Columns by John

John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly

Meatballs, wine and the big hit

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 in this space before, wine was a part of everyday living back then, and an integral component of family meals, particularly the large gatherings after Mass on Sundays at Grandma Iaquinta's home.

Since my family produced their own homemade wine each year, I was able to observe and sometimes assist in the menial labor aspects of wine making.  These experiences certainly formed the foundation for my life long 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 and 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 socio-economic roll of the dice had not favored our fathers and uncles, Maxflies or Titleists were not an option. No sireee. 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, West (By God) Virginia.

A Tape ball game required only one pitcher and one batter, but no more than two persons per side.  The rules mimicked  baseball with a few caveats.  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 only required  a homemade ball, a broomstick and players.

So as I  struggled to resolve the problem and 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.
The Greenbrier and Opus One
Wine for heat seekers !