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Gritty Bridgeport Offering Some of California's Best Grapes This Month

By Casey Cora | October 9, 2013 6:25am
 Bridgeport grape sellers have all the goods for winemaking at home.
Bridgeport Wine
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BRIDGEPORT — With Bubbly Creek and some old factories nearby, the setting is not exactly the rolling hills and lush landscapes of Napa Valley.

But the wine grapes currently for sale by the truckload by Santa Fe Grape Distributors at the corner of 35th Street and Racine Avenue are some of the best California has to offer.

The thousands of pounds of grape varietals will be available to grape enthusiasts through approximately Oct. 20

"We make a little extra buck for the year. No big deal," said Mario Coglianese, 60, a retired city streets and sanitation department worker who sells the grapes from a trailer office, where he stores all manner of wine knick-knacks, including light-up plastic grapevines dangling from the roof.

Coglianese and his crew open up the trailers to the public each September because that's when the grapes produce the best amount of sugar for winemaking. Available in 36-pound cases, the grapes are offered in more than a dozen varieties, including cabernet, sangiovese, merlot, zinfandel, chardonnay and many more. This year, they'll sell roughly 25 truckloads of them.

Prices range from $37 to $48 per case. After the grapes are pressed, each case will yield a little less than three gallons of wine.

Coglianese, of Bridgeport, has helped run Santa Fe since the 1980s, when he went to work for his friend, owner Paul Alleruzzo.

Alleruzzo, the longtime owner of a West Loop floral shop who was known as the "Dean of Randolph Street," died in 2010. His son-in-law, Dennis Karas, now owns both businesses. 

Santa Fe Grape Distributors was originally founded in the 1930s near a railyard in what was then an Italian enclave at Archer and Princeton avenues, Coglianese said. The company then moved to the Chicago Produce Terminal at 27th Street and Ashland Avenue before moving across Ashland to Canal Origins Park, where the grape sellers shared space with watermelon and shrimp vendors.

In 2000, Coglianese and Alleruzzo moved the business to a vacant lot in Bridgeport, where a steady stream of customers drive in everyday to shop for grapes stored within refrigerated trailers arriving directly from California.

The relationship between the west coast farmers and Chicago sellers was forged decades ago by Alleruzzo, who according to a Sun-Times story following his death, befriended the families behind the Mondavi and Gallo wine empires.

The prices and the quality are what brought buddies Ivek Halic and Drew Kemper out to the yard on a recent weekday. The pair, next door neighbors in suburban Burr Ridge, said they watched Halic's father make wine for years and recently decided to try their hand at the hobby. 

"We used to smash the grapes when we were kids. No we have an actual grinder. It's a little more sanitary," said Halic.

Already, they've made cabernet sauvignon, merlot and a chardonnay so good Halic's eyes light up when he talks about it. This time around, they've bought 14 cases of red and white grapes to make rosé.

Santa Fe also sells a full range of equipment for winemaking enthusiasts, from spigots and funnels to corks and a custom-made $2,000 press that will net enough grape juice to fill an oak aging barrel, which the company also sells.

Employees say winemaking isn't quite a lost art — business remains brisk, especially on weekends — but it does take a do-it-yourself work ethic and a little patience.

Longtime employee Rich Karas said customers include a lot of old-timers and construction workers who get rained out. Mondays are "barber days," so named for the days when local old-school barbers close their shops and browse grapes.

For those looking for an easier job, the company also sells gallons of grape juice — that's the juice from already-pressed grapes sold in big pails.

Those are popular with the younger crowds "who don't want to get dirty with the grapes but they all want to drink the wine," Rich Karas said.

Santa Fe Grape Distributors at 35th Street and Racine Avenue is open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily.