"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:
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
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
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
In 2000, birds ate his entire crop, leaving him with only a few buckets
"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
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,
-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",
"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
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