“If you walk around Highlandtown and look in the backyards, you can still see some of the grape vines,” says Kevin Bernhard, president of the Highlandtown Community Association.
He is referring to the grapes many of the East Baltimore immigrants planted when they settled in the neighborhood.
“Highlandtown is a neighborhood with a strong wine-making history,” Bernhard says.
Highlandtown’s winemaking history and culture will be celebrated this week at the community’s annual wine festival, hosted by the Highlandtown Community Association and DiPasquale’s Italian Market.
The festival is now in its 10th year. This year, about 25 homemade red wines and 15 whites are in competition. Local wine experts and celebrities are judges. Bronze, silver, and gold ribbons will be awarded to the best wines, based on appearance, smell, taste, and overall quality.
Contestants also compete for best bottle design.
The event, which now boasts 800 attendees, includes live music, including accordion players, bands, and plenty of food for sale.
Joe DiPasquale, a winemaker, former longtime Highlandtown resident, and co-owner of DiPasquale’s Italian market, says his granddad made wine, but his father did not.
“I picked up the hobby later,” he says.
Now DiPasquale mentors younger people who have an interest in wine making.
“It’s pretty informal. They come in the store and ask questions. It’s very conversational. They are curious. They know that I’m in the food and wine business, that I have my own equipment—the grinders and the press. They know I know how everything works,” DiPasquale explains.
For years, Our Lady of Pompei Church was the location where the neighborhood wine-makers picked up their grapes.
“One of the priests ordered a tractor trailer full each year,” says DiPasquale.
“No matter where the winemakers are living now, it all started for most of them in the basements of Highlandtown,” he says.
DiPasquale says the vast majority of wine fest entrants are longtime winemakers, with strong ties to East Baltimore.
He adds that the Wine Fest is a way to stay connected to your roots, and a healthy competition.
“We have no fabulous prizes. It’s mostly about bragging rights,” DiPasquale says. “And we raise money to support Highlandtown Community initiatives such as street improvements, Movies in the Park, and neighborhood greening.”
Since its inception, the Highlandtown Wine Festival has raised more the $25,000 to support the community.
A few surprises at this year’s wine fest year include a wine-making demonstration, a grappa-making demonstration, and a bocce tournament, says Bernhard.
The festival will be held Sunday from 1-6 p.m. at the Our Lady of Pompei Convent Garden. Tickets are $25 and include a commemorative wine glass, five tastings of homemade wines (Highlandtown Red and Bel Air Zin, for example) and a selection of antipasti—prosciutto, sopressata, aged cheese, and roasted vegetables.
In addition, meatball subs, pasta, cannolis, and rice balls will be available for sale.
DiPasquale, who does not enter the wine contest himself, says that all of the homemade wines are worth trying and that flavor is pretty subjective.
“If I’ve learned anything about making wine over the years, it’s that everyone has their own style and their own taste,”
Next fall, the Highlandtown Wine Festival may have a new local oenophile and boast a new local wine.
“Joe’s going to be teaching me how to make my own,” says Bernhard. “I’ll be getting started in the fall.”
by Danielle Sweeney