Friday, October 26, 2012

A visit to the Serafino Levi distillery after the death of Romano Levi

Romano Levi passed away in 2008 and there is a hole in my experience where there could have been a visit to meet him at the distillery where he lived. He was the father of a grappa that clung to and changed the texture of my senses, in the same way that moss grows on the hard bark of a tree. It is true, as a friend said to me, that in the Piemonte there is a generational change occurring. Bartolo is dead. Baldo is dead. Battista Rinaldi is dead. At many of the producers you have heard of the famous name behind the label is 60, 70, 80 years old. Their children, who have cellphones, who have Facebook, who have left the region to travel, now guide the tours. And I love all of those people. But Romano had no children, and for me the connection is lost. Just as it is for Zabaldano. Or Franco Fiorina.

Recently I discovered that the Levi distillery was still in operation, which surprised me. The workers appeared to be using the old methods, and in homage to Romano. I thought I had found my second chance. I scheduled a visit as soon as I could.

While sitting in the tasting room of Bartolo Mascarello, I noticed a bottle on the cabinet. Maria Teresa, it turned out, had supplied the Levi distillery with pomace from her winery. But she told me that she stopped doing so after Romano's death. She said that she no longer understood who owned the distillery, and that she declined to feed it as a result.

After visiting the Levi distillery, I do not know the answer to the ownership question either, and I share Maria Teresa's concern. I was told that Serafino Levi (Serafino was the name of Romano's father) is now held jointly by two corporations, but I was not told their names. The person leading our tour spoke lovingly of Romano, and said that he had been treated as one of the man's own family, which may well be true. But I was unable to confirm this from the many photographs on the walls, as none of those that I saw showed the speaker sharing a frame with Romano. He did look rather handsome in the picture of the limousine, though. Also in the shot with the many beautiful women. The adopted son, I mean.

I tasted the grappa that is being sold by the distillery today. Some of the hallmarks of a Levi grappa were there stylistically, but they seemed to be living without vital organs. Hollowed out from the inside. The labels for which the distillery was famous are now photocopied and colored in. There is a riserva grappa on offer. Also a special riserva. And there is a lot of alcoholic heat. "They're hot" has always been a criticism leveled at Levi grappa by those who have never liked them, but this was the first time that I had tasted the heat myself.

I became a bit sick during the visit. I realized that there would be no reunion. I remembered as a child I had let a houseplant die through neglect, and afterwards I had over watered it, hoping the life would come back like before. This was the same. It was gone. I didn't want to write this post, or the article for publication that I had planned, and I wasn't going to.

But I had to be honest with myself. This is the same landscape that Romano saw. He and his sister. This was their house. I was there and I can share some of that with you. I think that is in some way valuable. So I have done so. Please don't be angry with me.

Owls. The owls are everywhere at Serafino Levi. I could only think of Hegel, "the owl of Minerva flies at dusk."

One of several barrel ageing rooms, decorated in the Levi fashion.

The sitting room. It recalled for me Van Gogh's Bedroom in Arles.

They say that Romano never cleaned a cobweb, but instead let them grow as his company on the ramshackle decorations and window sills.

Perhaps this was near where Romano's sister Lidia cultivated the ruta.

It was hard to know now.

Messages from the past, and some that were recent.

In the courtyard is the main silo.

This is filled with pomace.

Which is then covered over with sand.

They used to use a candle to sense the presence of noxious gas emanating from the pomace, but it seems that they use a machine to perform this function now. It emits a beeping noise if the gas level reaches a harmful threshold.

There was the still room.

The old copper alembic.

The classic 70cl bottles.

Off in another room there was the furnace.

The fire was fed with shoveled in bricks of used pomace.

And the fire directly heated the still.

I saw three ageing rooms at the distillery.

And perhaps more barrels than might account for 300 bottles a year, which is what I had understood the production to previously have been.

I do not know when this contemporary seeming construction was added to the distillery grounds.

But I do know that this other outbuilding dates to Romano's lifetime.

It is where the pomace bricks meant for the fire were stored.

Also these. It was startling to see shrink wrapped bottles stacked to the ceiling at a producer rumored to have sometimes limited sales to those who would return with an empty to be refilled.

But perhaps the photocopied labels are easier to turn out than the old ones, which had been drawn individually, and by hand.

There are the new backs labels as well.

There are the references to Romano Levi's Jewish heritage on the walls.

And also Christian imagery.

I was unsure what to make of the combination.

It is hard to separate fact from fable, now that Romano is so far away.


Steven said...

Thanks for sharing that, Levi. You are a good photographer. When you entered the still room I felt a chill, as though I could see Ramano Levi's ghost. I'm sorry the visit was bittersweet.

Bob Siddoway said...

Wonderful, gorgeous photos! I love those oldschool winemaking setups.