Fiore Winery Gets into the Spirit: A Maryland vintner distills new revenue with grappa and limoncello
By Sam Meddis
When Maryland state Sen. Barry Glassman sought to persuade his skittish colleagues to support a bill permitting distillery operations at wineries, he brought along Exhibit A.
That would be Mike Fiore, a Harford County vineyard and winery owner whose winemaking memories go back to his childhood on the family farm in Italy.
"He immediately captivated the committee with stories of the old country," Glassman recalled. "He shares a lot of the success for getting the law passed and easing their concerns."
That law, enacted in 2005, allowed wineries to distill up to 200 gallons of beverage per year. Three years later, after persevering through a long licensing process and finally finding two Portuguese copper stills he could afford, Fiore made his first batch of grappa, and later limoncello - two specialty drinks that fit in nicely with Fiore's theme: "The Maryland wine with an Italian accent."
"I wanted to show my Italian roots as much as possible," said Fiore. "My family was always in the wine business - wine and olive oil."
Fiore left the economically distressed southern Italian region of Calabria in 1962. Emigration was taking a heavy toll on vineyard workforces, so he sold the family's store of wine and impetuously bid farewell to his widowed mother: "I took the money, put it on the dining room table, and I said, 'This is it, I'm leaving.'"
Several weeks later, at age 17, "I was staring at the Statue of Liberty," he said. He quickly found work at a family friend's produce-packing business in Boston, where he soon met his future wife, Rose.
In 1975, attracted by northern Maryland's open spaces and rolling hills, the couple bought a 14.5-acre farm for $20,000 amid the cornfields of Pylesville. To his surprise, Fiore discovered that the land had some of the same characteristics as the fine winegrowing regions of northern Italy.
Fiore decided to plant a patch of cabernet sauvignon for personal consumption - 600 vines, which stand to this day. With at least one foot back in the winegrowing game, he began meeting growers and agricultural experts who "put wind behind my sails to bring me back to the wine business," Fiore said.
DISTILLING NEW IDEAS
The impetus for Fiore's distillery idea came from the hardscrabble experiences of his youth in Calabria, which taught him to abhor waste.
As his vines burgeoned, he realized there was something else they produced: increasingly huge heaps of skins and dropped fruit - far more than he needed to fertilize his vineyard - and he recoiled at paying good money to have that waste composted elsewhere.
The Fiore vineyard, which Mike and Rose named "La Felicetta" (felice means "happy" in Italian) when their Fiore Winery was bonded in 1986, includes cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sangiovese, cabernet franc, merlot and chambourcin vines. They also purchase pinot gris grapes from a grower in Westminster, Md.; merlot and vidal from the area's Eastern Shore, and riesling from New York state. The winery takes in enough grapes to produce what Fiore estimates will be more than 10,000 cases of wine in 2010, with prices ranging from $10-$27 per bottle.
From his younger days in Italy, Fiore remembered a wizened old vineyard worker who took the remains from the presses and distilled "his own whatever you want to call it," which he kept in a terra cotta jar in a secluded part of the old Fiore winery. Add to that recollection the fact, as Fiore saw it, that much of the grappa in the United States fell short of the quality found in Italy, and it wasn't long before he pitched his distillery idea to Glassman, who quickly realized its potential to help invigorate the state's wine industry.
The biggest challenge, according to Glassman, was overcoming the opposition of the larger, entrenched distilleries. "Some of the (distillery industry) lobbyists red-flagged this," he said. "We had to do a little educational effort that this wasn't a threat to their industry."
The Maryland legislature this year increased the amount of beverage a winery can distill to 1,900 gallons. State Sen. Andrew Harris, a co-sponsor of the distillery law, said the decision to increase the amount was largely due to Fiore's problem-free operation. "That's important," Harris said. "It was very successfully run."
The production increase has Fiore eyeing a much larger, computerized still made by Vendome Copper & Brass Works in Louisville, Ky., to replace the Portuguese copper stills he's using now. He's also starting up what he calls a "trash-for-cash" initiative to bring in more leftover grape skins and seeds. He said he's in negotiations with several area growers and winemakers who have shown serious interest in a deal that would pay them for the pomace they can't use.
THE DISTILLATION PROCESS
Fiore's grappa is derived solely from pinot gris pomace, which he said "makes the best-quality grappa." The limoncello is made from the remains of other types of grapes. The pomace is stored in large black plastic bags, each one holding about 60 pounds. It takes three of those bagfuls to make one batch, or run, in the still, Fiore said.
The distilling is done between November and March, when the cool outdoor temperature helps compensate for the steamy heat inside the building that houses the stills. The distillation separates the alcohol from pomace, leaving parts that are called the "head," "heart" and "tail." These cuts describe the different phases of the distillation process, according to the American Distilling Institute (ADI).
The first, lower-boiling point and higher-alcohol phase (the head) will have a chemical smell because of unwanted compounds such as methanol. As the distillation progresses and the alcohol level drops, the aroma and taste become palatable - that's the heart phase. Finally, in the tail phase, the alcohol level drops further and the taste becomes unpleasant because of higher-boiling-point impurities. The trick is to extract the head while not removing all of the flavors from the other two phases. The object, said Fiore, is to isolate the heart from the impurities of the other parts.
"Where you make those cuts is the most important part for the quality you're going to have," he explained. Fiore double-distills, going from one still to the other, to refine the alcohol level. Typically, out of a 30-gallon volume that includes all three parts, Fiore said he ultimately derives about 8 gallons of heart. For storage, he uses stainless steel beer kegs, "the safest thing you can use."
He's very careful not to distill beyond a certain point. "When you go above 180 proof, you are entering a different zone," he said. "You're entering a neutral spirit that's no longer a flavor. It's like vodka. You've got zero flavor. Now if I want to make a grappa that won't have characteristics of pinot grigio (gris), I can go that high. But I don't want to go above 160 - my maximum." And then he cuts that alcohol level down with water - to 80 proof for the grappa and 66 proof for the limoncello.
The limoncello goes through an additional process. First, hundreds of lemons are peeled by hand, and the peels are placed in large tanks with 30 gallons of 160-proof spirit. The tanks are sealed and kept in a walk-in refrigerator for a few weeks. The substance is then screened into another tank to separate out the lemon skins. Fiore then distills the leftover skins to extract more spirit. (The peeled lemons don't go to waste; Fiore freezes them and makes lemonade throughout the summer.)
Fiore hopes to eventually distill as much as 1,000 gallons - up from about 120 gallons with his current setup, most of it ending up as limoncello - justifying what he estimates would be a more than $200,000 investment in new equipment. "A thousand gallons would really make it fantastic," he said.
The limoncello, based on an old family recipe from Rose's side, is zestful and smooth. It comes in 200 mL bottles and costs $15. The grappa is crystal-clear and fragrant, with dry fruit undertones. The 375 mL bottle is priced at $25.
Fiore said he began offering the beverages in his tasting room, starting in 2008. Sales to winery visitors since then have been brisk, he said, with a distributor taking a limited amount for liquor stores in Maryland. He's negotiating with another distributor to fill some liquor shelves in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
"We have a lot of demand, getting more and more customers," Fiore said. The typical feedback from limoncello customers, he added, is: "'Wow, this is good!'" Grappa, however, is "an acquired taste."
Dr. Joseph Fiola, viticulture and small-fruit specialist at the University of Maryland Extension, said that while he's not a big fan of any grappa, Fiore's limoncello is "amazing."
"Whenever Mike does something, he does it right," Fiola said. "I'm really impressed." And while Fiore appears to be the only winemaker in Maryland to produce spirits so far, Fiola said he believes it's only a matter of time before others follow. "When one person proves it, other people get into it," he said.
Fiore has learned some valuable lessons along the way, including:
-Get training. Fiore highly praises the week-long course he took at an ADI workshop in Petaluma, Calif., particularly the hands-on experience he got with various on-site stills.
-Mind the water. Blending the spirits with distilled water turned out to be "nothing to brag home about." Instead, Fiore now uses pure spring water from his farm: "It's got a lot of great flavors in it, a lot of good minerals in it."
ADI president Bill Owens said that Fiore has been "way ahead of the curve" as a vintner/distiller, yet others are catching on. According to Owens, some 30 new craft distilleries pop up each year and many of them are wineries. Setting up a craft distillery is on average about a three-year process, including navigating the various licensing procedures. State and federal agencies are typically very cooperative, yet would-be distillers should be prepared to tussle with local officials.
"They want to hold your feet to the fire, like you are some multinational corporation," Owens said.
The ADI website (www.distilling.com ), in addition to offering a wealth of how-to resources and newsletters, has a user-friendly national map pinpointing winery-based micro distillers and the types of spirits they produce, everything from eau de vie and cordials to brandy and port-style wines.
The website of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) provides detailed information about federal regulations (http://ttb.gov/other/regulations.shtml ). The agency, noting that licensing requirements vary widely among states, recommends contacting state alcohol beverage control boards for local rules about what can be distilled and where. It provides a handy list of contact information and website links (http://ttb.gov/wine/control_board.shtml ).
Fiore cautioned that running a craft distillery, like the wine business itself, is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme: "Don't look at the money, look at the pleasure and the enthusiasm that it gives you. That's more important than anything else."