Award-Winning Yonkers Winemaker Perseveres Through Loss
From his basement, Gary DiRaffaele turned heartache into success, one grape at a time.
Dozens of faded family photographs line the narrow stairway walls leading to “Gary’s Wine Room” in Gary DiRaffaele’s basement wine cellar in his Yonkers home. Before opening the door to the modest space, DiRaffaele proudly points to 25-year-old photos of himself and his four boys with their mother Carol, a striking brunette with a relaxed, Mona Lisa smile. “My beautiful wife,” DiRaffaele says. “My high school sweetheart.”
DiRaffaele and Carol, who passed away of lung cancer 13 years ago, spent 36 years in love. He speaks of her more than he his business when asked about how he rose to the top of New York's amateur winemaking scene. After she passed, DiRaffaele immersed himself in the process to distract himself from the pain of his loss. “It is almost like I had to have something to replace the passion I had for my wife, marriage and family,” he shares.
The wine fermenting process
DiRaffaele had learned a little bit here and there, first as a child from a friend’s Hungarian father who made wine in his garage. (“It had a fizzy taste because it was fermenting," he recalls. "I’ll always remember that.") Upon looking further into it decades later, the endeavor seemed too hard, until another friend demonstrated that it was simpler than he thought. Shortly after, Carol got sick and started undergoing treatment. While he supported his wife during that difficult time, he also started to dabble more in winemaking. He started off small, making ten gallons (50 bottles) his first year using grape juice. The following year, he upped that to 90 gallons and then switched to whole grapes, ultimately increasing production to 250 gallons (1,250 bottles) by his third year. As DiRaffaele recalls, “I went into isolation mode and I just cooked food, made wine, and got fat.”
His new passion was fueled by an eccentric personality that demanded he perfect his new craft. By his fifth year, he won Winemaker of the Year honors in the James Corrado's Annual Wine Making Competition in New Jersey, an accomplishment that others have worked decades to achieve without success. He continued to gather accolades for his homemade wine, including Best of Show in New York State's amateur competition and two silver medals at 2015's Prospero Grapes Wine Competition Dinner.
Enough of DiRaffaele’s friends tried it, loved it, and then wanted in on the action that he has now put together two crews. And he's glad for the help, as winemaking requires a lot of time, money, and dedication, not to mention the attention to detail and science. “The foundation of really good wine is in the fermentation and the yeast culture,” he explains. “It's about timing, temperature, procedure and recipe, and you have to be totally focused when you are making wine.”
He sends all his batches to Cornell’s New York State Wine Analytical Laboratory, which tests for quality assurance, troubleshooting, and federal regulatory compliance. That dedication and passion are what led to all his competitive triumphs. “We call him the wine guru,” says his friend, Andrea Sabia. “He is very precise with everything. It all has to be done exactly the right way, things have to be set up correctly and it really is better that way.”
Sabia’s husband started making wine with DiRaffaele about 10 years ago, and was one of the first members of his crew, whose members contribute to costs based on how many bottles they want out of it at the end of each season. Usually, the grapes come in the fall and the wine is ready by the spring, but DiRaffaele typically ages his bottles for about two years.
And while DiRaffaele jokes, “I am the guy who makes the wine, they just come and drink it,” they contribute more than just their taste buds and up-front investment. The guys stop by on weekends during winemaking season to help stir the juice, clean, and sanitize equipment. Some also take on storage responsibilities at their own homes. The Sabias, for instance, help bottle the wine in their Yorktown home.
As the years have gone by, DiRaffaele has emerged from his “isolation mode” and committed himself to a healthy lifestyle. In 2012, he had what he calls a “Forrest Gump moment," when he realized it was time to get healthy and lose the weight he gained after his wife died; he started walking every day and eating healthy food. While finding that wellness balance, he still stayed committed to his fruitful hobby. Today, DiRaffaele produces red, white, and apple wine, along with barrel-aged cocktails, crema d’orangecello and crema di limoncello. He has even expanded his production to include jarred olives, pickled eggplant, and other vegetables and jams.
The small room around the corner from DiRaffaele’s wine cellar is filled with more photos, but these are more recent than those on the stairway. A large banner depicting DiRaffaele surrounded by peers after he won Best in Show, the 11 award plaques on the wall, and dozens of medals recognizing DiRaffaele for his superior wine prove just how productive heartache can be if you channel that pain into a new passion.