Wine in Little Italy

Four years ago we buy a house in Fernie's Little Italy. The backyard is half garden; cherry, plum and apple trees, asparagus along the fence. Rose bushes soft pink, peonies deep red. We find a jug of old wine hidden beneath a loose step to the basement.

A simple house, our first house, in Fernie.

Over the fence one day our neighbour, Alfonso Elia, hands me some homegrown beans. A few weeks later his daughter-in-law Lois passes me a container of spaghetti. That September, to my delight, Alfonso gifts me a bottle of wine.

“We make a' wine in the garage,” he says, his Calabrese accent thick despite 60 years in Fernie. “You come a' make sometime.”

Alfonso, always generous, looks after us the way a good neighbour should. Time passes; we buy a new house, move. Though I don't particularly miss the old house, I immediately miss our neighbours.

Then, at the grocery store this September I run into Alfonso, now 90.

“We make a' wine this Friday,” he says. “You come to make a' wine.” So, I go.

On a Friday night mid-September I arrive at Erminia and Alfonso's house. I'm barely inside the garage before handed a glass of wine. Naturally, making wine is also about drinking wine.

There's a spread of sliced cheeses, prosciutto and figs, and 19 boxes of fresh grapes from California ready for crushing. Alfonso's son Emilio and grandson Darren trucked the grapes in from Calgary's Italian Supermarket.

Each box of grapes weighs 36 pounds, and makes ten litres of wine.

The grapes are dumped into a hand-cranked crusher that rests on a barrel. The crusher breaks grape skin, and the juice sits, allowing for tannins to emerge. The juices and grapes are scooped to another barrel to ferment for a week, then pressed into a demijohn (large glass jug), ferment another three weeks (or six, depending on the grape varietal), and put into another demijohn to age two months more—in a nutshell.

Emilio and Gino run me through the steps, tell me a bit about Alfonso.

“Making wine was something we had to do as kids,” Emilio explains. “A chore. Everyone makes wine in Italy. Dad brought it here.”

Alfonso and Erminia moved to Fernie in 1958, a runaway love story from Calabria, Italy. Promised to others, the pair eloped and moved to Canada. Alfonso worked with the City of Fernie, and together they raised three boys. This past July, Alfonso and Erminia celebrated their 65th anniversary.

I crave more history, but Alfonso's grandson Christian pours me a second glass of wine and leaves me distracted. We eat, sip, crush. Emilio pours everyone, Alfonso included, homemade limoncello in a crystal glass. Suddenly, I've three drinks to tend to. How did this happen?

“To Alfonso,” I say. We toast. The limoncello is sweet, strong with alcohol. I walk with him to the backyard, a flutter beneath my feet.

“We miss a' you,” Alfonso says, and gently taps me on my forearm.

“We miss you too, Alfons.” I look over the fence we used to share; the cherry tree in the backyard has fallen, the garden overgrown. How strange to look upon a place you used to call home when it no longer is. Nostalgic, bittersweet.

Back inside the garage, Alfonso takes charge.

“Take it eas',” he says to the boys. Voices grow louder. Everyone, myself included, is a little loosey-goosey – no surprise with an endless supply of wine.

Before long, plates of prosciutto and figs are empty, grapes crushed. I tell Emilio I feel rather sauced when he interrupts me.

“Have a wine, have a chip, you never get drunk,” he laughs, and passes me a cracker.

The night comes to an end. I thank Alfonso and the rest of the Elia family, tell them I wish I were Italian, and leave with a bottle of homemade wine (to drink with dinner over the holidays). The three-generation wine-making affair leaves me flushed with envy – it's also the wine.

Truthfully, I feel a little Italian tonight, with credit to the Elia's. As I walk the few short blocks home, I can't think of a better way to spend a Friday night than making wine in Alfonso's garage in Fernie's Little Italy.