What’s in Frank Ruta’s Basement?

The former White House chef is continuing the winemaking traditions of his parents' homeland.

After his grandmother took her share of grapes for jam or the table, Ruta and his two brothers would help with the crushing and sorting, and then taking apart the wooden crates—saving the nails and the wood, which would be used for everything from kindling to Christmas decorations. (He laments that today’s grapes come in decidedly less romantic plastic buckets.)

“We would start sometime in the morning after breakfast and work till we got through all the grapes—six or eight hours,” he says.

Now Ruta is bringing his 18-year-old son, Phillip—who graduated from Yorktown High School in May—in on the family tradition. They buy grapes during September’s harvest from a guy in the Baltimore area who has them shipped from California. The usual yield is a Zinfandel-based blend, although last fall they decided to make a barrel solely from Syrah grapes after seeing a beautiful batch of the fruit off to one side of S&S Winegrapes & Equipment’s facility in Jessup, Maryland.

“I did try to go through Virginia, but they keep the best grapes for themselves,” Ruta says of the local vineyards.

Over the years, the brothers have amassed a “wine library” of about 300 bottles, some dating back to 1996. “Some of them are really tasty, and I don’t think you can tell it’s homemade,” Ruta says. “I think they hit their stride between five and eight years. We keep track of it in a journal so we know what we did.”

One thing they never do is add sugars or acids to correct imperfections, nor do they add any yeast or sulfites. “They call it natural wine. The most we might do is add some sulfur dioxide to preserve it, but even then we add such a small dose that it doesn’t do much.”

They occasionally make rosé that can be consumed younger than a red, and the chef makes his own vinegars (the same ones he sold at Palena). For red wine vinegar, he does nothing but let his homemade wine turn. For a floral and fruity white wine vinegar, he buys Moscato grapes.

What else has Ruta been up to since his departure from Mirabelle? At press time he was preparing to take the helm as executive chef of Annabelle, a new concept from Ashok Bajaj’s Knightsbridge Restaurant Group—and fending off a lawsuit filed by his former employer over an alleged violation of a non-compete agreement. Annabelle (whose sibling restaurants include Rasika, Bombay Club, Modena, Oval Room, Olivia and Bindaas) will occupy the former Restaurant Nora space in Dupont Circle, but Ruta wasn’t ready to share specifics. Like making wine, opening a restaurant requires patience.

“It takes time to come to fruition,” he says, with no pun intended.

Rina Rapuano is D.C.-based food, travel and lifestyles writer. Once or twice a year, she and her siblings spend an entire day making a huge batch of pasta sauce that will never taste as good as her Nonna’s. Find her on Twitter at @rinarap.

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Categories: Food & Drink