A little distillery in Woodinville, Wash., is making that most potent of traditional Italian liquors, grappa. The company got started after a boss and one of his workers discovered a mutual interest in the spirits and waited until the time was right to start a little business.
photographed by John Lok
ON A BUSINESS trip to the northern Italian town of Bassano del Grappa in the summer of 2000, Dennis Robertson and his wife, Tammy, took a shine to grappa. And though it didn’t happen right away, it was the start of a whole new business with his boss.
Grappa (say GRAHP-pah) is the high-alcohol spirit that Italians traditionally serve as an after-dinner drink. It’s made by distilling pomace — the skins, seeds and stems left after wine grapes are pressed — into a clear, colorless liquid that some refer to as aqua vitae and others as Italian firewater.
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Once back to work as VP and general manager at Scrivanich Natural Stone in Woodinville, Robertson noticed that wineries in the area were regularly tossing out bins of pomace.
“The sweet smell of pressed wine grapes fills the air during the fall months,” Robertson says. “I couldn’t understand why this product was going to waste. In this ‘green culture’ it seemed a crime not to take advantage of it.”
But the time wasn’t right just yet for Robertson to build the quaint, family-oriented type of grapparias he had experienced in Bassano — tasting rooms where “the shelves were lined with uniquely shaped bottles of grappa, often bottled with a full fruit in them.”
Licenses for “craft” or small-batch distilleries in Washington cost thousands of dollars, and antiquated state liquor laws left many wringing their hands.
Luckily for Robertson, Larry Scrivanich, his boss, shared his grappa dream. Scrivanich’s family had a long love affair with the potent liquor, beginning on the Adriatic island of Susak, Croatia. Larry’s dad, Pat, says his family owned one of six communal stills in the village. “We made a lot of wine but couldn’t afford to buy flavored alcohol, so grappa was our alcohol,” he recalls.
By 2008, the time for Larry and Jane Scrivanich and Dennis and Tammy Robertson to launch a grapparia in the heart of Woodinville wine country seemed ripe.
“Woodinville didn’t need another winery, but a grapparia made sense,” Larry reasoned. Besides, he says, “I’d grown up hearing my dad talk about grappa and unofficially making it, so I knew the process.” And licensing fees had dropped to $100 a year. Looser state laws allowed distillers to make their spirits on site, offer samples to customers and sell their products directly out of their tasting rooms.
Soft Tail Spirits was granted its craft distillery license last fall — the third craft distillery licensed in the state and the first in Western Washington. In April, the tasting room/distillery opened up right between the stone business and DiStefano Winery. It’s a sweet setup: DiStefano supplies high-quality pomace for the still and access to the ENOLAB for testing the pomace before it’s processed.
Couples who happen by are doubly lucky.
“The wives look at granite countertops for their kitchens, and the guys drink our grappa,” Larry Scrivanich says with a wink.
Grappa-making season coincides with winemakers’ crush — mid-October through January — when pomace from Columbia Valley grapes is available. Larry Scrivanich credits Robertson with “doing mostly everything for Soft Tail, from licensing, construction, distillation and blending to graphic design and marketing.”
Robertson, who makes about 700 gallons of grappa a year, considered a lot of things before ordering the company’s traditional copper still online from Portugal.
They wanted the most traditional kind, yet one that could expand to produce vodka and whiskey. But in the end they chose a still that burns natural gas rather than the more traditional wood because it’s tough to control temperature with wood.
The choice seems to have paid off, as Robertson’s grappas are now sold at state liquor stores and in top restaurants such as The Herbfarm, Vertigo and TASTE.
And what’s the reaction at the distillery?
“Italians come into the tasting room with a ‘Show me what you got’ sort of attitude,” Larry Scrivanich says. “And then they walk out with a bottle of each of our grappas.”
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining.” Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.