A Gripping Grappa Tale

The first time I tasted Grappa was
in 1993 in New York .  A team of
us from Virginia had gone up to
the PC World Expo to launch the
world's first LCD data projector.
We were celebrating our
accomplishments one evening
with dinner at a fine Italian
restaurant in Manhattan. We were
just regular folks from the country
who became intoxicated when
the voluptuous actress Suzanne
Sommers sat at the table across
from us.  I noticed the blond hair
flowing over her shoulders  while
other members of our party --
especially our West Coast
Regional Sales Manager --
noticed some of her other
features. Derrill, the Sales
Manager from California, was a
guy who wore colorful ties from
Nordstrom and was something of
a respectable Playboy.  We all
adored him, as  did most women.  
After a wonderful main course,
Derrill, the sophisticated one
among us, ordered a round of
Grappa for our team which the
waiter served directly from
towering bottles 3-feet tall with
various fruits on the bottom.  This
was a great hit, the taste was
impressive, and we became a bit
more boisterous.  Derrill tried for
several minutes to signal the
waiter to order an encore round of
the elixir in the memorable
bottles.  With important celebrities
in the restaurant to serve, it was
hard to get the waiter's attention,
so Derrill took matters into his own
hands.  He turned the spigot to the
Grappa, which obliged by flowing
freely from the bottle.  The spigot
broke, and the Grappa kept
flowing, flowing and flowing onto
the table, onto the floor and then
across the dining room.  As the
stream widened into a flash flood,
the level of liquid in the bottle
descended steadily to the bottom,
witnessed by astonished eyes then
guffaws.  Derrill's hand had been
caught in the "cookie jar"  by the
waiter, and after much
apologizing by the rest of us for
our Playboy friend the bill was
amicably settled.  Although Derrill
wasn't invited to an after evening
soiree with the actress, he further
endeared himself to us and
permanently etched the word
Grappa into our memories.
As a fitting end to this episode, I
plan to bring a bottle of Bluey's
"Hair of The Dog" Grappa with me
to New York City this December
and present it to the restaurant's
owner. The fellowship of the
Grappa will continue as I present
our Grappa to Derrill, in the same
souvenir bottle he gave us a few
years ago after his trip to Italy.
November 11, 2005 -- It's Veterans' Day, and
I call my godfather in North Carolina to thank
him for saving the world by fighting fascism
during the Big War in Italy over 60 years ago.
"To commemorate the freedom you won for
us we're making
moonshine with grapes," I
tell him. This inspiration came from visiting
his country home in the Carolina hills two
years before and reading the local classified
ads about stills for sale.  I went to college in
North Carolina, had tasted white lightning
and liked it.  "You probably drank grappa in
Italy to celebrate your victories."
"If I did, I don't remember," the 82-year old
says. His preference is Jack Daniels.
"Of course you wouldn't remember. It's strong
stuff. That's why you have so much hair on
your chest."  I hope to send him a sample for
Christmas.
Grappa is a word of Italian origin referring to
the distillate made from leftover grape skins
after they are pressed during the wine
making process.  After
pressing our Merlot
grapes in September we were left with
hundreds of pounds of grape skins and
seeds. I filled a 32-gallon fermenter about
halfway with skins, then scooped in handfuls
of a purplish slimy combination of yeast and
grape seeds. To this I added about 6 gallons
of water and sugar to taste.  The idea is to
recreate a grape juice must, to restart
fermentation and to make "seconds" wine.  I
didn't have enough sugar, so I drove down to
Von's and purchased  3 5-lbs. bags and
ended up stirring them all into the brew. (If I
had saved the stems, that would have added
more tannins to the brew .)  I ended up with a
decent variation of grape juice.  A few hours
later, a steady stream of bubbling sounds
indicated fermentation was underway. A cap
had risen by the next day. We were in
business, and I went through the familiar
routines of punching down the cap and
checking this experimental brew thrice
daily.          I tasted this mixture the second
day and was reminded of Port, and had
visions of crafting a fine desert wine.  But as
the fermentation continued a few days longer
the sugar was converted to alcohol and
instead of a mouth-watering Port , I had
created the Frankenstein of wines, a monster
that could kill.  Now, I am not very familiar
with the taste of Mad Dog and the other
varieties of $2 wine preferred by folks along
Skid Row, but I believe I have stumbled upon
a recipe. No matter. We're not out to create a
drinking wine ... This is an experiment in
recycling, to see if we can make something
good from harsh, undrinkable, seconds
wine. At the end of 5 days, I dumped the
mixture into the press, and separated the
liquid from the skins, yielding 8 gallons of
seconds wine.  Tiny particles of grape skins
descended over a period of weeks to the
bottom of the container forming a light purple
layer as the wine sat in the garage waiting for
the day to make its transition from ugly
duckling to after-dinner delicacy. The day of
reckoning was Veterans' day.
By law, U.S. citizens of a certain age are
allowed to brew limited quantities of beer
and alcohol yearly.  We are also allowed the
right to bear arms, as stated in our beloved
Constitution. But when it comes to distilling
alcohol -- even for personal consumption --
that is a crime without a license. So instead
of making Grappa in the garage,  I drove my
seconds wine to a facility for processing.
Because of sanitary laws, Bluey was not
allowed entrance. However, you can guess
what the secret ingredient is of our "Hair of
the Dog" Grappa.
The first products of the distilling process are
called "foreshots" which contain undesirable
byproducts from a tasting point of view, but
make excellent fluid for lamps.  I put a
sample of foreshots carefully into my mouth,
swish it around and feel the burn before
spitting it out.  After the foreshots, alcohol
with more desirable characteristics is
produced.  The resulting product measures
about 180 proof, and is passed through a
charcoal filter. Next, distilled water is added
to dilute the mixture to 50% alcohol, which is
possible to carry back in a plastic water jug
without dissolving the plastic. The next step
will be aging in a small oak barrel, which I
need to order. I'll need to be careful handling
the fire water around the house; if I spill a
drop onto wooden furniture it will strip the
finish.  Check back with us next month to see
how the taste is coming along with aging.

November 14th -- Raw Grappa on the rocks
is a good combination.  Melting ice releases
cool water into a cordial glass slowly diluting
hot Grappa to drinking temperature numbing
stiffness from 13+ miles of running and a day
in the chair at the office as the wife and
princess sing songs barely noticed as I sip.
Leftovers were never this good.

Second Grappa Batch (Dec. 23, 2005)

Just in time for the holidays, a 2nd batch of
grappa is made from Merlot pressings and
rackings. Note the difference, in this case,
real wine, which was extra, was used, and
the difference is noticeable, giving us the
base for a fine cognac. "You can really taste
the fruit on the back-end," says the Distiller.
To me, the nose is similar to
kirchwasser, a
popular European clear brandy made from
cherries and a necessary ingredient in
cheese fondue. We purchased a small,
1-gallon oak barrel for the first grappa
experiment (the batch my father nicknames
"the paint thinner") and after three weeks a
taste reminds me of Jack Daniels. Shall we
say, a young Jack Daniels that a little ginger
ale could turn into a tasty drink.

December 27, 2006 New York or Bust!

In my carry-on luggage, I pack a bottle of
2004 freshly bottled Blue-Merlot Syrah, a
water bottle filled with oaked "paint thinner"
and another water bottle filled with
fresh-from-the-distillery "the good stuff." The
Princess and I fly to New York City for
Grandma's 70th Birthday, and arrive just in
time for the act at B.B. King's Lounge on
42nd Street, to meet my best friend from
elementary school and his family listen to
Vivian scream melodies about the man she
met, the man she left, and the strong woman
she's become. As this song repeats itself for
two hours, I reach into my black computer
bag and pull out a sample of the good stuff.
Jon takes a wiff and approves. Then he tries
the oaked paint thinner, and oohs and
aahhs.  The oak taste wins.  This taste-test is
repeated with brothers-in-law and mom
herself, who has a plaque with her name on
it at the Jack Daniels customer Hall of Fame
in Tennessee.  Even mom loves the grappa
aged in oak.  As for myself, if I wanted to taste
grappa on oak, I'm thinking it would be easier
to buy a bottle of Remy Martin VSOP, as I'm
partial to the pastel colors of grappa aged on
pomegranates, blue-berries and
blackberries.
Mom's Birthday Dinner is celebrated at La
Cite restaurant on 51st Street, and we
choose the wine course menu.  As this is an
all-you-can-drink affair the wine is poured
liberally (now tell me why is liberal a bad
word?) and I notice half-full glasses of wine
being cleared from other tables which finds
its way into the sink, down the drain and
washed out to sea to come back as rain.  But
what if we could collect this leftover "garbage"
wine (which included BV Cabernet and
Francis Ford Cappola Merlot) and recycle it
as grappa? We return to San Diego in time
for the New Year, which is celebrated by
opening a bottle of 2004 Reserve Syrah.  
2006 gets off to a great start with
a class
taught by Lum on "Tasting New Wine."
Please click on our 2006 link to find out what
it's like sampling 25 new wines.
The Grappa must be
diluted with water before
being placed in a plastic
container. Our new
household remedy for
clearing out clogged
sinuses during cold season
is to take off the cap and
inhale.
A refractometer measures the
amount of alcohol -- when
measuring the Grappa, the reading
is at the boundary of the scale.
A sample of
"foreshots" is
contained in the
beaker. We could
have used this as fuel
for a lamp after
tasting.
Certain fruits add fine colors
and tastes to the "white
lightning." The above jar
shows Grappa combined with
raspberries. After one month, a
tasty after-dinner drink has
been born.
A slight aroma of grapes
is gently inhaled from
the one-day old Grappa,
after a day that started
with a half-marathon
from San Diego to a spot
just shy of the Mexican
border. No thanks,
Motorin. No thanks,
Tylenol. Another shot of
Grappa, yes please!
This small oak barrel provides
significant flavors to grappa. The
flavors are reminiscent of French
VSOP Cognac at its birth, or Jack
Daniels.
The Princess greets hip-hop artist
Eric Roberson after he warms up the
crowd at B.B. King's Dec. 27th in
New York before headliner Vivian.
"Hair of the Dog" grappa made its Big
Apple debut that evening. The
"oaked" version was a success.
Winemaker's Journal
Making Grappa