Shortly after Kathleen Petretta married her husband Giovanni, she realized he was homesick.
Her husband had been a winemaker with his family in Santo Stefano del Sole in Avellino, a mountainous village located in the “ankle” region of Italy’s “boot.”
In 1980, an earthquake severely damaged the town, causing Giovanni to come to the United States.
While the winemaker had begun a new career as a decorative painter -a skill he was taught in Italy -Kathleen asked him to tell her what was causing his sadness. Giovanni told her he missed the old-age winemaking traditions that were his ancestors’ specialty.
That led the Petrettas to become the proud owners of the new business Santo Stefano Winemaking Club in the Town of Wappinger.
Named after Giovanni Petretta’s hometown, the entrepreneurial venture entailed a million dollar investment that includes the renovation of the Twin Lakes Sportman’s facility into a wine storage building/hall and the creation of a unique concept to the mid-Hudson Valley -hands-on winemaking open to the public.
“Giovanni’s grandmother told me in tears recently that she feels ‘the circle is complete again’ with the opening of our business,” said Kathleen Petretta, who acts as the business managing director.
Here’s how it works:
Members of the club are guided through Giovanni Petretta’s old fashioned traditions of making wine by the cycles of the moon -he doesn’t use sulfites, which act as a preservative. The benefit of no sulfites is an all-natural wine, the elimination of next-day hangovers and better taste, Kathleen said. Also, some people are allergic to sulfites.
The process begins in September or October, with a feast during which members, if they choose to, get to crush grapes into juice with their feet -and the majority do, according to the owners.
The fermentation is handled by Giovanni Petretta, who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Italy. On a daily basis, he monitors the progress of the wine until that summer, when club members can schedule a final session for the bottling and custom labeling of their wine.
Connecticut-based certified public account Fred Landwehr signed up his office staff to participate. In mid-September, 20 of his employees and their spouses will crush grapes and dine at the club as part of a corporate team building event.
“I like wine. I used to drink it, but the sulfites always gave me headaches,” Landwehr said. “Giovanni brought me a bottle of his wine and I thought it was terrific. No headaches the next day.”
Kathleen Petretta, a former special education early intervention therapist, said their wine club customers are treated as part of the family.
“We are simply emphasizing a point we truly feel strongly about – that the making of wine as a group or family is as important as the wine made itself,” said the mother of three, between the ages 15 and 2.
She was living in Westchester County when she needed a painter and called Giovanni Petretta, who came highly recommended, she said.
“You should see the murals he has painted in the kids’ rooms,” she added.
The couple now commute an hour from their home in Connecticut to their southern Dutchess County business. Kathleen Petretta feels it’s well worth the drive. She said the location, just south of Dutchess County Airport, was a good fit because the community appreciates “well-made, handcrafted goods.”
Winemaking club prices vary. You purchase a wine aging barrel (good for four years) or rent one (for the year).
Membership plus a French oak barrel costs $4,494 or an American oak barrel is $3,994. Renting a barrel equals between a $400 and $150 savings.
Each barrel yields about 288 bottles of wine or about 24 cases and membership can be split between as many as six people. The fees equal out to about $15 to $12 per bottle.
Included with membership are grapes (which come from California and are hand selected by Giovanni Petretta), bottles, cork, customized labels, climate-controlled storage and daily monitoring.
“The soil in California is very similar to what Giovanni is used to in Italy,” Kathleen Petretta said.
The owners will also store the wine and ship it out to members for free.
Members can pick from popular wine varietals and blends like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, “Vino Patrino” (a blend of Cabernet, Petite Syrah and Merlot) and “In Like Flynn” (a sweet, sparkling white blend). Or, they can create their own blend.
The Petrettas have their wines available for people to taste.
“I think it’s a great idea. It’s something we need in this area,” said Gina Scotto, who joined the club with her family. “I’m looking forward the experience of it and the wine of course.”
Scotto feels the investment is worth it.
“You pay $15 a bottle at the liquor store and you don’t know what you are getting,” said Scotto, 37-year-old Highland resident.
Kathleen Petretta thought her husband was the “kook of the century” when they first started dating. She would ask him to take her out and he would say, ‘OK, unless it’s a quarter moon.’ If it was, he’d have to move his wines,” she recounted. Now she understands how weather and even the moon can affect the wine process.
“During stormy weather the wine moves in the barrel. When the fermentation happens, and there’s a full moon, it ferments faster. That’s how he learned. That’s what we do. It’s highly inconvenient in terms of a business model,” she said. But it’s the quality of wine that benefits, she added.
During their recent grand opening celebration hosted by the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Joe Lepore toured the facility.
“I think it’s wonderful. I think a lot of people are going to explore winemaking with Giovanni. A lot of people are interested in wine these days,” said Lepore, president of L.C.S. Facility Maintenance in the City of Poughkeepsie. “We make tomato sauce every year – it’s making something with your hands. You feel so proud of it.”
The building will also serve as a rental for family celebrations, corporate events, pre-wedding festivities, etc. It was “a dump” and was completely redone, Giovanni Petretta said. The Petrettas used all-natural sustainable materials, triple insulated the walls and windows and purchased Energy Star appliances.
“We want the wine to be surrounded by only healthy materials and protected in a way that is also good for the environment,” Kathleen Petretta said.
Santo Stefano Winemaking Club in Wappinger might not be Giovanni’s hometown – where every night the villagers dress in their best clothes and come out to the piazza to play cards and tell stories, Kathleen Petretta said. But it is a piece of home the Petrettas are looking forward to sharing.