In a former foundry in Dorchester's Port Norfolk section, a loud grinding noise pierces the steady humming of a grape de-stemming machine. "Shut it off!" someone yells, his arms full of deep-purple grapes. But Boston Winery owner Ralph Bruno calmly waves his hand forward. "It's fine. Keep going," he says, and the fruit makes its way to the crushing machine via a vacuumlike tube.
It's here in this Civil War-era building by Dorchester Bay that Bruno introduces the ancient art of winemaking to a vino-adoring public. It's not just tastings and tours, though. At the Boston Winery, clients - from serious sippers to casual drinkers - can purchase their own blend of grapes and become involved in the yearlong process from first crush to bottling and finally affixing personalized labels. You get as much help as you want from consulting winemakers from California and Italy. Bruno, who started the Boston Winery a year ago and also owns the waterfront Venezia restaurant across the parking lot, has piqued the interest of executives, athletes, and, of course, oenophiles.
People have been making wine at home for centuries, of course; Bruno grew up making wine with his family in Italy. But the cost of supplies, the expertise, and the time needed to make (palatable) wine in your basement can be daunting.
At the Boston Winery, the grapes - cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, and several others - are shipped from California. Bruno says that he can get almost anything you desire - for a price. A barrel of zinfandel, one of the least expensive varietals at the winery, is $2,300, but custom blends can cost as much as $6,000 or more (half-barrels are available). That's plus the cost of the barrel: American oak barrels yield 240 bottles and cost $350; French oak barrels (with more oak intensity) - yield 288 bottles and cost $850. The barrels are reusable for several years. "Many of our members want to make this a yearly thing," says Bruno.
So why plunk down thousands to create your own blend? Bruno says the wines are better for your health than many commercial brands, which may contain preservatives. "Here, you know exactly what's going into your wine," he says, adding that only a small amount of sulfites are used in the beginning to flush out bacteria. "Some people who have bad reactions to wine can drink ours because there are less chemicals," Bruno says.
Simon Chan, 57, testifies to that claim. "I normally don't drink wine, because it gives me headaches and makes my face irritated and red," he says. While tagging along with a friend to the winery, Chan was persuaded by Bruno to try a few sips. No adverse reactions. " My wife and I then tasted a bunch of wines and ordered a barrel of the one we liked most," says Chan, who is admittedly no connoisseur: Ask him what he's making, and he draws a blank. "I don't remember what it's called, just that we liked it."
More than the "natural" factor, though, is the allure of a winemaking community. "We're getting a lot of young people in here," says Bruno. Music plays in the background and bottles from previous batches are opened in rapid succession. People share their barrels with friends, family, and co-workers. It's more than just a place to make wine; it's a society with about 350 members. One section of the building holds a kitchen, tables, a large tasting bar, and a bocce court. "The beauty part of this is that it's an association," says Bruno. "Members can think of this as their winery." There is no cooking staff, but you can bring your own food or hire a caterer and throw a party. "People can call up, and we'll open the door for them and get them a few of their bottles," says Bruno.
When this season's wines are ready, members will get together and taste one another's creations. If they want, they can make trades. "I like the socializing aspect," says Mike Gruber, a 37-year-old architect from Lexington who recently built a 1,100-bottle wine room in his home. "Some of my friends were wary about this," he says, "because we associated it with basement winemaking. But then I came in and checked it out, tasted the wines. I was impressed."
Which brings up a good point. Doesn't everything taste better when it bears the fruit of your own labor?