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Iraqi Past Ferments in An Unlikely N.Y. Winery

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.

"Part of it is being a refugee, not having my own home I grew up in," Jiji says. "I'm not able to go back to my past and touch it and re-experience it, so I try to do something here that becomes my creation, that becomes part of what I am."

As recently as a few generations ago, many New Yorkers made wine old-country style, but few used homegrown grapes. Instead, trucks used to (and sometimes still do) come in late summer to deliver boxes of grapes to people's doors. Business was fueled first by Italians, later by Croatians, Greeks and Lebanese. The grape delivery truck always charted a map of New York European and Mediterranean immigration.

But there are peculiarities of the transplanted urban vine.

"The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, they had short vines -- my vine is tall," Jiji will note. His vertical vine can cause problems. It's hard to pick grapes overhead. They're hard to see, grapes get crushed, juice streams down.

Drenched in grape juice and sweat, with BlackBerrys and cellphones cast to a pile on the side of the rooftop vineyard, a dozen pickers picked Saturday until they were tired from picking. The air filled with the sound of snipping. Pretty much no one had outside experience in winemaking. "It smells like the muscat grape-flavored Gummy," said Tori Lo, 21, a friend of Jiji's nephew.

"Grapes! Grapes!" someone yelled as a basket full of them came down by pulley. "Yelling 'grapes' doesn't help, there's grapes everywhere," someone else commented.

Genio Rodriguez, 48, an engineer and Jiji's crew chief, weighed incoming loads by standing on a scale with the plastic bags in his hands, and subtracting his own weight. The grapes were dropped in a tub filled with garden-hose water, transferred to a plastic laundry basket, dumped in a crusher, which separates out the stems, and then made liquid in a wooden press. A "chemistry lab" was set up in the far corner of the garden, where various helpers nervously added sugar and an agent to kill yeast.

The taste and quality of the wine varies from year to year, but also from bottle to bottle. It mostly has a mild, sweet flavor, and tastes much like the grapes on the roof. Some bottles develop a spiked grape juice taste.

The 2001 vintage, for instance, is "very well balanced, but it still has the Latif character, its crispness," says Rodriguez, who recounts that he became fascinated by wine at age 16, when he worked as a mover for a Queens Mafioso who gave him a few bottles of fine wine.

Jiji's vine has also been put to multiple uses. He used to keep the grape leaves and his mother would stuff them with meat and rice. Each year, there is grape juice.

Jiji has also sent the seeds and skins left over from winemaking to an Armenian friend, outside the city, who uses a still to ramp up the alcohol content and make something entirely different.

"That's 500 pounds exactly!" called Rodriguez on Saturday as he weighed the last of the grapes and calculated the record-breaking total. The back yard erupted in cheers.

Soon the yard would be hosed down, the winemaking apparatus dismantled, the golden wine-to-be moved to its basement cooler. There would be toasts over dinner to the harvest, to the work.

"It's an institution," said Jiji, sitting at a table, his family and friends around him. "I'm very proud."

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