Elizabeth Helman Minchilli
I love having people over for dinner. I adore the entire process of shopping, cooking, setting the table, and enjoying the meal. But I get really excited when we get to the after-dinner drinks. "Anyone want a grappa?" And sure enough, at least one (if not most) of my guests say, "No, I hate grappa." So, I bring out the bottles of amaro, limoncello (yuck!), and even cognac. I also bring out at least three bottles of grappa. But not just any grappa. It's Nonino grappa, and since the bottles are so distinctive (much more classy and elegant than anything else on the table), this is the first thing that gets my guests' attention.
"Well, okay ... I guess I'll try some." And usually, all it takes is one sip and they are grappa converts. As it turns out, the grappa they've tried up until then has almost nothing to do with what I serve.
I can understand their hesitation. Even though much has changed in the world of grappa in the last decade or so, most of the grappa out there is still dreck. That there is even any attempt at producing artisanal grappas and aquavits in Italy is almost entirely due to the Nonino family, who I had the pleasure of getting to know about 12 years ago when I wrote a feature about them. I have been a huge supporter (and, I admit it, drinker) ever since. (For the full story, I'd love to direct you to my article, but it's not online. But I introduced Frank Bruni to the Noninos, and he wrote this wonderful piece.)
A bit of background: traditionally, grappa was a working man's drink, made by farmers with the leftover pomace (stems and skins) after winemaking. The musty smelling pile was fermented and then distilled into an extremely strong drink that provided much-needed calories during the winter.
By the 1960s the Nonino family, which started out with a portable still that they brought to farms, was producing a high-quality grappa. Even though they had upgraded to a more advanced method in their plant, it was still made using winery leftovers. Enter Giannola, who married Benito Nonino and decided to completely flip the grappa-making process on its head.
Rather than use mixed-up, old leftovers, she had the bold idea to pick up the freshly pressed pomace within hours of their pressing and distill single varietals using a discontinuous still, which would preserve (she hoped) the aroma of the original grapes. Her husband, Benito, is the mastermind who devised the method, but it was Giannola's vision and passion that resulted in the first single-grape grappa using the Picolit grape variety. Most people thought Giannola was crazy, but once they tasted her brew they were smitten. She had done what no one had done before: produce a grappa that retained the perfumes and essence of the original grape.
Over the last three decades the revolution that the Noninos started has changed the way the world thinks of grappa. Their stylish bottles are widely imitated, as are their smooth as silk grappas and aquavits. But no other maker distills grappa with the same passion and artisanal skill as they do. They continue to process every drop of the clear liquids in their own distillery, full of gleaming copper stills.
Most of the grappa in Italy that is supposedly made by high-end wineries using their own pomace is made by a third party and often employs a more industrial method. And I won't even get into the truly industrial stuff served in most bars. So I can understand why my guests are so grappa-wary. "It burns." "It tastes like nail polish remover." These are the comments I hear most often. But like I say, the Nonino stuff has nothing to do with this, and you realize this from the very first sip.