The Santa Fe rail yards, abandoned warehouses, and dusty streets near Ashland and the South Branch of the Chicago River seem empty, but just past dawn on this early Sunday morning Santa-Fe Grapes, 2733 S. Ashland, is bustling with customers.
"Come on in and taste the grapes." Paul Alleruzzo gestures to a stocky, gray-haired man as he walks across the yard toward a tractor trailer. He climbs a ladder and opens a wooden packing crate embossed with a watercolor label showing a woman working in the fields at dawn, a scene right out of Steinbeck. "See if you like them," he says, pulling several bunches out of the crate. "If you do, you can come back and buy more Monday."
He hands the bunch down to the gray-haired man, who takes an unlit cigar out of his mouth and samples a few grapes. "Good," he says, nodding.
Alleruzzo, a short, thin man with cheeks glazed purple and pink by the sun, smiles. At 78, the man they call "the Dean of Randolph Street" is still part of the autumn ritual of the Ashland wine-grape market, just as he has been for 66 years. "I started helping my father sell wine grapes, the special grapes grown to be pressed into homemade wine, back in 1927," he says. "At that time they all came in by railroad cars straight from Lodi, Modesto, Sonoma, and other vineyards in California. We used to sell 20 to 25 railcar loads a day, because all the old-timers used to make their own wine. Now we're lucky to sell 35 in a whole season."
Alleruzzo enters his "office," a cozy trailer parked on the north end of the lot. "Back then all the old Italians, Poles, Germans, and Yugoslavs used to make their own wine, like they did back home. And besides, that was during the days of Prohibition, so a lot of the folks were making bootleg wine."
He smiles and laughs to himself. "The business of making homemade wine got so popular that the government came in and regulated it. Every person who bought grapes or a winepress had to fill out a certificate saying that they were only allowed 200 gallons per family. But they beat it. People would mail in the certificates from their kid's house or their brother's house. It got so bad that the government agents would go around to the immigrants' basements and shoot holes in barrels to drain out the wine."
The phone rings. After a short conversation Alleruzzo steps out of the trailer. "Mario," he yells to a short, olive-skinned man with a thick brush mustache. "Mr. Placinovich wants four boxes."
Alleruzzo walks across the yard toward another trailer of old charred-oak barrels filled with wine juice, pressed grapes that need only to be fermented and aged. "There are still a lot of people in the area making homemade wine, mostly new and old European immigrants. But the interest in brewing and microbreweries is attracting more and more young people. But it's nothing like it was. In those days people would come in horse and wagons, old Model T Fords."
He rubs his chilled hands. "On mornings like this we'd have fires going in barrels. I remember Ernie Gallo came here selling grapes from his vineyard. It was November, and he didn't have an overcoat. So I went to Maxwell Street and bought him one for ten dollars. He never forgot that, and we've been good friends since."
Alleruzzo, whose "regular" job is selling flowers at B.A. Florist and Nursery on West Randolph, watches a large brown Oldsmobile pull through the gravel. "Hello young man," he cries out to a white-haired man.
The two shake hands, then climb into a third trailer filled with five-gallon plastic jugs that are exact replicas of Chianti containers. "I don't like the plastic," says the white-haired man. "Wood is better."
"You wanna buy wood?" says Alleruzzo. "We'll sell you the wood barrel. No problem."
The two men walk into a trailer filled with wood barrels. Alleruzzo points to a price list written on a piece of cardboard that's taped to the side of the trailer. "I tell you what," he says. "I'll give a special price for you--$60."
The man nods, and the money changes hands. Alleruzzo writes out a receipt and watches the man load several barrels into his car.
"It's kind of like the League of Nations out here," Alleruzzo says. "We have people coming in that are Italian, Croatian, German, Serbs, Jewish people, Poles, blacks, Hispanics. That's why I've been out here for 66 years. I love the wine. I love talking to all the different people. I could be home watching television, but why should I leave here? This is my life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.