As Sonoma Portworks has previously taken on the challenge to help educate Americans on the port and fortified wines, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for them to try and do more. To do more, though, they had to look next door.
The Petaluma, California-based port maker opened up 15 years ago, followed a month later by Sweetwater Distillers next door. With extra port left in their pomace — the grape byproduct — from the company’s port production method, founder Bill Reading said the logical move was to collaborate on a grappa, or grape-based brandy.
“It seemed a shame to discard all the extra product,” Reading said. “It was all started by happenstance because of this unique neighbor situation.”
Now, Sonoma Portworks has three products in its American grappa portfolio: California Grappa, Port Barrel Aged California Grappa, and Fig’n Awesome.
Like making grappa in the first place, the entire line of Sonoma Portwork’s grappas came from a line of common sense.
Already making grappa, Reading was taking calls from distillers across the country looking to age their whiskeys in port barrels.
“If they could use them to age whiskey, maybe we can age our grappas,” Reading remembers thinking.
With California being an incredibly diverse agriculture state, Reading started buying figs from a grower, realizing they might be a nice complement to the base grappa. The figs are steeped for eight to ten weeks in freshly distilled grappa before packaging.
“It creates a lovely, almost eau-de-vie product full of beautiful aromas and flavors,” Reading said.
While Reading knows of several other grappa producers in California, he’s surprised it’s not a product that’s grown significantly along with the massive wine industry as a whole. Instead, those making grappa are tasked with a mighty uphill battle, partially stemming from its Italian origin.
How to get more people drinking grappa is a question Reading and the rest of the team at Sonoma Portworks find themselves asking often.
“If it’s well-made, it can be delightful,” he said. “But it has this nasty reputation. There is a lot of grappa in Italy, but a lot of it is made by families or restaurants, not for commercial purposes, not regulated. I suspect that’s a lot of it. People were exposed in Italy to these high-octane versions so it has this reputation.”
Aside from a high-proof reputation, Reading said another barrier could be the lack of versatility.
“It doesn’t seem to have the flexibility that say gin, vodka, or rum have,” he said. “We’re experimenting with that in mind, trying to develop cocktails that would have the same acceptance and we’ve come up with some interesting options that are close.”
For now, Reading has some simple serving suggestions for the three grappas, all of which he loves.
For the traditional grappa, he suggests serving over ice with a bit of soda water, or not, and with a splash of lemon or lime. The port barrel-aged grappa provides “soft whiskey characteristics” and Reading suggests drinking like a Scotch.
For Fig’n Awesome, Reading said it’s plenty “lovely on its own,” especially when kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
“Hot weather like we’re approaching, it can be a great late afternoon refresher,” Reading said.
With the explosion of small distillers across the country, Reading said he’s surprised more aren’t teaming up with wineries to create grappas. If there were more quality American grappa available, he believes the fight to bring down the negative barriers would be easier.
“We’re used to doing it,” he said. “Our primary business is after-dinner wines, so we’re doing the same things as a lot of people don’t understand that category either. We emphasize what it is and what does it mean.”