Russell Publications

northern Illinois, July 17, 2008

This article appeared in these 10 newspapers on the same day:

Steger News

Grant Park Gazette

Peotone Vedette

Beecher Herald

New Lenox Community Reporter

Monee Monitor

Crete Record

Manhattan American

Frankfort Neue Presse

Manteno News

 

A Vintage Life

by Regina Nuttall

"THESE ARE MY father's grapes', said Frank Cassara, 78, showing grapevines on his land in Crete. 'He planted them back in the late 1940s. You see how heavy and bushy they are'. Cassara owns Easy Street Vineyard and has over two acres of wines with numerous varieties of grapes. aid showing some big plants. Old vines have very high -quality grapes, and all the other vines he has today he grew from their cuttings.

-photo by Regina Nuttall

 

CASSARA checks the sugar levels with an instrument called a refractometer.

Photo by Regina Nuttall

 

Thirteen years ago Frank Cassara retired and moved from Chicago to Crete, into his family's summer house.

Nobody had lived there for years.

His parents had often brought the kids there for weekends. Later on he brought his own children.

In 1997 Cassara, while clearing brush on the property, discovered the grapevines his father had planted back in the late 1940's.

He decided to try growing them and that's how Easy Street Vineyard started.

Today at 78 years old Cassara has over 2 acres of vines with numerous varieties of grapes. Last year he harvested 2 tons of grapes from his 2 acres of residential land. The wine he makes from those grapes is sold under the Easy Street label at several local stores.

Frank doesn't believe that a high price necessarily means a good wine. Two weeks ago he tasted Cabernet Sauvignon for $ 200 a bottle.

 

"I wouldn't give you 2 cents for it. I go by the taste. If I don't like it, I don't like it. Very often people claim they taste cherries...this...and that...I think if I like it- it's good. I don't care what is in it.

Let's say last years grapes were excellent.", Cassara continued. "The next year the same wine from the same grapes might not be as good. It depends on the weather, conditions, watering, bugs. How much disease they will get"

There are people who come and ask for a wine recipe. Cassara tells them that everybody has his own system. There are many books out there if you look for them.

If somebody wants to learn how to make good wine, Cassara recommends visiting "The Wild Blossom" at 10033 S.Western Ave. Chicago or calling them at 773-233-7579. The Wild Blossom gives classes to the public and sell all the supplies you need. Their website address is: www.bevart.com.

Cassara keeps learning. He goes to conventions, to weekend events. They are held in the Chicago suburbs, or sometimes in Peoria.

"You want something different and you get questions. I know nothing. I'm learning all the time from my own mistakes", he says.

Cassara doesn't understand wine snobs who go by the label or the current fashion, he said.

Illinois grows grapes, why not buy locally made wine?

This winemaker doesn't buy any grapes from outside sources but he is constantly experimenting with the 11 varieties he grows.

If Cassara doesn't have enough of one, he uses a little of another, blends them together and makes his table red. The same with whites. These table wines can be very different from year to year depending on the harvest.

"Otherwise to make 3 bottles of this and 4 bottles of that- doesn't make any sense to me", he said.

When he gets an exceptionally big harvest, he sets up his own farm stand in his driveway. Local people will come and buy grapes for jams and jellies. It looks like this summer will be bountiful.

It isn't easy to take care of a thousand grape vines. Japanese beetles are a big problem but he has learned from experience that it's better to avoid beetle traps.

"Put them on somebody's else's tree", he joked.

The truth is that Japanese beetles are attracted to the traps from as much as 15 miles away. Instead he sprays 3 times a season with "Sevin". It works and doesn't hurt the plant, but it's necessary to stop a month before harvesting.

It is impossible to grow grapes organically he said.

People very often ask him questions. They have a small space in their back yards want to try growing some grape vines and making their own wine. They always ask what variety they should buy.

Cassara says most vine grapes are delicate, very susceptible to disease and someone trying to grow them needs to be very careful. Concord grapes however will grow anywhere and you can make a good wine from them.

 

"I DON"T DRINK every day',said Frank Cassara walking in his winery with his niece Babe' 'Lots of wine, you don't have cravings'. Babe lives next door and helps Cassara and his wife, Shirley, with whatever they need.

photo by Regina Nuttall

 

He smiles when somebody asks how many plants are necessary to make 3 gallons of homemade wine. He talks about pounds. From 30 pounds you get 5 or 6 gallons of wine. From one Concord vine it isn't unusual to harvest 10 pounds of grapes.

Another question he often gets is about soil.

"You need to have good drainage, that's essential for grapes. And, what is good drainage" he questioned, pointing to the sloping ground. "The way it runs from the top down. That's what you call drainage".

There is another important factor for making wine: That is, how much sugar is in the grape.

Good wine grapes contain up to 21 percent sugar, but birds love them. If he does not carefully protect the fruit, birds could clean out his vines in a matter of hours.

Concord grapes on the other hand are larger, much hardier and less attractive to birds. But they contain only 17 percent sugar. You need to add sugar when making wine from them.

Cassara has to work hard not only weeding, but fertilizing, spraying bugs, and fighting birds.

Late in the summer clouds of them land on his plants, he said. He covers each row with a large net, and the birds still get in.

Placing the nets is a huge job, he said. Everybody helps set up the nets and protect the grapes, including his son, grandson and members of the big extended family that live nearby.

Blackbirds are the worst. In minutes they can wipe out the entire field.

In 2000, birds ate his entire crop, leaving him with only a few buckets full

"Sometimes you get them before they reach their sweetness, otherwise- forget it", Cassara said. "If I work in the field and start seeing a lot of skins, that means that birds found out they're sweet.

FRANK CASSARA and his wife, Shirley, have been together for 54 years. Shirley is not young anymore and many of their relatives who live in the area help her around the house. On Fridays, Cassara doesn't work. They go shopping, and he takes Shirley out for dinner. 

Photo by Regina Nuttall

 

Every vine takes a lot of work and care.

photo by Regina Nuttall

 

 

 

Another danger comes from deer. They make everything more difficult. Cassara has made little green cages around his young vines. But others are often severely damaged. When the deer eat the tops of the vine, it has to grow again from the bottom. Then the deer eat the new shoots. Cassara said he has spent hundreds of dollars trying to protect his plants from deer.

Last year, deer ate vines in Cassara's neighbor's yard, killing all of their plants. Cassara lost all his cuttings too. In one night he said, the deer ate everything. Just think: you plant the vine and plan to wait five years to get grapes. Maybe after four years the deer kill the vine and you have to start over again.

Walking through his vineyard, Cassara waved toward long rows of more than 1000 bushes impressively lined up and asked "Do you think this all happened by itself?"

No, it took a lot of work.

Cassara's winery was classified as non commercial and he wasn't allowed to sell wine on the property. He wishes people could come and taste his wines, but it looks like that will never happen. Many people visit his operation and he would like to be able to give them a few sips of wine but the law doesn't allow it.

.

FRANK CASSARA used to come from Chicago to spend his free summer weekends in Crete. Nobody knew then he would plant a big vineyard and would convert the family's small summer house into the big nice residence you see today. In this picture you see Cassara in 1956 when he was 26 years old, just two years after marrying his wife, Shirley.

-photo from family album

 

A view of Cassara's Vinyard

photo by Regina Nuttall

When Cassara retired from his job as a tile laborer he didn't have a lot of money but he had a lifetimes experience building things from scratch.

You can see results of this experience everywhere. He built a hydroponics facility for growing cucumbers, tomatoes, basil and lettuce. He built a system of automatic controls that regulated temperature, water and nutrients so that the plants would survive all winter long.

Later, his interests turned to wine. He made cuttings from the few surviving grape vines and planted an entire vineyard.

During the years it took for the vines to grow he rebuilt the old homestead. He took pieces of scrap limestone and shaped them by hand to construct part of his house. He used the same lime stone to build a massive wood-fired pizza oven that can reach 700 degrees and bake a pizza in 5 minutes. He has his own private recipes that he claims are better than any commercial pizza.

To look at Frank today it's difficult to believe that at the time of his retirement his joints were so painful he barely could get around the place. Ten years later he acts 20 years younger.

Does it have something to do with a glass of red wine every day?

"My father drank wine every day of his life but I never saw him drunk", Cassara said. "Perhaps when you don't have it then you say "Oh, I want it".

"I make wine, but I'm not a heavy wine drinker", Cassara said.

"You can have a glass (of wine) every day, not a big deal. How big is a glass?" Cassara asked laughing and holding a huge glass. "I hope not like this".

One day in September, friends and family members help Cassara pick grapes. They take a bucket and choose a row of vines to pick from. There is always a big crowd, Cassara said.

His daughter, who lives in Orland Park, and son, who lives in Crete, come with friends and coworkers. They pick grapes and Cassara de-stems them in a big machine. A tent is set up and plenty of food and wine is available.

"It's a lot of fun", said Bernadette "Babe" Gilmore, Cassara's niece. She is a big help. She lives nextdoor and gets involved with the whole operation.

It is a good life here, like a little piece of Italy. But there are not only Italians. Frank lived most of his life in Brighton Park with Mexicans, Lithuanians, Polish, Italians, and other nationalities. Frank has very fond feelings for them all. It seems that half of Brighton Park is coming to pick grapes every autumn. It is a good model for the rest of us.

* * *

If you want to try some of Frank Casara's wines you can get them at the following stores:

Party Liquors (Steger); / Knuth' Country Market (Beecher); / Crete Country Market (Crete); / United liquors (Richton Park); / Country Mart (Crete); Country Market (Peotone); / Matteson Liquors (Matteson); / Crete Food & Liquors (Crete); / Sauk Trail Food & Liquors (Chicago Heights); / Monee Foods & Liquors (Monee); / Larson's Landing (University Park); / Joann's Liquors (Richton Park).

 

 

BERNADETTE 'BABE' Gilmore, at left, Frank Cassara's niece,tenderly holds young grapes with her fingers. Babe lives next door to the vineyard and enjoys assisting with the with the winemaking operation.

photo by Regina Nuttall

 

One of East Street Vinyard's wines

-photo by Regina Nuttall

 

 

Related Links
www.bevart.com