Romano Levi, one of Italy's most colorful grappa distillers, died May 2 at the age of 79.
Levi was born in 1928 in the town of Campodolcino in Piedmont and lived for the last 60 years of his life in the town of Neive, near Barbaresco, where his father, Serafino, founded the family distillery in 1925.
Serafino died in 1933 and Romano started distilling grappa in his late teens, after the death of his mother, Teresina, in an air raid in 1945, left Romano and his sister orphans. They stayed together for the rest of his life.
His bottlings became cult objects, for the quality of the grappa and even more for the individual, art-naïf illustrations and poems that decorated the plain-paper labels of his bottles from the 1960s on. He produced only 6,000 to 7,000 bottles each year.
Dubbed the grappaiol'angelico (angelic grappa distiller) by wine critic Luigi Veronelli, Levi had a quirky sense of humor, which at times baffled his clients. He would reputedly insist on the return of the empty bottle before issuing a full replacement.
"He was an authentic artisan," said Angelo Gaja, one of Piedmont's top Nebbiolo producers, who supplied Levi with the fresh marc for his grappas. "He was passionate, proud, creative, communicative and totally dedicated to his activity, without any thought of monetary gain. He deserves the repose reserved for the good folk."