I am going to tell you a story that will warm your heart.
A story that spans six generations.
A story of tradition.
And a story that started with a bucket of grapes.
About 100 years ago, one Charlie Finkelstein arrived in a small provincial town in the Cape Province in South Africa. Just before his Bar Mitzvah, his parents had shipped him out of Kelim, Lithuania to his uncle in Chicago – to escape conscription into the Russian army. Some years later, the lure of the booming Ostrich feather industry drew Charlie to Oudtshoorn where he settled. He and wife Esther were blessed with a son, Judah, and a daughter, Zelda.
A beautiful memory from the old country was the sweet Sabbath wine that his parents made every year, and he had the recipe. As the years passed, the wine making became his family’s tradition and he passed it on to his son Judah.
I was thrilled to meet Judah and his lovely wife Bernice last year and I wanted to tell their story. They now live in Sydney and I know their kids and some of their grandkids and heard about their legendary ‘Wine Day’. I sat down with Judah (aka Grandpa) and Bernice (aka Granny) a few weeks ago (over a bottle of their wine!) to talk about their beautiful and strong family tradition. Each year, just before Pesach (Passover), the entire family – and that is four generations here in Australia – get together to make wine.
The Wine Day takes weeks to arrange. The plastic beer barrels (easier than wooden wine barrels) are washed and sterilised. They drive out early to the Flemington Markets to buy the grapes, always with a couple of each of the younger generation in tow. They find the enormous grape transport trucks from South Australia and spend at least an hour walking from truck to truck, sampling, asking opinions and finally deciding. They want juicy, fresh and sweet. Last year it was muscat, grenache and shiraz. This year, who knows?
When Wine Day arrives, the whole huge extended family (and any interested friends!) meet early at Grandpa and Granny’s who have already set everything up, including a lavish breakfast. Energy is required for the task ahead. And then the wine making begins. They head down to the garage at street level and divide into groups. Each group gathers around large bowls and buckets of grapes. With bare hands, everyone squishes and squeezes as much juice out of the grapes as possible. The littlest apprentices are allowed to use their feet, which – I was happy to hear – are always washed first. (There is laughter and chatter and joy in the air. Lots of it.) The juice is poured into the barrels. The grapes are then pulled off the stalks and added to the juice in the barrels. Sugar is then added (and recently much debate has ensued about the quantity of sugar) and stirred vigorously. The recipe calls for grapes and sugar only; the wine needs to be suitable for Passover which prohibits the use of leavening agents such as yeast. Unsurprisingly, by this time, everyone is wet, sticky, and sugary sweet from head to toe. Literally.
Each and every member of the family loves this day. When I visited them in 2021, mid-squishing, the joy on their faces was incredible. They tell me it always ends up with the garden hose in full use. And their hard work is always rewarded with some delicious ‘nibblies’ up in the house when it’s all done.
The barrels are carried to Grandpa’s cellar where he watches over them daily for the first week, tasting and stirring. It usually takes about six weeks for the fermentation to be effective, when the grape juice becomes wine. The wine is only bottled as required and Grandpa sees to it that everyone is well supplied throughout the year. They have a gorgeous, bright and colourful label designed for them by an artist friend and I have to say (especially if – as I am – you are a lover of sweet sacramental wine) it is really delicious.
Bernice and Judah’s wish is that their 4 children, 11 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren (and more on the way!) enthusiastically carry on and pass down this sweet and juicy tradition for generations to come. After meeting the family and seeing the joy in their eyes as they tell the stories of years gone by, I have no doubt their wish will come true.
I will be sharing the Finkelstein 2022 Wine Day on @mondaymorningcc’s Instagram Live at around 8.30 am on Sunday 10th April. Hope to see you then!