Traveling through the Italian region of Friuli, about two hours north of Venice, you’ll notice small, multi-hued, centuries-old villages dotting the countryside. A couple hundred years ago, the wealthy class color-coded their properties, but real estate was not the only luxury they claimed; wine was produced only for the rich and the leftover pomace was given to their workers to distill into a spirit. This working man’s hooch, grappa, got the job done, but was never a high-quality product by any means.
Traditionally, distillers went house-to-house with mobile stills on wheels, gathering pomace – the pulpy residue remaining after juice has been extracted from fruit – for production, but in 1897 Orazio Nonino established a permanent distillery, marking the beginning of the Nonino legacy.
The generations that followed produced grappa in the same ancestral manner, but it was when Giannola, the visionary matriarch, married into the family in 1962 that Nonino was shaken from its dormancy. To meet Giannola now – a 5-foot-tall powerhouse with a surprisingly strong embrace, deep laugh, and innate fashion sense – it’s easy to understand why the family followed her vision for the distillery’s future. To this day, Benito, her husband, still looks at her with adoration (and a little bit of fear).
The couple replaced equipment, refined their process, and began working with fresh – as opposed to days-old – pomace. During this time, they produced not only grappa of increasing quality, but three daughters: Cristina, Antonella, and Elisabetta. The biggest breakthrough came in 1973; under Giannola’s direction, the duo created the first single-varietal grappa, made from the native grape Picolit. A turning point for the grappa industry in general, the Cru Monovitigno Picolit showcased the finesse and elegance the ill-reputed spirit was capable of expressing.
Intuitively understanding the importance of marketing, Giannola bottled this artisanal distillate in a distinctive, bulbous glass container normally used for perfume. Labels, personally signed by Giannola, indicated the production year, similar to how wine indicates a vintage. Launching what could be considered one of the first influencer campaigns, she sent bottles of grappa to celebrities and the Italian elite.
Her methods worked. The business grew and continued to innovate the spirits industry: distillates with other grape varieties, aged grappas, and most importantly, a grappa from whole grape clusters – not pomace – made the international market take notice of this small distillery.
The fiery enthusiasm Giannola put into the distillery spread to other projects. Passionate about preserving the indigenous grapes that were rapidly disappearing from the Friuli landscape, Giannola founded the Golden Vine Shoot Award in 1975, presented annually to a local grower who cultivated native varietals. Upon learning that strict agricultural restrictions were contributing to the vines’ demise, she petitioned – and successfully overturned – the governmental ban.
With an arsenal of high-end spirits in their portfolio, Benito and Giannola set out to conquer cocktail culture. Grappa was, and still is, drunk neat, often as a digestif, but the Noninos wanted grappa cocktails to be as ubiquitous as the bellini, Venice’s contribution to cocktail lists worldwide. Their efforts paid off; grappa earned a spot in many bartenders’ creations, and the famous Italian wine writer and critic, Luigi Veronelli, included four Nonino grappa drinks, dedicated to Giannola, Cristina, Antonella, and Elisabetta, in his seminal book “Cocktails,” published in 1981.
Giannola’s marketing instincts continued to build the brand. Ad campaigns, featuring the highly photogenic Nonino women, were on the forefront of the “real people as models” movement, now often utilized by fashion and beauty brands.
Once they came of age, the three daughters seamlessly integrated into the company. They now oversee all aspects of the business, but instead of complacently following their legacy, the three created a line of distillates made from honey – true offspring of their entrepreneurial mother. (Their husbands all maintain separate careers; this is a family business, through and through). Giannola’s granddaughters, the next generation of grappa royalty, are starting to play a role in the business, bringing a youthful viewpoint to the 120-year-old distillery.