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The Maverick of the Italian Grappa
Maverick and tradition might seem to be contradictory terms. But in Sandro Bottega and his creations, they distil together beautifully.
By Massimo Gava
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With Sandro Bottega, it’s a very different story. He is a naturally hyperactive man driven by love for his job and for the people he works with. He treats them like friends and is always ready to help whenever he can. I know it sounds almost unreal in a world where people at the top are more inclined to look only after only their wallets. But if you have doubts, consider this: Why would one go to Japan in the middle of the worst natural disaster ever so far, if not to help a friend?
Not convinced yet? OK, how about creating an exclusive bottle of sparkling wine with the Wish for Japan logo as his contribution to the charity programme pioneered by the employees of the Shangri-la Hotel in Tokyo? You can find the bottle in a few selected duty-free shops around the world.
All revenue is donated to the disaster relief fund that purchases food and other necessities for the victims of the last year’s tsunami, many of whom are still living in small shelters in the affected areas on the northeastern coast of Japan. I guess this is enough to convince even the most hardened sceptic, wouldn’t you say?
Certainly the fact that Sandro was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth has helped him to be the boss that everybody would like to have.
“Adversity can create opportunities and make you stronger,” says Sandro, looking at me with his sparkling brown eyes. And he surely knows the true meaning of the word. Sandro found himself, at the age of 19 and just out of high school, at the head of a small family business. His father passed away suddenly and, together with his mother, he had to carry on the family business founded in 1947. He tells me that he had to go around Italy selling his products to supermarkets whilst his mother was at home looking after both his underage siblings and the distillery.
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When he was too far away to return home for the night, he slept in the car to save money. Banks were not keen on lending money to a small business whose director was a wilful young man, no matter how capable he was.
So he concentrated on selling his product in order to keep his family and the business afloat. Now more than 20 years on, Sandro Bottega is the leader in the distillation sector with Alexander grappa and other products like Prosecco wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and so on, under his belt.
In his headquarters in Bibano, about 40 km from Venice, in the foothills of one the most enchanting areas of Italy, he has a farmhouse where 100 people from different cultural backgrounds work and produce an annual turnover of 35 million euros.
In the museum of fakes he has created next door to one of the meeting rooms, Sandro displays all the bottles that have been copied from his design. It is a testament to the fact that beside the quality of the product itself, the most amazing part of what Signor Bottega makes is the fantastic, carefully designed packaging.
His products are distributed in 110 countries dominating the duty-free shops around the world. I remember picking up a bottle of Alexander grappa in Cape Town. Once, passing through Singapore on my way to Hong Kong then to LA, I bought a limited edition of a white-leather encased Amarone Prêt-à-Porter bottle, designed by American designer Denise Focil, only to find out that my host, whom I had wanted to surprise with an extraordinary Thanksgiving present, not only already had a bottle of the Bottega’s grappa on display in his drinks cabinet, but also a bottle of a diamond sparkling Pinot Noir in the ice box, ready to be served as an aperitif .
“Design has always been at the centre of my innovation” says Sandro. “ Grappa is an excellent product but historically has always been associated with peasant drinking, in the same way as potheen was for the Irish: a homemade spirit used a as a cure for everything in those days.”
With a new and sophisticated technological process made with a new alembic (guess what – he also designed that!), Sandro has managed not only to keep intact the fragrance of the different grapes but also to enhance their flavour.
“You see,” he explains to me, gesticulating with his hands as if he is trying to gain a convert, “the grappa made from Brunello di Montalcino grapes is different from the one that comes from the Amarone or the Prosecco, and not only in cost but in the aromas that flavour the grappa.”
Speaking of fragrance, one product that captivated my attention out of the numerous bottles on display, was the grappa perfume. It seemed excessive to think that anybody would want to smell like an alcoholic, but it is a perfect example of how the mind of the grappa maverick from Venice works.
“Yes,” he explains to me, “it is like a perfume in a bottle, but it is not for wearing. Unless,” he laughs, “ you feel like it, for whatever reason! But I think it’s more suitable for sprinkling on a cigar so as to please the smoker with that after-taste, or adding a touch of fragrance to your oysters or on a good, dark, fair-trade chocolate or any other dish that needs a bit of extra taste. With this bottle you can carefully control how much taste you add.” Mmm, my mouth is almost watering at the thought!
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Sandro’s innovations, though, do not stop there. The bottles which he puts his precious grappas in are made by local glass factories he has developed, together with some of Murano’s master glassmakers.
The work they do is amazing. The bottles display different themes that suit the different grappa flavours. For the Venice carnival, for instance, he created a grappa bottle with colourful masks. Signor Bottega with his artist-glassmakers has managed to turn a bottle of grappa into a luxury object or, even better, a deluxe gourmet cult object that looks amazing, displayed at the top of your cabinet.
It is now very trendy in Italy, after a meal, to display on the centre of your table a series of grappas and to sample their different flavours, while carrying on your conversation. For the guest with a “softer palate,” as the maverick from Venice charmingly put it, Sandro has an answer. For them, he has created a special line of grappa-based products dedicated to the woman’s world. Here we have products like the Limoncella or a cream of Gianduia, and the Rose Petal liqueur – to name just a few.
Being faithful to his motto of helping friends whenever he can, Sandro has teamed up with Breast Health International (BHI), a charity headed by Susan Schwartz, to donate the money from the sale of the Rose’ BHI to fund breast cancer research. Now wait! Don’t jump immediately to an unfair conclusion. Again fate has played another trick on Sandro’s life. His mother, unfortunately, passed away not so long ago and this cause is very close to his heart. His position on alcohol consumption is also very clear – Sandro is adamant in condemning binge drinking. “Our Italian culture cannot be further from that,” he said after politely hinting that I was being too underhand with my question, trying to link cancer to alcohol consumption,
“I keep saying that the first glass of wine gives you energy, the second puts you in a good mood, the third lets you tell the truth and then – well, we don’t need to go any further, do we!. We’re promoting a cultural awareness here, which I do by doing what I do best. It’s like eating loads of tasty almonds. If you’re foolish enough to eat two kilos because you think it’s fun and then die from the poison they have after eating excessively, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world has to be deprived of the pleasure of eating them in moderation, does it?”
Certainly nobody can argue with that. But before I go, the maverick from Venice has another suggestion that initially sounded like a warning to me.
“Just remember!” he said, looking me straight in the eye. “Whatever you do and whatever selection of grappa you choose, remember, never swirl it around, like you do when you taste wine or cognac! It’s wrong! The alcohol vapours will deaden your nose and you won’t be able to appreciate the full taste of the grappa.” Then, smiling, he said, “It’s important you explain this to your Dante readers and any novice that wants to get to know this delightful after-dinner drink.” Here the passion for what he does comes out again. It is so rooted in Sandro that all his self-made, entrepreneurial skills are set aside and the dedication of the artist shines through.
It is said that one cannot be friends with everybody and we all know that there are moments that a friendly boss can be not-so-friendly. But it is certainly true that when you walk around the premises at the Bottega farm, a sense of joy pervades the workplace. And it is nothing to do, as you might think, with the fumes coming out of the distillery! It is about the sense of trust, tradition, and belonging that Sandro and the members of his family have managed to create around them that speaks volumes for his success around the world.