Romano Levi: The Angels’ Share

Last May, I arrived in Alba about a week after Romano Levi died. Normally, Alba has a lot on its mind: The bustling, fashionable little city is the heart of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, the center of the whole Langhe wine trade, and the capital of the white truffle universe. But not that week. Every wall, every post, bore memorial notices mourning the passing of il grappaiolo angelico.

Almost every shop window – not just wine stores, but grocery stores, book stores, clothing stores – held displays of Romano Levi’s grappa bottles, all with his immediately identifiable line drawings, simple black-and-red sketches of shining suns and his famous “wild woman,” la donna selvatica. Stacks of bottles stared at me from every window – and nobody would sell me a single one.

(Photos courtesy of Lorenzo Conterno, www.romanolevi.net.)

Respect? Veneration? The wish to keep a relic, now that there would be no more? Or greed, speculating that now that there would be no more, the prices would rise? Who knows? That ambivalence, the question mark erected by the inescapable cash nexus, is a hallmark of our times. The wonder is that it overtook Romano Levi only after his death: All his life, he resisted it with a simplicity of heart and intention that justified his posthumous title, the Angelic Grappa-maker.

Il grappaiolo angelico

I can’t claim to be a friend of Romano Levi, much as I wish I could. I met him on a few occasions – the first by courtesy of Angelo Gaja, who in those days sent his vinaccie (the solids left over after fermenting the grape juice: in English, pomace) to Levi to be distilled into grappa – and I visited him a few times after that. He was a small, shy man, almost a recluse. He lived all his life in the same small house with his sister. His distillery – Merlin’s cave – was just behind, all contained within the same fenced and gated compound. The distillery was as simple – some said primitive – as can be imagined: one ancient pot still, a lot of tubes, many demijohns, and not much light. More than one American visitor has been heard to murmur “OSHA would close this place in a minute.”

The wizard stoking his cauldron

That didn’t matter. What mattered was what came out of that pot still, whether it was the clear, first-run grappa or the espresso-dark, passed-through-several-woods aged grappa. The fact is that no one else made grappa like that, and no other grappa smelled or tasted like that. A direct-fire still and only one distillation (most commercially made grappa usually gets at least two) produced a spirit rich in congeners, which translate into the flavors we actually perceive. An absolutely pure spirit tastes of nothing at all. Levi’s had plenty of flavor and other things as well – so much methyl, the legend had it, that his grappas couldn’t be imported to the US. 

Were they fiery? For sure: This was real grappa, the way the country people used to make it for themselves. Romano’s father Serafino (his name still appeared on every label) had been an itinerant grappa-maker, towing his portable still around from farm to farm to distill each family’s grappa for their own use. In those days, country people drank grappa as medicine, to see them through the winter, to help digest all the polenta and rice that used to be so large a part of their diet, or even as a little toke of warmth to face a chilly morning.  I can testify to the bracing power of a little hit of caffè corretto on a chilly north-Italian morning.

Grappa has become a lot more fashionable these days. Nonino’s Ue and the soft, stylish grappas of Jacopo Poli have won high status in up-scale restaurants all around the world, most of them the sorts of places that would never have offered a Levi grappa.  Presentation has become at least as important as content, and fanciful, often quite lovely bottles have become commonplace. Grappa purists (there are many of us) smile a little condescendingly at that. Bruno Ceretto, a serious grappaiolo, once disgustedly said to me, “It’s not about grappa any more, it’s all about glassblowing.” The most prestigious distillery in Italy right now is probably Berta, which makes very refined, warm-amber grappas that are well along the road to cognac in appearance and aroma and flavor – nothing fiery or rustic there.

It wasn’t always that way, of course. When I first traveled in Italy, grappa was localized and a bit of an embarrassment – the trucker’s breakfast, from Tuscany to the Alps. If you asked for one to help digest an enormous Piedmontese dinner, you would first be offered Cognac, then an Italian brandy, and finally, with some disbelief that this was really what you wanted, a grappa. Gradually, however, a cult developed, and Romano Levi was one of the inspiring figures behind it. The question “Is there a local grappa?” became a talisman for my travels, an open-sesame that often led to a beaming “Yes there is, and I make it” response and an hour of conversation with another appassionato. In those years, as grappas got better and better, and began to catch on in Alpine ski resorts as a warming antidote to winter, Romano Levi started to become legend.

Stories about him abounded – for instance, about the German importer who promised to make him wealthy: “Send me 60,000 cases a year and I will sell every drop!” Romano, dismayed, said it was impossible. “6,000 then?” No, no, impossible. “600?” No. “What then? How many can you send me?” Romano, thoughtfully: “I could manage 6.”  “Only 6 cases?”  “Oh, no: 6 bottles.” Levi neither confirmed nor denied that story, but I have heard him say that he could bottle only 60 liters of grappa a week, because that was all the labels he could draw. And I know he was a lifelong subscriber to a newspaper he never read (and whose politics I’m pretty sure he disapproved of) because it was the perfect size to wrap his grappa bottles.

I suspect he would be embarrassed by the cult that has overtaken him posthumously: he really was a shy person. For him, the grappa was the point, and he worked tirelessly to make the real thing – warming, intense, a bit rustic, but tasting always of the soul of the vine. Happily for us, there are other distillers still making that kind of grappa – the Marolo brothers, for instance, who produce a whole battery of Piedmont grappas. And many winemakers have started taking a much more personal interest in the fate of their vinaccie, with the result that we can now get excellent grappas from many different sources: Jacopo Biondi-Santi’s Montepò estate gives a bracing Grappa di Morellino di Scansano, the Benanti family’s Etna estates give a lovely Grappa di Pietramarina, the Soave zone produces a diversity of fine grappas – for instance, Monte Tondo’s Grappa di Recioto di Soave.

So while the winter cold still assails us, pour yourself a hefty shot of grappa, and as you sip it (you should always sip a good grappa, never gulp it), smile a little smile in memory of the elfin little man whose spirit lives on in those spirits.

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