Winemaking, homebrewing see surge in popularity
Lou Cameli remembers hearing stories while growing up of the box car filled with wine grapes arriving in town.
The engine would stop at the Mahanoy City train station on the edge of town and upon unloading, each person who ordered a portion of the grapes would take their share home, he recalled being told as a boy.
The grapes were destined to be transformed into wine by families who made vino on their properties.
Like many Italians throughout this region, they made their own, just like they did in Italy before immigrating to the United States, Cameli said.
In the late 1940s, while in high school, he remembers helping a neighbor lady make her wine from scratch. The "old Italian lady," he said, would make wine in her basement - about seven barrels each year.
It was a very dry, very red wine, he said.
The woman would crush and press the grapes for their juice and then let the juice ferment in barrels.
Once the wine was aged enough, it was bottled in quarts and sold for $1 in her basement, which operated sort of like a speak-easy. Cameli, Hazleton, said people would gather to drink her wine, smoke stogies, mingle and play cards.
Some years the wines were delicious, he recalled, and sometimes her customers would complain it was too sour or dry.
A lot of basements in town ran that way, he said, and everyone in town knew about the operation.
Pressed for grapes
Cameli would go on to work in the brew house at Kaier's Brewery in Mahanoy City for 13 years, until the year before it closed.
Back then brewing was his job, but now, decades later, it's his hobby.
His daughter bought him a winemaking kit for Christmas four years ago and at the age of 75 he began making his own wine, joining many others who carry on the tradition in their homes today.
Although wine and beer making were part of his early days, Cameli still considers himself an amateur winemaker. He said although his wine is made with a kit, it's similar tasting to wines made from scratch, where grapes are crushed to begin the process. Cameli said he skips the grape-crushing step and uses fruit concentrate to start his wine, but has the same end result.
He produces the wine for family gifts in his basement, where unlike the home of the woman he helped in his youth, nobody is buying the wine, smoking stogies or playing cards.
"It's not too time-consuming," he said of winemaking, "and once you get started, in no time at all you're learning the process."
Cameli said his family members are the benefactors of the fruits of his labor.
"You make a lot of people happy," he added.
He said although it's expensive to get started, the cost eventually pays off. He can make his own wine for about $3 or $4 per bottle, compared to the same types of wines bought for $9 and $10.
He keeps a log of his wines in a notebook, noting the first batch he made was White Zinfandel, followed by a Merlot and Pinot Grigio.
While sporting a bottle of his apple Reisling, Cameli said it's almost time to make another round of wine.
Tom Gabos said the Greater Hazleton Historical Society Museum on North Wyoming Street in Hazleton has an old wine press among is collection of local historic artifacts. He believes the rustic, wooden press dates to the 1940s or 1950s.
Growing up in Hazleton, Gabos, like Cameli, recalled hearing stories about families that made their own wine. As a young man learning the electrician trade with his grandfather, he also recalls many people not only paying his grandfather in cash but with bottles of wine as well.
He said back then mostly Italian and Tyrolean families made wine in Hazleton, and that many of them had extensive gardens that included grapes that could be used for winemaking. Gabos said while looking at old pictures of Hazleton homes, it's not too uncommon to see an expansive grapevine winding its way through a trellis in someone's back yard.
Bill Minor, Quakake, has been making his own wine for about three years. He said he always had an interest in it and found out how to concoct a good batch after stopping at Simply Homebrew in Drums, a local home-brew supply shop. Minor said he relied on Simply Homebrew's guidance and knowledge to get started.
"We took a new winemaker and made him a pro," owner Pete Aiello said.
Aiello said the business on state Route 309 at Honey Hole Road also allows customers to make their own wine at the shop.
Minor makes his wine at home but was at the store sifting through custom labels for his bottles of wine, some of which were given to someone for the holidays and others saved for another special occasion. He said he finds homemade wine is very good, if not better than wine purchased at stores, because winemakers can customize the taste to their liking.
Brews band together
Although winemaking has experienced a resurgence in popularity, according to those who do it, home-brewed beers are becoming popular as well.
Joe Tulanowski, vice president of one of the area's home-brew clubs, the Luzerne County Brewers, said people's intrigue grew as the popularity of craft beers increased. Craft beer, or microbrews, are typically made by small-scale brewers.
As Minor was upstairs at Simply Homebrew working on wine labels, Tulanowski and a few others were making beer in the basement.
He also was teaching two new brewers, father and son Bill Orth, Sugarloaf, and Derek Orth, New Jersey, who were looking for something fun to do. It was brew day, a process that takes between two and six hours, Tulanowski said.
At the time, he was mashing grains into hot water, as part of the process to make an American India Pale Ale, or IPA, which is a "showcase" for hops, an ingredient in beer, he said.
"Craft beer is the new wine," he said, and making your own allows the brewer to ensure the freshness of the beer and cater its features to his liking.
People want to know what is in their food and beverages and where it comes from, Tulanowski said, and making beer or wine allows them to do that.
Mike Velo-Zorzi, Mountaintop, and Alex Sterenchock, Drums, both found their way to home brewing and the home-brew club through their curiosity. Both looked on as Tulanowski created the new batch, discussing techniques and the flavors being infused into the beer.
Velo-Zorzi said craft beer has experienced a boom from about 1995 to the present.
He started brewing in January and believes there is an "involvement" and "evolvement" of people not only to eat better foods, but to drink better beers.
Sterenchock said he gained interest in home brewing by sampling craft brews and found the hobby fun. He's been doing it for three years.
Tulanowski wanted to brew beer since his late teens, he said, and when he turned 21 he purchased his first home-brew kit. That was 20 years ago and it's still his hobby.
His club formed in May and is based in southern Luzerne County. Its members meet at 7 p.m. the second Monday of every month at Evans Roadhouse in Butler Township and they always welcome new members.
They gather to discuss beer, home-brew recipes and techniques, and the club's various events. They also put on demonstrations and classes throughout the year and organize tours of breweries.
Club members are bound by the love of good beer, Tulanowski said, and the meetings help home brewers perfect their recipes and the way they brew.
He said there really is a science behind brewing and for those who like to build, they can also build their own brewing devices.
Tulanowski encourages people interested in home brewing to contact any local brew club to begin their journey.