The Grappa Guys
One Harley, Two Guys and Three Newly Local Spirits
BY ASHLEY GARTLAND
PHOTOS BY LARA FERRONI
Dennis Robertson uncovered his passion for grappa —the bracing Italian brandy distilled from the grape bits, or pomace, left over from wine making – while visiting Italy to pick up a stone machine for his stone business back in 2000. During that trip, he drank his first sip of this classic Italian digestif; soon after, he realized that, like the Italians, he had all the resources he needed to make grappa back home.
“Being here in Woodinville, I see the pomace every fall sitting in the parking lots and I can smell it in the air, and it was just going to waste,” Robertson says. “So, I raised the question to my business partner, ‘why isn’t anyone doing this?'” The answer quickly became clear: under Washington’s old liquor laws, it didn’t make economic sense for people like Robertson or his business partner Larry Scrivanich to leave stable careers to become craft distillers.
But when the state legislature passed a new set of liquor laws in 2008, Robertson and Scrivanich were encouraged to pursue their grappa-making dreams in Woodinville; the changes lowered the liquor license fee from $2000 to $200 for fruit or wine distillers, and allowed distillers to sample and sell their products directly to the public through on-site tasting rooms. True, the law also required distillers to use 51% of state-sourced ingredients in their products but for these soon-to-be grappa makers that stipulation posed nary a challenge. They would source their pomace from local wineries who in turn obtained their grapes from the Columbia Valley.
At Soft Tail Spirits – so named for the Harley motorcycle Robertson bought just before launching the business – the duo began their grappa-making operation by sourcing pomace left over from the crush at nearby DiStefano Winery and DeLille Cellars. “We are taking red wine grapes that have already been fermented when they were pressed,” explains Robertson. “Once they are pressed, what’s left is a pomace which is laced with alcohol. So what normally would go into a landfill, we collect in our microbins, load into the still and extract the balance of that alcohol out of it.”
As is the case for local wineries, fall is the grapparia’s busiest season. Post-crush, the distillers load the Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah wine grape pomace into their shiny Portuguese copper still and heat it up to extract the alcohol. Next, they’ll move it into either stainless steel tanks or French oak barrels to age (the barrel aging being a unique-to-Soft-Tail part of the grappa making process). Finally, six months later, they’ll assemble a group of friends and family to hand bottle and hand label the grappa they pour and sell in their adjacent tasting room.
To create a distinct product, the distillers worked from an old European family recipe, then adjusted the heat, cuts, blending and aging they used during distillation. The result of their trial-and-error distilling process is a line of grappa that is both traditional and reflective of the area and style Robertson hopes will become synonymous with the Soft Tail label. “We use Italian grappa as a benchmark but we are a Washington state grappa and we believe that it compares but that it has subtle differences,” he says.Soft Tail Spirits officially opened its doors and began pouring their grappa to the public in April. The company’s Blanco is a clear, 84-proof basic grappa, while the Giallo is the amber-hued, 84-proof spirit that they stored in French oak to impart a smoky-sweet flavor, subtle complexity and softer character to the spirit. Lastly, they’ve crafted their Reserve grappa, a clear, 100-proof spirit that showcases the exceptional distillates Roberston pulled aside during distilling to make a superior spirit for grappa lovers.
Soft Tails’ smoother style of grappa appeals to new grappa drinkers and visitors who have tried other brands of grappa, but dismissed them as too harsh for their taste. It also attracts locavores and wine country tour groups who are looking for a respite from another glass of Merlot during their trip to Woodinville Wine Country. “Being next to a winery, we get a lot of people coming in after wine tastings who aren’t expecting 84- and 100-proof alcohol. They’re expecting another version of wine,” says Robertson. “But that’s fun because grappa is one of those products that doesn’t have a lot of familiarity.”
Grappa is also a product that repurposes so-called waste to create something new, which is a quality the winemakers Soft Tail partnered with couldn’t praise more. “We had never thought about doing grappa before but it is a great addition,” says Distefano’s Director of Winemaking Mark Newton. “If you think about it from the sustainable agricultural angle, this adds a little bit of that concept by extending the product. The grapes that you get from the earth to turn into wine, you also then turn into grappa before it goes back into the ground.”
Newton compares Soft Tail’s first batch of reserve grappa to some of the best in Italy, as do the clients he sends over from his winery to the Soft Tail Spirits tasting room. It’s through comparisons like these that Robertson hopes to create a following for Soft Tail Spirits grappa and increase local familiarity with the spirit he fell in love with years ago. “It’s nice to start from this vantage and have a product that doesn’t have a wonderful background where you are competing with the history of a wonderful product,” he says. “Grappa actually had this harsh origin so making a product that is smoother and more palatable is working well for us. People coming in are very excited about it and excited about the whole set up here.’
Soft Tail Spirits offers tastings and sells their grappa directly to the public at their tasting room.
12280 NE Woodinville Dr., Suite C in Woodinville Washington. The tasting room is open 12 to 5 weekends, and by appointment during the week.
For more information visit www.softtailspirits.com or call 425-770-1154.
A former Seattleite, Ashley Gartland now lives in Portland where she works as a freelancer writer. She writes about food, drinks and lifestyle of the Pacific Northwest and has previously been published in Northwest Palate, Edible Portland, and Seattle Metropolitan.
For a recipe for a Soft Tail Sour, click here