Masters of an ancient tradition


Meet Harrison’s very own “Little Old Winemaker” – Vincent Franco.

He may be diminutive in stature but when it comes to knowing his way around the grapes, there are few his equal.

Proof [no pun intended] of that skill is evidenced by the retired educator’s having been awarded a silver medal for the “red blend” category in the 17th annual Corrado’s Amateur Winemaking Competition.

That was all the more impressive since it marked Franco’s first-ever entry in the annual contest in which, by the way, another Harrisonian — Interim Schools Superintendent Fred Confessore — won a bronze medal for his entry in the same category.

Typically, the competition draws more than 1,500 submissions annually and the proceeds go to support research on juvenile diabetes, so it’s all for a good cause.

Franco, who served in various roles during his 44 years in the Harrison public school system and now sits on the Board of Education, first learned about wine-making from his father Michael Franco in the mid-1930s.

“Around Columbus Day in October, we’d go to Newark to buy the grapes, which came in by train from California, and bring them home to Jersey St. where we lived then,” Franco said. And the magic took place in the basement.

“The first step was crushing the grapes: you’d dump them in a vat and crank them. Enough to fill one 50-gallon barrel. Then you’d wait about 10 days for the wine to boil off. All the juice would be at the bottom and the grape patches would float to the top.

“Next step was pressing the crushed grape. For that, my dad would improvise by using a car jack and a pile of bricks. Depending on the volume of grapes, that could take two to three hours to half a day.

“Then came racking. My dad would put the end of a hose into the bottom of the barrel and siphon out the juice into a separate barrel and wait for the sediment to sink to the bottom. You’d take that juice, combine it with the pressed juice in a barrel, and leave it to ferment for five months. Then the wine would be ready for bottling.”

Michael Franco continued the process until his passing in 1978 and, at that point, Vincent said winemaking came to a halt in the Franco household.

It wasn’t until 2009 — when Vincent’s son Lance gave him a gift certificate to purchase the equipment — that Franco’s interest in wine-making was rekindled and he enlisted his son, along with nephews Kevin, Michael and Kevin Sullivan, and close friend Mark Balogh as his teammates.

The team set up shop in a rented warehouse space in Wallington to conduct their enterprise in vino.

“Grandpa Franco would have been very proud of his son and four grandsons for continuing something very important to his life,” Vincent said.

Ultimately, with encouragement from fellow educator, family friend and veteran wine-maker Confessore, the effort led to Franco’s contest entry and medal for a blend of 2014 Muscato/Grenache/Zinfandel “light red table wine.”

For his part, Confessore said that Kearny buddy James Santomauro introduced him to the festivities at Corrado’s. “I enjoyed the events and liked the idea of doing it as a hobby so I decided to do it at home,” he said, initially pairing with Jersey City acquaintance Franco Guadadiello to learn more about the craft from 2000 to 2003.

Then, for the next three years, he worked alone, picking up a bronze medal for his Chardonnay, before rejoining Guadadiello and picking up a new partner, Ray Obiso of Old Bridge.

Since then, the medals have come at a furious pace each year, with the most recent in recognition of his team’s 2013 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot.

“Franco has been key to my success, along with Ray,” Confessore said.

Also a big boost, he said, was “having a science background” as an educator, especially when it comes to checking the acidity, sugar and temperature levels of the wine during the manufacturing process.

During fermentation, for example, if the mixture is too cold, the naturally forming yeast won’t eat the sugar and if it’s too hot, the tannin (flavor) can be adversely affected, he said.

Confessore makes “six or seven” different wine blends and, of those, his personal favorite is a 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

Both Confessore and Franco enjoy making gifts of their brand wines to friends and family during the year as long as the supply lasts.

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