MADISON, Conn. — It’s May 18, 2015. I’m crawling on grass-stained, blistered knees in 80 degree weather at Bauer Park here, picking the last of spring’s inaugural dandelions. I’ve chosen this sprawling field because it is free of herbicides and pesticides and packed with the ubiquitous “weed.” My children collected hundreds of dandelions here the day before, but the flowers shriveled before I separated the yellow blossoms from the green bases, and I reluctantly threw most of them away. By the time I am done, I have gathered thousands of flowers, which will yield one gallon of petals.
Many months later, these petals are transformed into wine that looks like golden sunlight and tastes like springtime. It is light and simple, with no complexity and no sweetness. A delicate liquor with hints of grass and green apple.
I became captivated by the idea of dandelion wine last year as part of an ongoing journey to unearth my Italian American culture. In my family, the carriers of the old ways have long passed, without a record of their traditions. And so I’m seeking a record from others.
Dandelion wine is by no means an exclusively Italian American tradition. It has strong roots in Europe, as well as a multitude of ethnic and regional cultures in the United States, including Appalachian. Like many other “country” (non-grape) wines, it is composed of easily found and inexpensive ingredients.
In order to make the wine, you must pick at the onset of the dandelion season, which fluctuates, depends on the weather, sometime between early April and May. Although dandelions grow throughout the summer, after the early spring crop they quickly turn to seed heads. There is then only this very limited annual window in which to make the wine. Which, for me, makes it more special.
Last spring, after picking the flowers, a friend and I spent hours upon hours separating the yellow blossoms from the bitter green bases, a painstaking task that must take place quickly, before the flowers shrivel and dehydrate. I then stored the blossoms in my refrigerator in order to slow the decay of the flavor and aroma. The next day, I arrived at Brew & Wine Hobby in East Hartford, Conn., with a gallon bucket of petals for a winemaking lesson from co-owner Rich Loomis. As a boy, Loomis often visited his grandparents in their New Britain, Conn., home. There were many Italians on their street, including “Aunt Cille,” whose dandelion wine he remembers sneaking a taste of.
These are the basic steps Loomis showed me: Boil water in a large pot, pack dandelions into a nylon bag, and submerge in the hot water (the water immediately turns a beautiful golden yellow and grows bolder in color the longer the blossoms steep). Next, add sugar (Loomis prefers beet sugar over table since it is less processed). Add lemon peel (and/or other citrus) and, finally, raisins (optional). Next, the brew cools, and yeast is added.
The raisins incorporate tannins and thus more flavor, while the acid from the lemon helps the light, sweet flavors of the wine to “pop.” We used Champagne yeast, which Loomis explains is similar to the wild yeast native to New England.
Two weeks later, the wine was done fermenting. At that point, we added a Campden (sulfite) tablet, a potent antioxidant that allows the wine to age much longer and keeps it from spoiling. Although it was ready for drinking about four months later, we waited until last month to open it. The result was a light, delicate wine with 9 percent alcohol.
But it is the stories about dandelion wine more than the taste of it that steep me in its Italian American mythology. Carol Rossi, 71, of Natick is the State Trustee and Charity commissioner of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts of the Order Sons of Italy in America. Rossi recalled growing up with her first-generation father, Joseph DeFilipo, in the early 1950s outside of Albany: “As a little girl in the spring, when everybody’s lawns started to green up, my dad would send me outside with the forked tool you use to dig up dandelions. . . . When I was done getting the dandelions from my lawn, I would go to the neighbor’s lawns. I would put them in a little bucket, and when the bucket was full, I’d come back come and empty it in a big vat that my dad had, and then I’d go back out again.” She loved eating dandelion greens, she said. “And so my reward was for dinner for the next couple of nights, I’d have dandelion salad. I’d mix the salad with oil and vinegar and garlic, and they’d give me a big hunk of Italian bread.”
Pasquale (“Pat”) Fico, 73, of New Haven picked the dandelions with his stepfather, Louis DelVasto, in the late ’40s and early ’50s. “We’d ride around,” he said. “We’d find a field on the side of the road where there was a big lot — places where nowadays you go by the same spot and there’s a commuter parking lot — so we’d see an abundance of dandelions, and he’d say, ‘This is a good spot to start picking!’ ”
Tennessee resident Donna Cyr grew up in West Springfield and learned to make dandelion wine from her grandfather, who learned from the Italian men in his neighborhood. She remembers in the early 1960s, “they would meet down at the Verdi Club and play bocce and try each other’s wine.”
Dandelion wine is, at its essence, a communal activity. One best suited to a group of people working together. A family, a community. The act of making it yearns both toward a past that no longer exists, and a present I want to create.
Chris Massaro, 43, of East Haven, Conn., captures it well: “While I’m at work, I have my kids go outside and pick all the blossoms — and when I get home we do it together. I’m trying to bring them up ‘old school.’ We make the cured meats, we make wine, we make everything. I’m trying to bring tradition back. . . . It involves a lot of work, and people of our generation are too busy with their lives. They don’t have the time to do it. You have to make the time.”
Brew & Wine Hobby offers weekly classes by appointment, or purchase 1 Gallon Equipment ($38.95) and Ingredient ($27.95) kits online. 12 Cedar St., East Hartford, Conn., 860-528-0592, www.brew-wine.com.
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @foodiefatale.