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To the Last Drop

To the Last Drop

Charles Scicolone (December 16, 2007)

Interview of Charles Scicolone by Lawrence Osborne for
Men's Vogue


            If you want to know more about Grappa, read this article by Lawrence Osborne who interviewed me for the Nov/Dec 06 issue of Men’s Vogue.  He is the author of a very good wine book called The Accidental Connoisseur and shares many of my views on wine.  Note how the prices have changed in the year between this article and the one I have written.


  Distilled like the rarest vintages and bottled like perfume, grappa isn’t just scraping the bottom of the barrel any more.

 VITAL REMAINS Grappa is traditionally made from pomace—the stuff left over from wine-making.


The Italian writer Italo Calvino once wrote that grappa was fit only for "defrocked priests, unemployed bookkeepers, and husbands that have been cuckolded." Only decades ago, Italy's fiercest liquor was little more than rotgut quaffed by peasants who wanted to make something mind-bending out of all the grape skins and stems left over from wine-making. It usually tasted like kerosene, or worse. Some have compared its smell to skin toner, and its fiery, astringent taste to sucking on twigs dipped in brandy, and, no doubt in a moment of poetic excess following a grappa binge, to vomit. Few wanted to sip kerosene tinged with vomit, even if it did have knockout alcoholic power. And so grappa remained marginal, except, of course, among defrocked priests, unemployed bookkeepers, and cuckolds.

But, like so many other humble, peasant concoctions, grappa has lately become a lofty spirit. It's now made from single varietals, housed in extravagant bottles like perfume, and often sold to connoisseurs for $150 and up.

Grappa originated in Italy's northeast, in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia regions. But no one is quite sure where the word originated—possibly from the Latin grappapolus, meaning "bunch of grapes," though some Italians maintain that it comes from the simple word grappa, or "grape stalk." Either way, it wasn't until 1996 that the Istituto Nazionale Grappa was formed for the purposes of regulating the liquor's quality. It's a sure sign of accelerating gentrification when you get your own Istituto.

Some attribute grappa's blossoming to a single woman, the larger-than-life Giannola Nonino. Now in her sixties, Signora Nonino, along with her three daughters, makes grappa in the town of Percoto, near Trieste. Grappa lore has it that Nonino was the first person to distill it from a single varietal—Picolit, in 1973—rather than a mishmash of different grape skins. Thirty years later, the food critic Frank Bruni would hail Nonino grappa as a "crystalline nectar," while relaying the maker's triumphal words in The New York Times: "I have changed grappa from a Cinderella to a queen."

In Manhattan, grappa's temple is the Apulian restaurant I Trulli and its accompanying wine store, Vino, where the resident wine consultant, Charles Scicolone, is one of the liquor's more impassioned advocates. He arrived for dinner not long ago with a suitcase filled with rare bottles, which he pulled out one by one like high-class bootleg. And so began an arduous, sweeping tasting of the world's best grappas. "You will soon find," Scicolone said, "that price and rarity of flavor do not always correspond exactly." No surprises there.

We started with an offering from the famous Marolo ($75;, a barrique-aged Barolo-based grappa with a vanilla edge. It was served in a bulbous glass that looked like a phial from a chemistry lab, its narrow aperture perfect for softening the impact of the Marolo's intense, alcoholic nose. Next came Cascina Castle't's lovely Grappa di Passum ($47;, made from Barbera grapes, with a comforting aroma of tea. From Orsolini, we tried the Orsolini Sulé ($53;, a sweeter grappa that has a burnt-toffee aroma and is distilled from the byproduct of Erbaluce, a grape cultivated for the fragrant Erbaluce di Caluso white wines of the far north. After this, Scicolone proposed the Tre Soli Tre from Berta (, at $158 perhaps the most instantly recognizable of the high-end grappas. Aged for 10 years in French oak, it is a darker amber than the competition—sweet with vanilla and butterscotch undertones. The wood was as pronounced as a robust cabernet. In all, these were beautiful, even revelatory, grappas. But I sensed that Scicolone was saving his most favored items for last. He was.

"For me, the grappa makers who are first among equals," Scicolone announced, "include Serafino Levi and Nonino herself." So we came by way of conclusion to these aristocrats of the grappa world. Levi's son, Romano, carries on the family tradition of artisanal grappa in the small Piedmontese town of Neive, and his Grappa della Donna Selvatica—not yet available in the United States, and thus a favorite of grappa-mad travelers in Italy—is as pricey as the Berta, though it's finer, with a subtle caramel taste ( Then came two of Nonino's fabled vintages: the buttery-smooth Fragolino ($130; and finally a gentle beast called Vuisinar, aged in wild cherry wood and, sadly, not sold on these shores. The clear liquor was amazingly soft and delicate, and I remarked that it seemed beyond all talk of vanilla and toffee. The master agreed.

"All you can say about the world's best grappa," Scicolone said, "is that it tastes like grappa. E basta."

To view the video that I did with Lawrence Osborne on Grappa go to or try



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