The room smells sweet and cold, if a little musty. To the right, sits a bladder press with a long, deflated black balloon, and toward the center of the room, a plastic bin holds 1500 pounds of bubbling Zinfandel grape mash surrounded by white garbage cans filled with the overflow. Everything is quiet but the gurgling airlocks above six carboys in the back corner filled with pale pink, and the muted crackle of fermenting grapes that you won’t hear unless you hold your breath.
Barbara Gratta peels up the duct tape and lifts the bin lid. She plunges what looks like is a giant potato masher into the middle of the grapes, pushing a thick layer of squashed fruit into the dark magenta juice beneath. Millions of bubbles simmer to the surface.
“I don’t care much about my manicure these days,” she says.
We’re in Gratta’s small garage, on what might be the only residential block in the Bayview. Her driveway looks onto an expanse of the bay peppered with anchored tankers under a stretch of the Bay Bridge. This is where Gratta, a physical therapist of 30 years with thick Italian blood, makes the kind of wine her grandmother would have loved.
Gratta’s garage is a certified winery, or so says the paper pinned above the button that opens the garage door, and over 20 years she has gained a small but enthusiastic following. To certify the garage, she fought the zoning board with a petition signed by all her neighbors—whether they were promised free bottles or not, I didn’t ask—lost the battle, but won the appeal. The board only allows her to make a few hundred gallons a year, no more than a home winemaker, which means she can hardly keep it in stock. Keep it quiet, they said. Don’t hang any signs.
Gratta started as a hobbyist in 1997, but she’s not the first in her family to make wine. An immigration wave brought her grandfather from Italy to Brooklyn in the 1920s, and he settled in a house built onto a rock with a very cold, dark basement—perfect for a cellar of Chianti and homemade wine.
“We were never allowed to go in there,” she says, “but that wine was always flowing at Sunday dinner.”
The family—cousins, aunts, and all—gathered for a feast every Sunday afternoon. Spaghetti and meatballs were served at 2pm, and then again a few hours later. That sounds filling, I tell her.
“Have you ever seen Fatso? With Dom DeLuise? Like that,” says Gratta.
She is assertive and kind, with all the humility of a beginner despite the fact that she’s nearly two decades into the craft. It began as a hobby, when Gratta learned the ropes from a coworker’s husband in 1997. He set her up with some equipment and a good grower, and she figured out the rest with some trial and error. Along the way, Gratta supplemented her test runs with some courses at UC Davis and with a few phone calls on real phones to real winemaking people because, you know, there “wasn’t really an internet in those days.” Without a search engine, it’s hard to know where to start.
“Honestly, I’m amazed the wine we made back then was drinkable,” she says.
In 2000, she found Ray Teldeschi, a grower in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley known for his Zinfandel, and has used his grapes
ever since. Now, between 150 and 200 cases of Sangiovese, CabernetSauvignon, Petit Syrah and Dolcetto leave her garage every year. She filters nothing, and takes no shortcuts because, fora small winemaker, there really aren’t many. There’s no fancy infrastructure, just a bunch of bins and barrels and a pug-and-poodle mix named Lucy that keeps watch out the garage window.
When the grapes come in, she sorts through them by hand on the back of the truck, plucking out the raisins and leaves. Teldeschi’s grapes grow along a particular stretch of land between the coast and the valley where the cool nights, milder days, and coastal fog temper the tannins, unlike in Napa valley. For the wine, that means more fruit notes, less of that leathery texture that dries out your mouth. All of Teldeschi’s grapes, says Gratta, taste a little like cherries.
For Gratta’s Cabernet, that means a lighter, herbaceous wine. I tell her I taste vanilla, and she points to the oak barrel where it’s aging. We drink an inky Petit Syrah from a steel barrel that makes my mouth water. It’s quenching, balanced, with a little caramelized something. Then we taste an
earthy Dolcetto, what she calls a “working man’s table wine.” The rosé she siphoned off this batch after the first 12 hours now sits in the carboys in the back, on bags of ice that she’ll change every few days.
The rosé smells like grapefruit but tastes like stewed strawberries, with the residual sugar of a mid-fermentation wine, I want to drink it all.
“I’m about tradition and trying to keep that going in my life. I’m away from my family, and doing things like this reminds me of what was important as a kid,” says Gratta.
Maybe we’re all still kids, I think, sipping the Petit, because this sure feels important now.
Visit Gratta’s tasting room at 5273 Third Street, San Francisco, and don’t miss the catered Italian dinners on Thursday nights.