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Wine making, a centuries-old Portuguese tradition, lives on in New Bedford

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Daniel Ackerman
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John Branco teaches Bella, 7, how to use a grape press.

The South Coast is home to the country’s highest concentration of Portuguese Americans. For many, the fall season means home-made wine. Daniel Ackerman reports on a centuries-old tradition that crossed the Atlantic and lives on in the nooks and crannies of New Bedford.

In the rear garage of Luzo’s Auto Body Shop, shelves are lined with squeegees, power washers and bottles of polish. But today, nobody’s buffing scratches off a Honda Civic.

Half a dozen men mill around the shop. Two take turns pouring buckets of crushed grapes—a 50-50 mix of Zinfandel and Alicante varieties—into the waist-high wooden barrel of a grape press.

Just before the barrel overflows, one man places a wooden disk atop the crushed grapes. He turns a metal crank—with each spin, the disk descends into the barrel, compressing the must. Within seconds, a spout at the bottom of the grape press starts to run.

As the first drops of grape juice splatter into a pail, cheers erupt throughout the garage. It’s like prospectors striking gold.

In Fall River and New Bedford, more than one third of residents claim Portuguese ancestry. Multiple waves of immigration have arrived here, dating back to the late 1700s when mariners came from Portugal’s Azorean islands to staff the booming whaling industry.

To this day, many South Coast residents connect with their histories and homeland through the centuries-old Portuguese tradition of wine making.

From past to present

John Pinheiro owns Luzo’s Auto Body. He grew up on Faial Island in the Azores. Pinheiro’s father was the harpooner on a whaling ship in the 1930s and 40s, but he’d return home to the family farm each fall when the grapes ripened.

Pinheiro recalls friends and family gathering at their adega—a small, countryside cabin—to crush the grapes and ferment wine. The ritual was accompanied by food and song.

But in the late 1950s when Pinheiro was 17, his childhood home was destroyed—buried in ash from a nearby volcanic eruption, along with his family’s farm and adega. They evacuated across the Atlantic to New Bedford. The transition was hard.

“When I left the island, I cried,” says Pinheiro. “If I could swim back when I first came here, I would have.”

New Bedford bore little resemblance to Faial. But Pinheiro’s father kept the wine making tradition alive.

In 1967, Pinheiro’s father opened Luzo’s Auto Body. Ever since, the shop’s rear garage transforms into an adega for one day each fall.

‘A means to get us all together’

Today, Pinheiro and his collaborators press more than 1,000 pounds of grapes. As the afternoon wears on, more friends and family arrive bearing platters of Portuguese delicacies to share.

“Faial ribs! The famous beans and ribs—delicious!” exclaims Pinheiro as he examines the table of offerings.

Portuguese chatter mixes with the dribbling of grape juice, which the group will soon barrel for fermentation. More than once, they break into song.

The day will yield hundreds of bottles of wine—but the beverage is far from the main attraction.

“This is about friendship, tradition,” says Pinheiro’s longtime friend, Joe Cordeiro. “The wine is just a means to get us all together.”

Throughout the year, Pinheiro distributes bottles of his wine as gifts. The beverage is always a hit. “Sometimes,” says Pinheiro, “people try it and they say, ‘where can I buy this’?” Pinheiro chuckles—at Luzo’s Auto Shop, the wine is not for sale.