic cup, about the size of a double shot glass. I sip and I’m instantly impressed. I ask what it is. Negroamaro, he tells me. This is a type of grape grown only in Puglia. Conscious of the passing of time, I down the rest of the herbal, fruity wine and say, “Lo prendo”—I’ll take it.

He fills two 1-gallon plastic jugs all the way to the top. He asks for 18 euros total. I give him a twenty. As Andrea and I make our way across town, I wonder if my family back at the B&B will believe my adventure. But the proof is in the two large plastic jugs rocking solidly by my foot.

It doesn’t matter to our cousins we are a few minutes late. I apologize by brandishing the two jugs and recounting how I came about them. They don’t seem all that impressed. My tale is nothing unusual to them. They know Vito and his reputation for producing quality wine. My father toasts everyone and we clink glasses. Cin Cin! Salute! The wine is a hit. The handcrafted Negroamaro goes perfect with the grilled meat. The first jug empties, and soon we start on the second.

Dinner at the cousins’. Left to right: Luke, Me, Teresa, Natalie, Dad, and cousin Stefano. Notice the jugs of red wine?
IMG-20190322-WA0000 2
Dad and four of his five surviving cousins from Sammichele di Bari. From Left to right: Dad, Peppino, Lucia, Stefano.

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