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New Pittsburgh wineries sprout

| Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two Pittsburgh basement vintners are bringing their beverages out from underground.

The city Zoning Board has scheduled a hearing Thursday about whether to grant a Lawrenceville couple permission to operate a boutique hard cider house in their Victorian home. The 9 a.m. hearing will be held at 200 Ross St., Downtown.

Michelle and Bill Larkin are hoping to open Arsenal Cider House and Wine Cellar on the first floor of their three-story Victorian rowhouse along 39th Street, near Penn Avenue, by the end of the year.

They would join Carlo's Garage Winery, which became the city's first licensed winery last month.

"Wine has been made in this building for almost 100 years," said Larry Lagattuta, co-owner of the Strip District winery operated out of the basement of his bakery, The Enrico Biscotti Co. "When I took the building over it belonged to a man named Carlo, who was an auto mechanic making wine for himself in the basement."

Lagattuta and his five winery partners are selling a Vidal Blanc -- a dry white wine they describe as "a little heavier than a Pinot grigio." Other whites and reds are aging in barrels preparing for their debut in coming years. The grapes come from Somerset County.

"We wanted to keep this Pittsburgh tradition of these old Italian boys making wine in their basement," Lagattuta said as he showed off the barrels of wine aging in the low-ceiling winery. "It looks like someone's grandfather is down here making a batch of wine."

Bill Larkin picked up oenology -- the study of wine -- as a hobby four years ago and has won several awards for cider and wine he makes from locally grown fruit.

"It would be great for Lawrenceville," he said. "We're not looking to attract a bar crowd. Our target is the gallery crowd, and we think we'll be able to attract new people to the neighborhood."

Because their house is surrounded on three sides by commercially zoned areas and was part of the retail corridor with a first-floor doctor's office in the 1930s, the Larkins could get permission for a storefront, said Cleda Klingensmith, a city zoning case review specialist.

"Lawrenceville is hip and funky, so this might be something that could work," she said, adding that input from neighborhood groups would be considered before the board decides.

The endeavor coincides with the impending birth of the Larkins' twins, due this summer.

"We found out about the pregnancy first and figured we'd need extra money coming in somewhere," said Michelle Larkin, a preschool teacher who would run the store in the afternoons. "We think a cider house is a different angle."

La Casa Narcisi in West Deer is the oldest operational winery in Allegheny County, according to the state Liquor Control Board, which issues the limited winery license necessary to sell wine or hard cider.

Dennis Narcisi, who continued a family tradition that began generations ago in Italy when he opened that winery in 2001, said he welcomes the competition and wishes Pittsburgh's wineries luck.

He said they'll need it -- and a lot of hard work.

"People see this as a romantic operation and decide that maybe they'll make wine," he said. "Each year, we see three or so wineries open up, and every year we see maybe three or so close. People find out this is labor-intensive and there's a love here, but it's a labor of love."

Retired mechanic Carlo Iasella, for whom Carlo's Garage Winery is named, said Pittsburgh's first winery is off to a good start.

"I tried Larry's wine, and it's not bad -- it's good," he said.

Additional Information:

How it started

The bottle labels for Carlo's Garage Winery explain how it became Pittsburgh's first winery. When prohibition became law, Domenico Iasella, newly arrived from Abruzzi, Italy, was not to be denied his wine and began making his own in the basement of his Penn Avenue auto repair shop in the Strip District. His son, Carlo, inherited the shop and his father's taste for wine. Almost 75 years later, the garage is The Enrico Biscotti Co. 'The wine-making continued and got so good we just had to share,' says the label.

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