“My mama was a pioneer of being a woman in a field of men. Could you imagine in the ’70s, she was the one that opened the field, not only [for] distillers but also wine producers?” says Elisabetta Nonino with obvious pride. Invited to speak at Grapperia in early May by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, Nonino is one of three Italian sisters (along with Cristina and Antonella Nonino) who run the Nonino grappa distillery, in the Friuli region of northeast Italy.
The family has been producing some of Italy’s finest grappa since 1897. The company began as a movable still on wheels. When Elisabetta’s parents, Benito and Giannola Nonino, took over the distillery in the early 1960s, the Italian government was starting to tighten regulations on grappa distillation, requiring a government seal and standard labeling. Grappa is made from pomace, the pulp of grape seeds, stems and skins left over from wine-making. At the time, it was often looked upon as swill, and the new regulations were met to combat this.
These changes pushed the young couple to innovate. In 1967, they produced an aquavitae from a single varietal of grapes, followed six years later by a single-varietal grappa, Picolit. Because grappa had traditionally been seen as just a convenient byproduct of wine-making, vintners didn’t take the time to separate the leftover pomace from their harvests. It was labor-intensive and slowed their work, but it avoided grappa that was a murky mixture of different flavors. In pursuit of a single-varietal grappa, Elisabetta Nonino says her mother appealed to the winemakers’ wives. “To produce the first grappa monovitigno [grappa made from a single grape varietal], Picolit, she had to fight a lot. She can only achieve this result with the help of other [women] in the wineries,” says Nonino, explaining that her mother had offered to pay extra for pomace that was divided by type of grape. Often, the wives offered to take on the task themselves in order to earn the extra cash. Soon, Giannola had enough women working for her that Picolit could be born.
All the while, Giannola and Benito were raising their three young daughters in the business. Benito taught them distilling, and Giannola took them along on business trips to promote the brand. “Until three years ago, my mom had a license to drive the trucks. We always were raised in a family where we never had a difference between male and female,” says Nonino. Today, the three daughters are preparing to train the next generation of Noninos to take on the family business. “My niece Francesca, she is 26 and she is starting to join us in the company,” says Nonino, beaming. The company continues to innovate, producing single-varietal grappas from moscato, chardonnay and merlot, as well as riservas (aged grappa) and amaro.