“Today in high-end restaurants, bartenders don’t want to use the mass produced products; they want to use something special. The chefs are buying the best cuts of meat and produce, why shouldn’t the bartenders want to do the same thing with their ingredients? If you want to do something special behind the bar, you need to have something special.”

-Giorgio Rivetti

Giorgio Rivetti has something to say…While he has been long considered one of the best winemakers in Italy, he is now taking on a new challenge: the long standing Italian Peidmontese tradition of vermouth. Italian sprits are in a stage of continuing popularity and it’s a perfect time for Giorgio to find a new muse to master. With his latest creation, he is carrying on the tradition of one of the oldest names in the Italian digestif world, Contratto.

I sat with him at a winemakers lunch and enjoyed multiple courses of delicious Italian food paired with some of Giorgio’s wines from La Spinetta. We discussed the renaissance of Italian spirits, Fernet and the love of the craft.

You are world renowned as a winemaker; you make some of the best wines in the world including Barolos, Barbarescos and single-vineyard Moscatos. How did you find the world of spirits?

Everything happened after I bought this beautiful property, Contratto property. They started to produce sparkling wine and spirits in 1867. While it was a long time ago, for me it was something very new. We bought the property because our goal was to make sparkling wine, but Contratto used to be also one of the most important spirit producers. Think about vermouth, think about absinthe, think about aperitif, something like that. When we bought the property, we bought also recipes. I remember Bianco, for example, was the first one we made. My God, I tasted it and I didn’t want to change anything. The recipe is perfect. Everything was organic with organic wine too. After that, we started to use also the other recipes, like the Rosso, Americano and Fernet. It’s unbelievable stuff. It’s beautiful stuff.

We bought Contratto. Contratto is a very big seller. It’s 7,000 square meters underground with many doors to open. One day, in a small room, we found one bottle of Contratto Sparkling from 1935. Trust me, the cork was almost destroyed. I said to my son, “We are going to open this bottle.” It was perfect, it was great. In this moment I said, why should I have to change something? If in 1935 they did something very good, still very good right now, I don’t change anything. This is what we did. Everything is like they used to do.

Tell me about the arc of vermouth and Italian spirits?

From 1905 to 1936, the vermouth and the spirit business in Piemonte were highest, higher than wine business. The first vermouth was made in Piemonte by Motorino Carpano, and after that there were some other producers like Corti, like Contratto. I’m so proud of what they are because now you can find vermouth from many other countries. The first vermouth was in Turin, which was a cultural epicenter at the time. It was a drink for everybody. I remember my mom and my father, when some friends would come to visit, the first offer was sweet vermouth. They used to drink vermouth by itself, just full ice cube and then squeeze a little lemon peel, that’s it. After that, they discovered also vermouth in the mixed cocktails, but the beginning was something.

How can you compete with the mega-producers like Cinzano and Martini & Rossi?

I can say Contratto is making a very, very small quantity and everything is optimal. Our goal is not to produce too many bottles. Our goal is to do the best with our recipe and to do well with small quantity.

There are many barmen these days that are experimenting with infusing flavors into spirits. What are your thoughts with this?

Because I would think like cold maceration versus warm maceration, I would think that I’d want to do it faster, warm maceration. But

this is a big mistake. Because also in wine, in fermentation if you do very warm, hot maceration, warm maceration, you can get everything very short but you can also get the stuff you don’t want to have in your wine.

It’s been well documented; there is a “Fernet craze” among bartenders in the US. Most consumers think of Fernet Branca as the only Fernet, and are unaware that it is a style, not a brand name. At Contratto you are making a really good expression of Fernet. Can you contrast yours and the Fratelli Branca version?

Don’t get me wrong Fratelli Branca’s is great. It just has a different balance. So normally when you drink Fernet it is only for shots. You don’t sip Fernet. I want to make Fernet that you can taste. Yeah. Everyone who has tasted it just loves it. It is organic, which is a buzz word of course, but we are doing it because it’s the
right way.

What do you think about the cocktail culture in the US?

In the US it’s easy to get a good drink because there are so many beautiful bars. In the US in general there is a different bar culture than in Italy. In the US, you can go and have a great cocktail and great food. In Italy, you have to go to special cocktail bars in order to have a great cocktail.