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Sipping from the Heel

Wine from the Pump

Mattie John Bamman (September 24, 2009)
Photos by Mattie John Bamman

Vino sfuso is the stuff of folklore for those of us who grew up in the United States. Growing up, I heard tales of gas-station wine from relatives and starry-eyed travelers, and it sounded too good to be true. But when I came to Italy, I discovered it in every town, restaurant, and bar. Why don’t we have vino sfuso in the United States, I wondered?

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Sold out of huge tanks, vino sfuso flows through a hose and out a nozzle that looks much like that of a gas pump. Local restaurant owners arrive daily to refill 5-liter jugs for 1-2 euro a liter. Later, the wine will appear on their menus as ‘vino della casa,’ or house wine.

Locals are also frequent customers at the stores that sell vino sfuso, as are astounded travelers anxious to taste this mythological wine that flows like water and costs nearly as little.

Because the wine is not profitable enough to justify shipping costs, every town has its own unique vino sfuso, made by local winemakers. Maurizio Cilino sells vino sfuso in his store, Antica Masseria Salento, in Lecce, and he explained the difference between vino sfuso and bottled wines. “Vino sfuso is made with wine that is not worthy of going into bottles: it comes from inferior grapes, using  less time-consuming, less complicated wine-making techniques. The result is a wine that is only good when it is young and so it must be sold immediately. Otherwise, we would simply throw the grapes away. But there is a demand for it, especially among restaurant owners, and it is our tradition.”

To make vino sfuso profitable, it is not aged and never sees the insides of expensive wood barrels. Further, vino sfuso is put through a shorter maceration (also known as pre-fermentation) than bottled wines, necessitating higher temperatures. When making high-quality wine, winemakers carefully control the temperature of the maceration process, keeping the the temperature low in order to preserve natural aromas and flavors. Vino sfuso loses more of these natural flavors and aromas.

Does this mean that vino sfuso is bad wine? I have certainly drunk bad vino sfuso, but I find that it is more commonly of acceptable quality. When it’s offered for 4 euro a liter on a restaurant menu, it’s hard to complain. It is wine that you buy simply to accompany a meal, or because you are on a budget. I would not recommend it for a quiet evening sitting on your patio: the wine is not worthy of much contemplation. However, it is a good way to taste the local wine territory. The vino sfuso at Antica Masseria Salento features the most important local grapes—Primitivo and Negroamaro—and comes from the highly respected Botrugno Winery, just a few kilometers north. Accordingly, vino sfuso in Milan features the Barbera and Dolcetto grapes, Milan’s local grape varieties.

Puglia’s wine was sold in sfuso form for thousands of years. Until recently, the large quantities of wine produced in Puglia were only deemed useful for blending, and consequently, bulk wine was shipped to Northern Italy and France, to be mixed in small quantities with more noble wines (this history is one major reason that high-quality Puglia wines are still inexpensive). This wine was shipped by train in large cisterns. Accordingly, before the mid-20th century, few people had drunk any Puglia wine that was not vino sfuso. Now, when I speak with Puglia winemakers, they talk about the first time they or their fathers or their grandfathers bottled their wines as a departure from the past. Puglia’s “fine wine” was born when winemakers began using modern production techniques, signified by the use of bottles.

Vino sfuso is still an important part of European culture because it is easy to produce yet makes a profit. Correspondingly, it is inexpensive yet tastes good. Wine is also an essential element of the dining experience for many people in the United States, but for those on a tight budget, a $10 bottle every day can become a burden. Why can’t American winemakers produce something similar in quality and price? I understand that it would create a dramatic shift in the wine market, similar to that of Two-Buck Chuck, which debuted in 2001; but wouldn’t it also make wine accessible to more Americans?