Grappa Grows on You: Now that's the spirit!

Have you heard all the gab about grappa? Montelle Winery in Augusta is making it. The owners of The Stable on Cherokee Street plan to include this Italian brandy as part of their distilling and brewing operation. And betcha didn’t know that Bar Italia Ristorante and Caffè in the Central West End makes its own grappa infusions.

Why grappa? Isn’t it just the harsh afterthought to the wine-making process? In chatting up some St. Louis spirits cognoscenti, we’ve discovered that the world of making, serving and enjoying grappa has become, well, a bit more refined than we expected.

For the uninitiated, grappa originated from the peasant proclivity to avoid wasting pomace − the skins, pips, stems and pulp left over from wine making. Grappa can be produced from red or green grapes, single varietals or a combination. It is usually clear, but when allowed to age in oak for a long time, it will take on a caramel color.

Up until the last decade or two, grappa was regarded as nothing more than a cheap, throat-burning after-dinner drink. Today, however, distilleries around the world are producing more grappa variants and transforming the distilling process into an art.

Close to home, vintner Tony Kooyumjian is taking the Norton grapes grown at Montelle Winery on a journey in craft distillation: “Traditional grappa from Italy is made just from the skins. They chop the skins and mix them with water, trying to recover even a little bit of alcohol. It is pretty rough to drink. In craft distilling, we take wine and skins − just enough skins to give it the taste. The skins have never been pressed.” Kooyumjian stated that the resulting product is more refined and less astringent.

Rising transportation costs and the desire to have more control over its port production are what led Montelle to become the first fruit distillery in Missouri. “We sell a lot of port, and you need a brandy to fortify the port,” Kooyumjian said. So when the Missouri liquor control law changed last year to allow wineries to distill hard liquor from fruits, he decided to make his own brandy rather than purchase it and ship it. “The majority of what we distill will actually go into the port.” According to Kooyumjian, that will leave only about 50 cases of Montelle’s 2008 grappa for us to purchase.

The Stable, housed in the former stables of the Lemp Mansion, is running high on the fumes of becoming the only grappa distiller in St. Louis City or County. “I figure if I can make beer and I can make wine, I can make grappa,” stated co-owner Jesse Jones. Come late September or early October, folks can peer through the glass window from the restaurant’s dining area to see the copper still turn out batches of 90-proof grappa. “Fermentation takes about two to four weeks,” said Jones, who expects to distill about 60 liters a year. “We can always put up another bond,” added Jones, referring to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s tax imposed on distilled spirits plants.

Unlike the Italian government, American authorities do not impose mandatory grappa aging. By Italian law, all grappa must be aged at least six months; to be called “aged,” it must be aged for a minimum of one year; and to be called riserva or stravecchia, it must be aged at least 18 months. “It is so controlled that government agents seal the tanks with padlocks,” said Jonathan Parker. The proprietor of Parker’s Table Wine and Food Shop in Clayton has actually toured the distilleries of two reputable Italian distillers, Nonino and Jacopo Poli.

Once you’ve got your hands on the goods, how you will drink it is another story. Old signori Italiani perched atop a sunny Tuscan hillside may take turns swigging from a flask of grappa; Italian-Americans on The Hill might sip some Grappa Julia from an elegant eau-de-vie glass as a digestif after Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. If you pour a shot into your espresso (dare you to do it in the morning), you’ve reached the height of acculturation.

Or check out Bar Italia’s vast grappa selection, much of which is housed in beautiful artisanal bottles, like Nonino’s bulbous vials and Poli’s hand-blown glass cylinders. “We have 60-something different bottles at the bar,” stated co-owner Mengesha Yohannes. “We’ve had as many as 100. When the bar was first built, the overshelf was nearly full of just grappa.”

Yohannes has long had a hankering for grappa (“The first liquor I ever tasted was grappa, when I was growing up in Ethiopia.”), and it’s by his hand that Bar Italia offers house-made grappa infusions. “At Bar Italia, we’ve always done Italian things in a big way. Grappa is one of those. In many parts of Europe, there is a tradition of infusing things with all sorts of herbs and flowers and fruits. It’s part of the culture.” Yohannes has made mango-, tobacco-, and raspberry-flavored grappa, among others. “You have to make sure that they are perfect raspberries. Even a couple of bad raspberries will give the entire thing an off flavor.”

Yohannes has tasted his share of grappa, yet for him, grappa hasn’t raised in stature despite advances in production and efforts to market the spirit as an exclusive brandy. “Nonino are the ones who put grappa on the map. They took a lot of care with it. They marketed it well; they used fancy bottles. Their product is distinctive and clearly high quality.”

But at $100 for a full-sized bottle, is it worth it? “I think that may be a disservice to grappa,” Yohannes said. “It was the peasants’ last revenge, the ‘Why am I throwing away this last bit?’-type of peasant frugality. Ultrarefined categories like Nonino are different from the original intent. For me, grappa is not about mystifying it. To me, it’s just a brandy, really.”