The legendary R.W. Apple on Nonino

Legendary food and wine writer R.W. Apple’s landmark New York Times article on Grappa changed the way Americans saw (and tasted) Italian distillates in 1997.

“Grappa, Fiery Friend of Peasants, Now Glows With a Quieter Flame”
By R.W. Apple, New York Times, December 31, 1997

You might say, with a bit of poetic license, that grappa runs in Benito Nonino’s veins. For several generations, stretching back into the 19th century, his family has been distilling in Friuli, the northeastern corner of Italy. A questing, hawk-nosed man, he and his handsome, extroverted wife, Giannola, longed, as he often says, “to turn grappa from a Cinderella into a queen.”

Together, the two of them did it. Instead of a single still, they installed a whole battery of discontinuous copper stills, which allowed them to interrupt the process in the middle of the run, when the spirit was at its peak, and discard the rest — a process known as “topping and tailing.” The pomace could thus be processed faster, while it was fresher, which muted the barnyard taste. While continuous stills are cheaper, they boil the pomace nonstop.

Unlike Cognac and Armagnac, which are made by distilling acidic wines few would care to drink, the best grappa is a byproduct of the best wines. The Noninos contracted for pomace from the stars of Friulian winemaking, including Mario Schiopetto, Josko Gravner, Livio Felluga and Gianfranco Gallo.

But raw ingredients and technique would not have been enough. The Noninos had another idea: instead of lumping all the pomace together, the residue of common grapes mixed with that from the more noble varieties, they would distill each separately, starting with picolit, a variety that produces a sweet, delicate dessert wine. The result was a delicious, highly perfumed grappa.

The Noninos made their first batch in 1973 and bottled it in individually blown flasks with silver-plated caps. The labels, handwritten by Giannola, a budding marketing genius, were tied onto the bottles with red yarn.

If the idea was to call attention to the product and to themselves, it worked. Others soon copied them, but the Noninos demonstrated a rare gift for self-promotion. In their ads, they used a sunny family photograph of Benito, now 63, Giannola, 59, and their three stunning daughters — Cristina, 34, Antonella, 31, and Elisabetta, 29 — which soon became familiar all over Italy. They commissioned special bottles from great glassmakers like Baccarat, Riedel and Venini, and even established an annual literary prize. Most important, they worked tirelessly to insure that the best Italian restaurants stocked their products.

“The picolit is still our best grappa,” Mr. Nonino said with an eloquent shrug. ”I know it, the customers know it. I’m satisfied. You can ask for one miracle in life and get it, but to ask for two is ridiculous.”

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Filed under distillates, Friuli, New York, people

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