Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Silence of the Alambic – The Spirit of Romano Levi

We were walking around Neive, looking for a bite to eat. One of our colleagues, Michele, started talking to this forlorn looking fellow. As it turned out this young man, Fabrizio Sobrero, had recently separated from his wife. To make matters worse, that morning he took a walk by the house he had once shared with his wife and on the patio was another man smoking a cigarette. Fabrizio said to Michele, “I cannot even go into the vineyards; my back is bent over with the pain of loss.” Fabrizio works at the historic Levi distillery in town, and Michele asked him if we could see it. “Why not,” Fabrizio answered, “it would be much better to show you the place than stand here in the street being sad.” So, on a Sunday, Mother’s Day, Fabrizio opened up the distillery made famous by Romano Levi.

How many times have I driven past this place, on my way to Bruno Giacosa, across the street, and never even saw it? Many years ago I trekked to another historic distillery in Monferrato, where I met Susanna Gualco while she was still alive and working. I made a note to someday visit Romano Levi as well. It never happened.

I don’t take easily to any grappa. Most are too harsh, no soul, just jet fuel piled into a full stomach. Lethal for all but the most iron-clad of stomachs. Gualco exposed me to the finesse of grappa.

Around that time I met a distiller in Ft. Worth, Texas, and we brewed up some batches from my Texas wine. It was a learning experience, but I am not a knight of the flame. That is calling for a special kind of person. Romano Levi had the calling. The world came to him for his magical potions. But Levi has been gone for several years now. Fabrizio is one of a small handful of employees (he's worked there since he was 15) who tend the fire, keeping the flame for Levi.

I read recently that the distillery wasn’t the same since Levi died. That new owners took it over and it was a shadow of its former self. Not sure if that was true, I relished a visit, a private tour with sad Fabrizio. The distillery was silent, waiting for the 69th match to strike up the place in the fall.

One could tell he was suffering. His eyes showed the early pain of loss. I told him to countdown two years; pretend it was a long flight to the moon and back. In April of 2015 he would finally be clear of the suffering. He would laugh about it, looking back. His sad eyes wanted to believe me, but he was in the thick of it. He was burning up. But he diverted for a few moments to show us the shrine.

The place is just as Levi left it. Like he walked out for a quart of milk and forgot to return. One of the conditions for the new owners was that they change nothing, leave it like it is. It’s old, but it’s not broken. It’s odd, but oddly, it works. It’s quirky, like the bottles and the labels and the method, but it all fits. In this way the distillery fires on as a living memorial to the man. But make no mistake about it, he left with a succession plan. Young Fabrizio is kind of a monk; I wish you could have been there with us to see him. He eventually forgot about his situation and gave us an hour, unprecedented, on a Sunday. We saw things that few people get to see. I was like a Japanese tourist with my two cameras, shooting every last detail.

Life is a series of coincidences. Were we meant to see the distillery? Or were we meant to divert Fabrizio from his momentary moroseness?

Did Romano Levi summon us to cheer up his young acolyte?

The product is sound, and that comes from a skeptic of grappa. Lovely, lovely distillation. What else? How about some pictures? I could say more, and should, or maybe distill this down to the essence. Let’s just go with this so far and some selected visuals. Again, the wine (and grappa) gods shine on us.

Several hours later as we were driving through Barbaresco, Fabrizio was sitting as a table with five friends. He was laughing, had a nice bottle of wine to share. We called out to him as we drove by; stopped to see him. His eyes weren’t as sad. The Nebbiolo helped. Not being alone did even more. Fabrizio was counting down the days. 709 days to go.

 written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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