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Smithfield’s Happy Lion Wines ready to roar in marketplace

By Kendra Gravelle

While some fathers bond with their sons over baseball or fishing, one Smithfield dad has established a closer relationship with his son by reviving a family tradition with roots in the family’s Italian ancestry.

For the last two years, Matthew Leone and his son John Peyton, 10, have been experimenting with winemaking.

“It gives us a lot of time together,” said Leone, who grew up in Burrillville and now resides in Smithfield. “We spend a lot of time together anyways, but he really likes helping out.”

Once the wine ferments into alcohol, Leone added, John Peyton’s work is done.

Through their endeavor — cleverly named Happy Lion Wines, a play on the translation of their last name — the two have produced several wine varietals, including Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as many fruit wines.

Last year, Leone entered four of his wines into the 2015 WineMaker Magazine international amateur wine competition. Out of 3,000 entrees, Leone won bronze medals for his Merlot and cranberry wines.

And with the judge’s tasting notes including exclamations like “Yum!” and “Enjoyable!” it isn’t difficult to understand how his wine placed so well.

For Leone, winemaking began as a means to connect with his great grandfather.

“I didn’t really know him. I just know he held me as a baby,” Leone said of his great grandfather, Fortunata Travaglini. “My dad always told me he made a red and a white every year.”

He explained that his great grandfather emigrated from Italy to Rhode Island, eventually settling in Burrillville with his wife.

Leone added that he hopes to pass on the winemaking tradition to John Peyton.

“It’s a hobby for me, but hopefully I can pass it on to him,” he said. “I think my great grandfather passed it onto me, so I just feel that it’s one of those things that should be continued.”

Although John Peyton is only allowed to assist his father until the point that the juice becomes alcohol, he happily helps his father out in the initial stage of the process by adding sulfites to the juice.

“I mix it with the drill that always runs out of batteries,” John Peyton said. “It’s fun.”

He said he also enjoys adding labels to wine bottles.

Outside of winemaking with his father, John Peyton enjoys making short films with his GoPro camera. He also takes a weekly art class.

“He’s very creative,” Leone said, “so maybe he can create the next label.”

And while winemaking is a great father-son bonding experience, it also offers Leone an opportunity to escape briefly from his career as a senior master sergeant in the Air Force.

“I’m in active duty, so this is my one big hobby,” he said. “But, I’m hoping to transition it into something else eventually.”

Each batch of wine takes Leone about two months to complete, and produces around 30 bottles of wine. Currently, Leone produces his wine from grape juice using wine equipment kits he purchases from Chepachet Hardware.

“I’d like to move the whole process up to my dad’s property in Burrillville,” said Leone, who currently makes his wine from his home in Smithfield.

He hopes to use his father’s large property to grow his own grapes.

“I’d love to do the whole process, from grape to bottle.”

Despite Leone’s father not being a winemaker himself, Leone said he’d like to train him on the craft.

Although his friends and family are currently the only ones who get to enjoy his wine, Leone said he would eventually like to sell Happy Lion Wines at local farmer’s markets.

“His wine is great,” said Caitlin Meehan, who works with Leone in the National Guard. “I’ve been telling him he needs to start selling it. I love wine. I’m a wine girl, and any other wine that I’ve tried is good, but I’m always excited to bring his wine home and open it and try it because it’s always got a little twist to it.”

And although Meehan found Happy Lion’s dandelion wine especially interesting, it doesn’t quite make it to the top of her list.

“He said he was making a peach flavored wine,” she said. “I was all over him every day, ‘where’s my wine, where’s my wine?’ I love anything peach flavored. One day he finally brought it in and I think I was done with it within two days.”

Leone said he has only received positive feedback from his consumers to this point.

“I haven’t had any complaints from family and friends. Everybody raves about it,” he said. “I guess that’s good.”

Leone hopes to acquire the licensing required to sell his wine within the next two years. He said he’s especially looking forward to making Sauvignon Blanc, which is his preferred varietal to drink.

So, hopefully, Smithfield residents will soon be able to enjoy a chilled glass of Happy Lion Wines Sauvignon Blanc that’s been produced in their own backyard.