Listening to Giannola Nonino
A year ago a few of us were lucky enough to share two days with the Nonino family. The Noninos are the most well known grappa producers in Italy, known for a series of innovations in production that succeeded in raising the status of grappa worldwide.
While Benito Nonino distilled the grappa, his wife Giannola developed many of the ideas, and packaging that helped raised Benito’s work to such prominence. Today their three daughters are thoroughly involved in running Nonino, and have gone on to continue the tradition of innovation and quality. After working on it for a decade, the three daughters succeeded at figuring out how to distill honey, for example.
If you don’t already know how grappa is made, you can check out my Behind the Scenes at Nonino piece over at Serious Eats, here.
While with the Nonino family, Cathy Huyghe and I asked Giannola to share more of her story. Jeremy Parzen translated. The following is a transcript of her story as translated by Jeremy. She begins by speaking of her family history as the foundation of the work she did for Nonino, as well as for how she raised their children.
“It’s really important to start this story by telling the education I received from my parents. My father was very learned, well read. They were children of immigrants.
“My grandfather, at the end of the 19th c. immigrated to Argentina from Italy. He was part of a big wave of immigration to Argentina. My father was born in Argentina, then came back to Italy. At the end of the 19th c. a lot of people went hungry in Friuli. There was a lot of suffering. My grandfather left Cividale all by himself.
“Thanks to the priest from Cividale he met his wife. He went to the priest in Argentina and said, I want to get married. I am in Argentina. I want to marry a nice girl with her head on her shoulders. The priest in Argentina wrote to a priest in Cividale. So thanks to the priest from Cividale, and another in Argentina, all by letter, he found a wife.
“He had gone to Argentina so he would put food on the table. You got off the boat in Argentina and they gave you a plow. They said, you can pick land. You put stakes around the land, and work as much as you want.
“My grandma left Italy without knowing anything about this person. They would meet at the other side of the journey, and when she said goodbye to family she didn’t know if she would ever see them again. This is what hunger and poverty did to people. They were forced to make such decisions.
“My grandfather was successful, and finally able to come back to Friuli with my father. At the time my father was 25 years old. He opened a small factory, made plows, and farming equipment. My father for this reason was a great lover of this land.
“He bought land in Percoto, Italy. At that point, my father had a company with 60 workers. At the same time, my father was a very sensitive person, and well read. He began to study customs, and traditions of Friuli. From the time I was very little we were going out and learning about Friuli tradition. That’s how as a young child I learned about indigenous grape varieties of the area.”
Giannola Nonino helped to preserve, and reestablish farming of indigenous varieties in Friuli. They had been illegal, and her work with farmers, and outreach to politicians helped instigate legal changes that supported the reestablishment of indigenous varieties in the region.
To further this cause she conceived of the Nonino Prize for those growing indigenous grape varieties. Paolo Rapuzzi of Ronchi di Cialla famously won the Nonino Prize for his saving Schioppettino by hunting feral vines in the hills along the Friuli-Slovenia border.
“My parents taught us how to behave in the world. We were raised not to just be frivolous girls in the world. Our identity was in our intelligence, and how we conveyed our intelligence. We were determined our projects should be conceived without hurting anyone, and we knew we could overcome any obstacle. Never give up.
“I was not a good mother. I was severe. I would try to give them what they wanted but there were rules, and they needed to follow. They had to be good at school, to study. They had to be obedient, and from when they were very little they would get in the truck with me, and we would look for pomace [to make grappa]. But from third grade, they never went to bed without me checking their homework.
“The first thing to give your children is affection. The most important thing is affection. But then you have to teach them how to respect themselves, and how to respect others. You have to do well in school, and you have to play, and when you grow up you should do a job you really enjoy because if you don’t enjoy it it’s going to weigh on you.
“I know I love my children more than anything in the world but I never lost track that they would respect themselves, and respect others. As a mother you want to give them everything but you have to teach your children that anything they receive takes a lot of energy. Other people have put a lot of energy into whatever it is we have.
“My father is the one that gave the knowledge of our land, and the love of our culture to me. But above all he valued keeping alive all of this knowledge because otherwise the cost is the loss of our identity. Just like what she does.” Giannola points to me referencing an earlier conversation, “sending her daughter back to Alaska where her whole family is from. Otherwise all of these roots would just die in the street.
“In a society like we are living now, in the entire world, this is the foundation of this loss of security our children have, this loss of knowledge.
“That is my advice. Convey to your children that knowledge of your land, and your people. It is without this knowledge we cannot live like real people. It is without this that we fight and we kill each other. It is with this knowledge we live as real people.
” I believe my father, as the son of an immigrant who became an immigrant himself is someone who, the values are even stronger in him.
“What I give to my children, and what my grandparents give to me, the knowledge of family, is the most valuable thing we can have.
Growing Nonino Grappa
“First I fell in love with my husband, Benito, then I fell in love with his job. I call it the art of distillery. I hope you have felt the same emotion I felt the first time I watched distillation happening. From that moment I wanted to learn how to distill. It is a magical thing to take the grape, and turn it into a crystalline distillate of the grape.
“The first of December 1973 we made the first monovarietal distillate of Picolit. At noon sharp on that first of December 1973 as the first drops of the grappa came, I drew them to my nose, and I knew our experiment had succeeded.”
Nonino was the first in history to make monovarietal grappa. Winemaking in the region previously made mixed white wine, and mixed red wine without separating grape types. Because grappa is made with the grape pommace, after the wine is pressed from the skins, the material available depended on the style of winemaking already established.
Making a single varietal grappa in order to celebrate the varieties indigenous to the region was Giannola’s idea. She worked with farmer’s wives through the region, offering to pay them in addition to paying the husbands for the grapes in order to secure pommace separated by grape type.
Prior to Nonino’s innovations with monovarietal grappa, grappa was seen only as a worker’s distillate, not as a drink for finer tables. Giannola also worked to change that attitude.
“It occurred to me at that time that consumers that had a snobby attitude about grappa, they needed to taste this grappa. If we sold it as a normal grappa, they would have refused to taste it. At that time we did not even talk about marketing or talk about packaging. I realized if I put it into a refined container that would make the consumer curious. Then they would taste it, and fall in love with it.
“So we put the grappa in the old medicinal style bottles, and had the label that described which grape variety and its qualities, and the bottles were individually numbered as well, and it was like the bottle had an ID card as well that came with it. All of these qualities together gave our grappa the right to be considered top quality. The packaging was just a means to an end, teaching the public about the quality of our grappa.
“In 1975 we created the Nonino Prize in order to save indigenous grape varieties of Friuli. It was forbidden at that time to grow them. From 1975 to 8 we worked to save, rescue those varieties. Then the law changed, and it became a literary prize. The literary prize started as a way to document realities of farm life in Friuli. Industrial culture may die, but the death of rural farming culture would also be the death of all humanity.”
the Nonino Family, from left: Giannola, Cristina, Antonella, Elisabeta, Benito Nonino
“My daughters were with me even during the night. My daughters were born in the pommace. All we did was talk about grappa grappa grappa. They fell in love with work.
“Benito and I traveled through the best places for wine in Europe. We decided to make an artisanal distillery for our daughters so whenever the need arose, our daughters would know how to distill because they did it with their own hands. That is when we invented the UE grape distillate, a distillate from skin, and juice, and pulp, and grapes. The UE has the elegance of wine, the aromas and characters and flavors of skins.”
Grappa is made with grape pommace, that is after the wine has been pressed off the skins, what is left is distilled into grappa. The Noninos were the first to distill the entire grape in what they call their UE.
“In 2000, our daughters, so that they would not be outdone by their parents created honey distillate, Gioiello, which was extremely difficult. It was a huge victory for them to prove to themselves that they could achieve the same greatness as their parents.
“As a woman, I always had to battle because I was so determined, and I knew the high quality of grappa my husband produced. I decided we were going to make my husband the greatest distillate in the world. So, in the mid-1960s I started a battle to transform grappa from Cinderella to a quality distillate. I did it thanks to my determination, and especially because my husband is the best distiller in the world.
“He has such intimate knowledge of the raw material, and created a special still to preserve the aromas and flavors, and he is never entirely satisfied, always to make it better and better. I believe one of the qualities that helped us transform, the number one thing we were hoping to achieve was never perfect but the attainment of absolute quality of the best grappa.
“My first trip to New York, I did not speak English, and had no translator but wanted to tell my story. So in front of a mirror I memorized the story in English, and I understood the expression I had to make. I practiced again and again, and it was a great success.
“These were the grapes my father taught me to love. I had to preserve them, or I would have betrayed the values my father taught me to love. Twenty years later, our daughters, we have given them the value of our land, and they have become even more rigorous.
“My story is a story of passion. If I was born again, I would do it the same again.”
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They make a very fine Amaro also!