Iraqi Past Ferments in An Unlikely N.Y. Winery

(Helayne Seidman - Helayne Seidman Ftwp)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

NEW YORK -- Latif Jiji stood on his Manhattan bedroom balcony and leaned out into a great, green vine. Facing the gray buildings of midtown, he grasped a handful of grapes and snipped, leaned farther, grasped another, snipped again, until he had filled two plastic bags with the fruit of his bedroom view.

Jiji, 79, an engineering professor originally from Iraq, has made his townhouse into a vertical winery.

He coaxed a vine he planted in 1977 to grow up four stories along the back of his home and cover almost all the roof -- more than 100 feet of gnarled wood and green grapes. He built his own air-conditioned wine cellar and stored 20 of his vintages in the basement. And each year he manages the picking of hundreds of pounds of grapes and sets up a crushing, pressing and chemistry operation outside in his narrow back yard.

"It's very hot, and the crop is very big, so we'll have to work and then rest," Jiji warned Saturday, as friends and family arrived at the annual harvest and winemaking.

Overhead, dangling from a rooftop trellis, were bundles upon bundles of grapes, pale green, thin-skinned, with a translucent, fatty, sugary quality, already giving off the scent of ferment and wine.

And everywhere was Jiji -- his shoulder-length white hair puffing around his face -- bustling, smiling. He rubbed a grape onto the glass of a reflectometer, took off his glasses and squinted through the viewfinder, to determine sugar levels. As his daughter, Elissa, 39, an adjunct English professor, sorted out the pulleys to lower a basket of grapes from the roof to the back yard, he cautioned, "Don't lean out!"

Jiji is an Iraqi Jew who left his country in 1947 to study in Michigan. Political cataclysms shook the Middle East in his absence, and he never went back. Much of his past was lost.

But he could share with his wife, Vera, and their four children his family tradition of winemaking. Back in Basra, his father had made red wine. The technique was "primitive," and there was always sediment in the bottom, which the family would drink around, Jiji says.

But one day he stuck his own grape branch in his Upper East Side back yard, and soon, he said, "it took over." It yielded Niagara grapes -- which are commonly found in back yards and supermarkets, not generally in wineries.

That first year, 1984, the family pummeled grapes with their hands, and later they used a tool Jiji devised, something like a potato masher. "It was never virgins dancing barefoot on the grapes," says Vera, 79, a retired English professor. Eventually they got a mechanical crusher and presser.

Jiji soon built the air-conditioned wine cellar, and also, to cool the grape juice as it fermented, he dismantled a $99 mini-fridge and set up parts of it to cool a large wooden cupboard. He built a trellis on the roof to support the vine's horizontal meanderings.

He christened his label Chateau Latif--a play on the Rothschild Chateau Lafite--and each year he, Vera, their children and assorted relatives and friends painted labels for the bottles.

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