An Italian will likely tell you lemons makes all the difference in a good limoncello. You want Femminellos or Amalfi Sfusatos. And they must be from Italy, of course. But Arthur Hartunian, the man behind Napa Valley Limoncello, is Armenian. And he lives in California. So he makes his limoncello however the hell he wants to.

He and his wife, Lusine, use organic Meyer lemons that they peel by hand, and they add a touch of honey and vanilla to the pot. “Meyers are sweeter and less acidic than your usual sour lemon, so the resulting liqueur is sweeter,” says Arthur, who started making limoncello for his Italian poker buddies years ago.

Hartunian says he decided to switch to spirits-making full time during an economy-induced midlife crisis. “I was in the financial services industry, it was a job,” he says by phone from the Napa production facility. “The economy collapsed, I was about to turn 40, and I wanted to do something I really, really loved doing.”

Since he began producing the limoncello commercially last year, it has won a bronze medal at this summer's Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition and a platinum medal at the World Beverage Competition.

For a small, just-out-of-the-still spirits company, awards are key to winning coveted shelf space even at small local liquor shops — the distilling world's equivalent of a chef saying “I staged at El Bulli” or wherever in order to land their first line cook gig.

Up next for the couple is a Sauvignon Blanc- based vodka (unlike many infused liqueur makers, they also have a distilling license). For Hartunian, it was the logical next step. “Armenians like vodka.”

NapaValley Limoncello, about $35 for 750 ml at Mel & Rose in West Hollywood, Vendome Wine and Spirits in Fullerton and Red Carpet Wine and Spirits in Glendale.

LA Weekly