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Wine and Friends: The Perfect Blend
Male bonding and bottling in SJ
By Kate Morgan

In 1779, Philly’s native son Ben Franklin called wine “proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” Wine certainly makes Bill Burris – and the 19 other South Jersey guys in his club – very happy. 

Since the mid-90s, Burris and his buddies have been making their own wine in Burris’ Moorestown warehouse. But this is no small operation: when they get together every spring to bottle the previous year’s batch, it’s an all-day event. That’s because each year they end up with more than 10,000 bottles of wine.  

They call themselves Mountainview Winery (after the house on Mountainview Road where Burris founded the club), and their ranks are full of recognizable names, including Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli, iconic deli owner Vince Masso, restaurateur Nunzio Patruno and fine food importer Oreste D’Elia. There are doctors, lawyers, accountants, chemists and contractors, ranging in age from mid-40s to early 70s.  

“We brought in Nunzio, then the next year Oreste joined, and boy, the food in our wine club just started to get better,” Burris says.  

It’s a tight-knit group, and an exclusive one at that. When new members do join – a rare occasion, these days – they participate in a super-secret ritual initiation tinged with humor. 

“We have a ceremony where they get sworn in, and we make them go through this whole routine,” Burris says. “It’s like an ‘Animal House’ thing. But it’s a brotherhood, it’s a serious commitment.”  

It would have to be. Being a member of Mountainview requires a significant investment. The 11 tons of grapes the group buys annually from California’s Suisun Valley don’t come cheap, but spending thousands on grapes is worthwhile when it means a fabulous final product. And that’s a target Mountainview Winery hits every time, says Patruno, who joined the club in 2006.  

“I was born on a vineyard in Puglia,” Patruno says. “My father and grandfather made wine. I know wine. I have a lot of friends who are professional wine makers, and I always ask them to test my wine, to give me an opinion. They tell me, ‘Wow, this is great.’ We keep it as simple as possible, and we pay attention to the product. To make good wine, you need good grapes: there’s no other way around it.”  

The grape varieties the club uses vary year to year, though they always include a Petite Sirah – Burris’ favorite, and a rich, complex addition to any blend.  

“We’ve done a Super Tuscan blend with Sangiovese, Cabernet and a Merlot,” Burris says. “Sometimes we get a Cabernet Franc. One year [our grape grower] called and said he had an amazing Barbera. We did 4,500 pounds, plus 9,000 pounds of Petite Sirah, 4,500 pounds of Cabernet and some Sangiovese. That was our 2014 wine, and people think it’s the best wine we ever made.”  

The wine-making cycle starts in late September or early October, when the grapes in Solano County, California, are ready for picking.  

“The trucks leave Solano County, and we pay extra for another driver so they drive straight through,” Burris says. “They get here in three and a half days – the stems on the grapes are still green.”  

On a Wednesday afternoon, the club dons their uniforms – burgundy scrubs with gold embroidery – and gets to work hoisting 22,000 pounds of grapes into the crusher in Burris’ warehouse. Once the crushed grapes have been transferred into 570-liter, stainless-steel vats, a sulfite mixture is stirred in to kill the wild yeast, which can quickly turn a barrel sour. 

A few hours later, a wine yeast is added, the 25 or so steel vats are topped with vacuum-sealed lids and fermentation begins. After 10 days, the guys come back to press the grapes, removing the skins and squeezing out the rest of the juice. Then it’s back into the vats for six or seven months, with a racking (a process that removes sediment) somewhere in the middle.  

In the weeks just after Easter, the real fun begins.  

“We take the wine we made a year and a half earlier, which is now in barrels, and bottle it all,” Burris says. “Then we take the wine from the stainless vats and put it into the barrels. We use each barrel for about five years, and every year I buy five new ones and retire the five oldest.” 

The bottles of wine – more than 10,000 of them – are divided among the members of the group. The three barrels Burris makes for himself each year get carefully stored in the wine cellar of his Moorestown home, where there are an estimated 4,000 bottles. The carefully calibrated temperature and humidity mean Burris and his guests enjoy some of the best wine around.  

“I entertain a lot,” he says. “And I’m still drinking wines from 2002, 2004. These are 14-, 15-year-old wines that are still good. My 2005 Cabernet tastes just amazing.”  

Patruno keeps a stock of Mountainview wine at his Collingswood restaurant, Nunzio Ristorante Rustico. The eatery is BYOB, but “if someone doesn’t have a bottle with them, I give them one,” he says. “Everybody gets an allocation – half a barrel, two barrels, three barrels – the lawyers and doctors donate it or they give it away. Let’s say you do business with somebody and you want to give a gift. You send a package with six bottles of homemade wine – that makes an impression. On top of that, the wine is good.”  

One of the things that makes it so good, Patruno says, is the diversity of the club’s membership. They come from all walks of life but share a love of fine wine and delicious food.  

“Every time we bring a new member in, he brings some of his knowledge,” Patruno says. “He has a passion for this, he travels. Every new member brings something to the table and is able to make the wine better and better. It’s an evolution.”  

Burris knows the membership will evolve, especially as members bring their children into the fold, but he says 20 members is the sweet spot, and he doesn’t want to grow too much beyond that.  

“I don’t want it to lose its intimacy,” Burris says. “Some of these guys, I don’t see them a lot of other times over the year, but this is a special bond we have. It’s rewarding. It’s special.”  

It’s not just about the wine, either. Making a quality product is hard work, Patruno says, but the laughter and friendship come easy.  

“We get together with friends, we laugh, we sing, we drink, we eat,” he says. “We have a kind of a camaraderie. It’s a lot of work, but then you get to enjoy the fruit of the labor.”

June 2018
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