Distilled from pomace, the grape remnants left after winemaking, grappa is an ancient spirit born from creativity and necessity. The clear, fiery potion kept Italian peasants warm for centuries, though its production is an afterthought or worse today. One farmer and winemaker in the Finger Lakes can link the first True grappa to the special spirit’s heritage.
This story launches True’s project to document and make our own grappa just in time for the holidays (with luck). All grappas begin with pomace, and for ours we turn to Kim Engle, pioneering grape whisperer at Bloomer Creek. Care to give the gift of grappa to someone in need of a kick? Sign up right here.
When I first went to Bruno Fellin’s home in the Tyrol, in northern Italy, there was a cow below and hay above.
It was dark and I struggled to make sense of the Italian family’s arrangement. The land at the base of the nearby Dolomites was too rocky to build a cellar, so the family cow was stabled on the first floor. The family lived on the second, and there was hay in an attic above them. The setup had practical purposes: Body heat rose from the cow and warmed the family during winter months; the hay kept the warmth in.
It was all primitive and advanced at once, and I was surprised by the Fellin family’s connection with the outdoors. They did a lot of hunting, gathering, and scavenging.
That’s basically what grappa is. It’s the fermented and distilled leftover crushed grapes from winemaking. Every family in Bruno’s village made it—the Fellins included—and at the end of each meal, the bottle of grappa came out and we raised our glasses.
Bruno and I were classmates at SUNY Albany in the 1970s, and we became such close friends over the years that he invited me to visit his family. I didn’t speak Italian, and they didn’t speak English. But we all cried when we saw each other.
In the Tyrol, at Bruno’s house, dinner was almost the same everyday. Primo and secondo. Primo was pasta with cream sauce. Maybe with meat. Maybe not. Secondo was always a piece of tough meat. There was steamed, sautéed Brussels sprouts.
They fed you, and they didn’t have anything fancy to bring out. But they were proud that they were grape growers and that they had hooch to provide.
There were purchased spirits too—everyone has Cynar—and almost everyone makes bitters, or amaro. But the last to come out would be grappa.
I asked Bruno what his family made grappa out of.
“Whatever we have.”
Nonna always waited on us. She was quite elderly. One night, she said, “Bruno, do you remember when we had the big garden of potatoes out back?”
“No. I can’t remember anything about it.”
“I’m sure you do, Bruno,” she said, and then gestured with her wrinkled hands. “This is where we had them and this is where we planted them.”
“Nonna, you’re talking about my uncle!” Bruno added.
Bruno wasn’t himself to his family. He was his uncle. They had the same name but they were a generation apart. Nonna remembered something from the Second World War, but she couldn’t remember when she was telling the story.
Uncle Bruno made grappa. Nephew too. The homemade hooch was the embodiment of tradition, and the ability to turn waste into excess.
Making grappa is a way for me to reconnect with the world. I feel comfortable with it. I have time and mental space to try other things after having been totally focused on wine, almost to the point of shutting everything else out.
Grappa is almost like salvage from what we as an industry throw away, or spread back into the vineyard. By taking the pomace from making wine, fermenting and distilling it, we’re getting one last little bit of pleasure from it.
Stuart Pigott, an authority on riesling, visited Bruno and I many years ago. He gave us a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke about getting one last ray of sunshine in the fall. If you can get those last rays, and their warmth, you can make some really beautiful wine.
Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your long shadows on the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds go free.
Command the last fruits to be full;
give them just two more southerly days,
urge them on to completion and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.
Who has no house now, will never build one.
Who is alone now, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lines streets, when the leaves are drifting.
When I transferred to the School of Agriculture at Cornell, Bruno and I stayed in contact. He came to the wedding when Debra and I were married. We returned the gesture and attended his wedding on Long Island. We both got caught up in our own lives and lost touch.
Last summer, on a day when Debra was tending the tasting room and I was out in the field, an unfamiliar man stood at the end of our tasting bar and stared at her.
“Can I help you?” Debra asked.
“You don’t remember me?” the man responded. “I’m Bruno.”
Bruno and I exchanged memories. We talked about the trip we had taken to the Tyrol, about wine and amaro and grappa, and about the culture that once existed in the small mountain villages where his family came from. They were farmers and tradespeople. They took care of themselves and lived close to the land. But sweetest of all the things Bruno said was that he thought I had made the right choice in becoming a farmer, something I have rarely heard in the decades since we last visited.
We were so thrilled we decided to make our own grappa this year along with our friends at True.Ink. Getting alcohol out of our grape skins will be like getting that last little bit of sunshine.
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