In 1982, Alsace-born Jörg Rupf brought fruit-intense eaux-de-vie, once the exclusive domain of European distillers, to the West when he made a classic Poire William. On a cold winter night, this fiery, smooth essence of pears, clear as a mountain stream yet lusciously redolent of ripe fruit, is a welcome warmer. During the holidays especially, eaux-de-vie (waters of life) ― and the closely related fruit liqueurs and grappas ― can hit just the right note either served after dinner or given as a gift.
Of course, Rupf's first effort only hinted at the inspired potential of digestifs that, since they are both fermented and distilled, bridge the very different arts of winemaking and distillation. At St. George Spirits, based in Alameda, California, Rupf's eau-de-vie selection now includes framboise (raspberry), kirsch (cherry), and quince. He also produces fruit royale liqueurs, lower in alcohol and made of pear, raspberry, and cherry wines fortified with eaux-de-vie, as well as a clear, potent, dry, fruity grappa. Grappa ― the French call a rustic version of it marc ― is a type of brandy that is distilled from grape pomace, the skins and stems left over after grapes are crushed for wine.
Rupf's success quickly spurred other winemakers and distillers to experiment. Today the West leads the nation in producing flavorful and innovative fruit brandies, liqueurs, and fortified wines.
Clear Creek Distillery in Portland not only makes pear eau-de-vie, but the most expensive bottling comes with a pear in the bottle. Bonny Doon Vineyard of Santa Cruz uses grape spirits to fortify Framboise, its raspberry wine. Spirit of Elysium is an aromatic distilled "immature" brandy ― it isn't aged in oak ― made from black muscat grapes by Quady Winery in Madera, California. At Mosby Winery in Buellton, California, one special eau-de-vie from a native wild plum has such a delicate fragrance of lilacs that you almost want to dab a drop behind your ear.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Made in small batches and mostly using traditional alembic stills, these treats range in price from $10 for a 375-milliliter bottle of grappa to more than $80 for a fine pear eau-de-vie. They can also be hard to find; look for them in fine wine shops or contact the producer.
Bonny Doon Vineyard: (831) 425-3625 or www.bonnydoonvineyard.com.
Clear Creek Distillery: (503) 248-9470 or www.clearcreekdistillery.com.
Mosby Winery: (805) 688-2415 or www.mosbywines.com.
Quady Winery: (559) 673-8068 or www.quadywinery.com.