When Bob Becker asked contractor Carmine Toto Jr., both of Madison, to give an estimate on repairs to his plaster ceiling, he wasn't expecting to be given a bottle of wine.
"He said, 'Here, my son made this wine,' and I thought, 'Great, now I have to drink this," said Becker.
What he expected even less was to like it.
Toto and his son, also named Carmine, restored Becker's ceiling, ruined from a bathroom leak. Then, Becker asked where he could get some more of the wine.
Carmine Toto III opened the Villa Rose Wine School in 2000. He already worked full-time in the family contracting business, C. Toto and Sons, founded by his grandfather Carmine Sr. in 1935. He started the wine school to share Italian wine-making, another family tradition he learned from his grandfather, along with a few modern techniques.
Carmine III began with six barrels in a studio in the back of the pool house, which sits in four acres of property belonging to Carmine Jr. Today the barrels number more than 80, but Toto can still point out those first six.
He can also have a passionate discussion with the most avid connoisseur about the kind of wood used for the barrels (Carmine III has an affinity for the French oak barrels, though there are other varieties to be found in his studio), about the weather patterns that affect the grapes (last year's California crops, affected by fires, produced a "smoky" taste that Toto clearly discerns), and about the pros and cons of synthetic corks (they don't ruin the wine, and you don't have to store the bottle on its side). You sit around listening to Carmine III speak for a while, and you realize, he knows his stuff.
He doesn't sell his wine by the bottle, but by the barrel, and he brings his students in for each step of the process, from ordering the grapes through bottling the wine. A single barrel can cost upwards of $2,200, and can create about 20 cases of wine. The school has been in full production year-round ever since 2006 when Carmine III's distributor, whom he refers to as a friend, began sending him grapes from Chile. The Chilean harvest takes place in May, which means Toto needs to finish bottling the 2009 wines so he can make room for the 2010 crop.
The school operates with a kind of chaotic order that is immediately recognizable to anyone from a large and active family. Labels are hastily written and placed on, or at least very near, barrels stacked against the walls in neat rows. Hoses and pumps are tossed onto a wheeled cart when not in use, and bags of corks or wrappers are placed anywhere out of the way until they are again needed. Stenciled placards outlining the wine-making process hang from the top of the wall look like the posters of the alphabet that your first grade teacher had hanging in her classroom, and help to somehow convey order amid the busy tasks that must be done each week.
The air at the school is casual, but immediate. There is a definite task in mind: A certain number of barrels to be bottled and washed, a set number of cases that must be filled, a given amount of grapes to be crushed before the next shipment comes in, and everyone has their role. Two or three might wash the bottles and set them to dry on plastic racks, called trees, to dry. Several others might unload empty bottles from boxes or load full ones into them. One might operate the bottling machine, which bottles up to four at a time, stopping every once in a while to dispense some wine into a glass for sampling or consumption by one of the other workers. Another might cork these full bottles and pass them down so someone else can affix the metallic wrapper. "We've mastered the process," joked Paul Bishop of Madison. "It's like an assembly line."
And over the din of the machines, pumps, hoses, and numerous simultaneous conversations, you can hear Louis Prima or Dean Martin crooning C'e La Luna or Return To Me. It's like being at a raucous dinner table at 11 a.m. And of course, everyone has a glass of wine in hand.
Carmine III describes the school as "a hobby that turned into a business," and in many ways it still operates as such.
"When I get someone who's interested, I like to meet them, get to know them," he said. "I have to keep in touch with them for ten months of the year, bring them in for every step of the process. I have to get to know them. And over time they become friends."