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Genie in a Bottle

Grappas are worth appreciating, not just for their taste but for their looks.

It had been a simple but splendid dinner: three courses of fresh fish, all pulled from the Mediterranean hours earlier, then grilled to perfection and served with baby vegetables and a crisp white wine. Next came red wine, ripe fruit and riper cheese. My wife and I gazed at the sea, convinced that the Amalfi Coast was as glorious as everyone said it would be.

"Would you care for a digestivo?" our waiter asked. He handed me a glass of liquid as transparent as the evening air and said, "Please, you must be our guest." Thirteen years later, I can still remember the exhilarating, exotic sensation of that first sip of my first grappa--and the dozen or so sips that followed. It was clear and clean, simultaneously burning and soothing.

I've been a grappa devotee ever since, and I've taken an almost proprietary delight in its growing popularity. Grappa originated in northern Italy, where it has been distilled commercially for more than 200 years; it's made from fermented vinaccia, the skins and seeds left over from the winemaking process. Historically, it has been a drink for farmers and other countryfolk in the foothills of the Alps and the broad plains below them, north of Venice, where the weather is cold and the work is hard. Mornings there often begin with a corretto, an espresso that has been "corrected" by the infusion of a shot of grappa. In the evening, grappa serves as social lubricant and internal heating system. Traditional grappas are still plentiful in Italy, many of them as harsh and smoky as bootleg whiskey and virtually all of them with the modest price tags you'd expect on agricultural leftovers. But grappa has moved beyond its parochial beginnings.

Many grappa drinkers make their choices based on the wines they most enjoy, and many of the best winemakers in Italy now produce grappa--and not just in grappa's homeland of Friuli and the Veneto. Angelo Gaja makes Barbaresco and Barbera grappas in the Piedmont, Marchesi Antinori makes Tignanello and Ornellaia grappas in Tuscany, the Mastroberardinos make Greco di Tufo grappa in Campania. Other leading Italian winemakers now produce grappa from Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Pinot Grigio, Müller-Thurgau and Moscato, among other grape varieties. Grappa is produced outside Italy as well, most notably in northern California. Araujo makes one of the best of these, a rich, full-bodied Cabernet grappa from its celebrated Eisele Vineyard. Maverick winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon produces a lighter grappa from Moscato that has an intense floral bouquet and a delightful, almost sweet aftertaste.

Most grappa is still consumed in Italy, but Germany and the United States are the biggest export markets. In America, much of this grappa is available at Italian restaurants. Once, the only diners ordering grappa here were those trying to recapture a vacation memory; now many see it as the ideal way to finish dinner even if a paperback copy of Under the Tuscan Sun is the closest they've ever come to Italy. San Domenico and Felidia in New York and Valentino in Los Angeles each offer more than 60 grappas. At Valentino, owner Piero Selvaggio enjoys talking about one customer, an Israeli, who ordered grappa instead of wine with his dinner, a different grappa with each course: "He started with a light grappa di Bassano from Nardini as an aperitif, then went on to a grappa made from a white wine, either Chardonnay or Trebbiano, with his fish, then one made from one of the Super-Tuscans with his pasta and a grappa di Barbera with his final course. He usually finished up with dessert and a grappa di Moscato or grappa di Picolit."

Italian restaurants aren't alone in routinely offering grappa these days. Restaurants as diverse as Rubicon in San Francisco, The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and Chanterelle in New York also serve grappa.

If any one person deserves credit for the grappa revolution, it's Giannola Nonino, who sold farm equipment manufactured by her father until she met Benito Nonino, a fourth-generation grappa maker in Percoto, about 70 miles from Venice. After the couple married in 1962, she promptly set about learning the art of making--and marketing--grappa. The Noninos made two crucial decisions. One was to create a monovitigno grappa, distilled from the vinaccia of a single grape variety rather than a blend of several. Thus was born grappa di Picolit, made from the vinaccia of the most important grape in Friuli. Their second important decision was to package the new grappa in beautiful small bottles with silver stop-pers and colorful ribbons--and to charge a premium.

When monovitigno grappas started to catch on, the Noninos began making more grappas from other grape varieties and refined the traditional distilling process, leaving more liquid in the vinaccia to soften the drink's harshness and emphasize the unique flavor of each type of grape. Soon everyone was making monovitigno grappas and hiring Baccarat and Riedel to create special bottles with fanciful shapes and elegant, impossibly thin necks, even clusters of crystal grapes inside. "Sometimes the bottle costs more than the grappa," says Tony May, the owner of San Domenico.

These lovely bottles help make grappa a wonderfully romantic gift. On the Valentine's Day after our remarkable Amalfi Coast trip, my wife bought me six small handblown bottles of grappa. Refilled and refilled again, they still sit on their crystal tray on our living room bookshelf, a reminder of all the pleasure they've provided.

David Shaw, the Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic for the Los Angeles Times, writes frequently about food and wine.

Published December 1999
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