The Spirit of the Vine

Rich Iddings (left) and Ron Stowell sampling their grappa. Photo courtesy of Knapp Winery

A name like Knapp hardly sounds Italian, and the Finger Lakes for all their beauty bear little resemblance to that stunning Mediterranean peninsula. Both regions do share a passion for grapes, but some feel the essence of the vine is best captured not in bottles of wine but rather in its spirit, transformed through the alchemy of distillation. And in that same spirit, the Knapp Winery can boast of being the first and probably the only distillery that has successfully grafted the Old World tradition of grappa into the New World.

The Finger Lakes region is also home to many Italian-Americans who likewise boast of their gift for coaxing abundance from scarcity, and few better examples exist than grappa. In dialect, the name means “grape stalks,” which along with the stems, seeds and skins remaining from autumnal pressing, form the raw material of this clear, hearty spirit. In more affluent lands, these dregs of winemaking would become animal-fodder or compost, but Italians learned centuries ago that residual sugars with just the addition of water would ferment into alcohol. Roving peddlers distilled this cheap peasant’s drink whose harshness softened the travails and hardships of life. As methods became more refined, Italian grappa acquired middle-class respectability, and its dry finish complements both the bitterness of espresso coffee and the richness of a good meal. Recently, grappa has risen to new levels of sophistication, transforming from rusticity into a mark of luxury sipped in elegant, tulip stemware. The only choices, however, were Italian until the Knapp Winery began production in 1991, and the results rival any imports.

The Process
On distillation days, customers can smell the hard-working still the moment they enter the winery store. “Rather than stems and skins,” Owner/President Gene Pierce explains, “we use mainly Seedless, Aurora and Catawba grapes that are both aromatic and sweet. They ferment to about 12 to 14 percent before we begin distillation, where heat changes the alcohol into vapors.”

This takes place within a magnificent piece of functional sculpture fashioned by Portuguese artisans. The hammered copper creation stands about 5 feet tall with a 4-foot diameter pot. Crowning the 135-gallon vessel is the dome that resembles a Russian cathedral. However, it is not topped with a cross but rather a tube feeding the vapors into the serpentine copper coils of the cooling tank. There, frigid water flowing through a hose condenses the steam called “come over” into a steady trickle of clear liquid that gradually fills a stainless steel bowl placed beneath the spigot. General Manager Kathy Pasqua is proud to show off its high-and low-tech aspects on Knapp Winery tours. The still has become a source of stories. “When emptying the metal pans,” she cautions, “I was ordered not to scrape them along the concrete, which can cause sparking and a possible fire or explosion.” Distiller Rich Iddings says, “I was working one weekend when a guy on tour asked me to fill a jug for him.”         “Another time,” Gene shares, “an employee assigned to watch the still became so engrossed in a book that he didn’t notice the overflowing pan until flames ignited the puddle of spirit and started his pants on fire.”

Heads and Tails
With no tradition of American grappa-making, Rich Iddings had to rely on knowledge and experience gleaned from former owners Doug and Susie Knapp or inherent guidance from his maternal Italian genes. He claims, “It’s a routine, not rocket science, but you must know your heads from the tails, literally.”

Gene explains, “After the pot is filled with wine and the gas burner ignited, the initial distillate called ‘heads’ contains harsh methanol, so the first two gallons are discarded.”

“It tastes a bit like wet straw,” Rich adds, “and would ruin a whole batch.”

The “tails,” the last part of distillation, are equally undesirable, with their characteristic low-alcohol content and off-flavors. Distillers seek the middle product named the “body,” but Rich cautions, “If you push the distillation too hard the spirit becomes harsh, so a 135-gallon pot requires about 15 hours.”

The winery added an innovative spigot to ease the task of filling, draining and cleansing the still, and Knapp works in small batches, a method the industry calls “single-pot distillation.” As the gas flame roars, the thermometer on the dome reveals 160 degrees. Even though it’s December, the heat of distillation gives the massive room packed with barrels of Merlot an almost cozy feeling. Rich explains, “We stow the barrels here because the warmer temperature encourages the secondary malo lactic fermentation that the best Merlot undergoes.”

After eyeing the bobbing hydrometer again he expresses his satisfaction.  “It’s holding about 90 proof,” Rich says, before heading off to complete other tasks. Fifteen minutes later, employee Ron Stowell arrives to empty the pan into stainless steel storage drums, and changes the coffee filter that strains the liquid trickling slightly faster than a leaky faucet. Grap­­­pa requires little aging, and a wee sample reveals the pleasant aromatics, and a smooth taste that finishes with a slight corporal shudder, stemming not from harshness but a warming delight. “It reminds me of my first glass of moonshine,” Ron reminisces.

Distillation Proof
Rather than a brightly-polished finish, the still bears the patina of hard work, particularly in the off-season when labor in the vineyards slackens and the distillation pace accelerates. Knapp not only produces an array of fruit liquors and brandy, “We use the distillate to fortify our port wine, but the limoncello has since become our second-best seller,” Gene adds. This lovely lemon liquor, “Flies out the door,” Rich describes, “But I have to produce a spirit more neutral in flavor than the grappa,” to complement limoncello’s citrus flavor.

The Knapp Winery proudly displays the handsome copper still on its labels gracing the slender, long-necked bottles that contain the 60-proof liquor. Establishing a new American culinary legacy, however, has hardly become a path to riches. Kathy explains, “Distillation, down to the labeling, is heavily regulated and taxed by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.” Quality artisan production of 1,700 gallons annually and governmental duties make Knapp grappa more of an American indulgence than a daily peasant pastime. Still, thanks to the winery’s efforts and talents, everyone can appreciate and celebrate the seasonal cycle of pruning, cultivation, ripening and harvest concentrated into a glass of grappa made right in the Finger Lakes. Salute!

Get into the spirit for yourself at the Knapp Winery located at 2770 County Road 128, Romulus, NY 14541. For information on the seasonal hours of the winery and restaurant call 800-869-9271, fax 607-869-3212 or visit www.knappwine.com.


by James E. Held