CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I am often asked what prompted my interest in wine. The answer goes back to my childhood and the influence of my Italian immigrant grandparents and relatives.As I have recounted before, wine was a part of everyday living then, and an integral component of family meals, particularly the large gatherings after Mass on Sundays at Grandma Iaquinta's home.Because my family produced their own homemade wine each year, I was able to observe and sometimes assist in the menial tasks of winemaking. These experiences formed the foundation for my lifelong affair with the vine.However, one particular (almost magical) incident involving wine, food and sport may have been the catalyst.A stroke of genius! That's what I like to think it was that sunny afternoon in the fall of 1956.I had been trying to find something that would provide just the right weight to form the core of a tape ball. Stones or rocks were simply too heavy, paper too light and soft. I had just stroked the tape ball we had been using along the ground into a curb storm drain. In rather colorful language, my two older cousins graphically described the consequences that would ensue if I did not immediately replace the lost orb.A golf ball would have been perfect but, because the socioeconomic roll of the dice had not favored our fathers and uncles, Maxflies or Titleists were not an option. No sirree. If it wasn't a baseball, softball or bocce ball, we weren't playing it.This was beer-drinking, homemade wine-swilling and parlay-betting country where Mickey Mantle and Rocky Marciano were the heroes of the day, and where kids like us spent warm afternoons playing our version of the national pastime along the streets of North View, the working-class and ethnically diverse neighborhood of Clarksburg.A tape ball game required only one pitcher and one batter, but no more than two players per side. The rules mimicked baseball, with a few adaptations. Cleanly fielded grounders and caught fly balls counted as outs, as did one swing and a miss. There were three outs to an inning, but no bases.
It was simply a nine-inning game of pitching, hitting and keeping score with disputed calls settled by the loudest and largest players. Hitting the ball over Mrs. Mazza's five-foot hedge was an undisputed home run. A minimalist and inexpensive sport, the game required only a homemade ball and a broomstick.So as I struggled to resolve the problem and to avoid bodily harm, I was struck by an idea so novel that I was confident I had the perfect solution. Sneaking into the kitchen of my Aunt Notie's apartment, I opened the small freezer compartment of the old Kelvinator and extracted the perfectly cylindrical answer to my problem.Aunt Notie was a gifted cook whose meatballs were the stuff of culinary legend. It was said, she could make a garlic clove sing. Surely she would not miss one frozen meatball, I thought, and sacrilegiously snatched the circular little treasure that had sealed my aunt's reputation in our neighborhood as the "meatball queen."It felt just right and, as I wrapped the white adhesive tape around the frozen meatball, I realized that with stealth, cunning and courage I could provide our gang with an endless supply of tape ball cores. Proudly, I returned to the game where the new tape ball was an immediate and literal hit. For an hour, we pounded it, smacked it and sent it soaring through the air, and it performed flawlessly.But then fate stepped in. Standing at the plate, I whacked a hanging curve (meat) ball with a tremendous stroke and lofted it at least 100 feet in the air. At the apex of its trajectory, the ball began a rapid descent toward earth. Like some miniature asteroid with my future etched on it, the small round object streaked into a vat of fermenting red wine.My grandfather, who was stirring and punching down the cap of the fermenting grapes, was startled by the impact, which immediately splashed and stained his upper torso purple. Reaching into the vat, he fished out the broken, meatball-oozing tape ball, sniffed it and said in his broken English:
"Eat-sa rain meat-a-balls!"The rest is history.For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.