by Fred McMillin
for April 21, 1998

The Rise of Grappa


Romano Levi has been making grappa in northeast Italy nearly all of his life. In late fall, after the new wines have finished their fermentation, Romano collects the thick purple blanket of grape pressings. Then, each morning from October through March, he fires up the old pot still built by his father in 1927. He loads in 900 pounds of pressings with an equal weight of water and four hours later has about five gallons of grappa.

...New York Times, April 1987

Grappa Millestones

The spirit distilled from the debris of winemaking has risen from the ashes (of the pot still fire), as we shall see.

Years Ago in San Francisco—"We used to give it away in the old days in North Beach."

...Claudio Pintarelli in the S.F. Chronicle.

Years Ago In Italy—Grappa was produced mostly by traveling distillers. Too often it was a cheap, ill-made product, an Italian version of white lightning.

...R.W. Apple in the New York Times.

1970—Italian wine laws changed, resulting in more juice and wine being left in the pressings, yielding in a much better grappa.

1973—I wrote, "While most wine authorities have been judging grappa harshly, in visiting Piedmont vintners I found them now proudly serving it along with their best wines."

1980s—Italian producers began experimenting with grappa made from a single varietal, even from a single vineyard. Wood aging was introduced. In another decade, grappa sales would rise to 125 million bottles a year.

1993—Wolfgang Puck's Postrio restaurant in San Francisco asks Germain-Robin to make a grappa for them. The 50 cases were a smash, selling out almost immediately.

1998—Facing ever greater demand, production is being expanded. There will be three versions, a Zinfandel ($55), a Muscat ($65) and a Viognier ($85). They won't be released until June, since production is labor-intensive. Each batch requires four separate distillations, and a year of cellar work. Only rainwater is used in adjusting alcoholic strength. At this writing, there's a little of the 1997 Riesling grappa still available at $55. Phone Dr. Ansley Coale at (707) 462-0314, and plead.


Maitre d' Pintarelli (above) tells how to taste grappa. "Use a warmed brandy glass to bring out the aroma. First, just smell. Take three or four whiffs. Then just wet your lips with it, beginning with the upper lip. This prepares the mouth. Then taste."

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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