Wine-Searcher – Raising Spirits in Wine Country

Wine-Searcher – Raising Spirits in Wine Country

Distilleries such as Sonoma’s Spirit Works are cropping up right in the heart of wine-producing country.

Some of the best terroir in California is turning out high-proof libations, Liza B. Zimmerman discovers.
 The first time that I drove up to the Charbay distillery on a foggy Napa morning I realized that the region was rich in much more than just wine.

The distillery lies at the top a fog-bound hill hovering above the Napa Valley town of St. Helena and I promise you that it is worth the trip for the 1983 and 1989 brandies.

This distillery and the family behind it date back to 1751, and have been active in California for more than three decades. “It is a great time to be in the distilling business. Americans are always searching out new, and better, products,” says 13th-generation distiller Marko Karakasevic. Consumers’ continued interest in small-batch spirits gives him the drive to “keep on creating new, and small, batches of spirits”.

Charbay’s main distillery is in Mendocino County, a region an hour north that is also known for its wines. Being based in wine country, according to Karakasevic, has its benefits in terms of sourcing local ingredients. For instance his lemons, for the Meyer Lemon Vodka, are locally sourced.

The overlapping fonts of artisanal, local product combined with a local passion for craft drinks have undoubtedly contributed to many distillers setting up shop in various wine regions throughout the United States. Karakasevic estimates that there are 40 in the state of California alone.

The distillers themselves have long seen the connection and the return on investment when interest in the two overlap in terms of attracting the same consumer base. “The demographics of those visiting Napa Valley whether for wine, craft beer, dining and spirits do overlap,” confirms Dario De Conti, a co-owner of the Napa-based Ca’Momi, which produces both wine and spirits, and operates restaurants, in the Napa Valley.

He is not alone in his perspective on the market. “Premium vodka drinkers and wine drinkers have a lot of overlap,” agrees Matt Levitt, founder and CEO of South Lake Tahoe-based Tahoe Spirits, Inc, which makes its vodka with locally sourced lake water.

“After all, people who enjoy boutique wines are the same people who enjoy craft beers and craft spirits. They are connoisseurs,” agrees Monica Villicana, owner of the Paso Robles-based distillery Re:Find, which opened almost two decades after the launch of the couple’s Villicana Winery.

Curiosity and consistency are both driving interest for the ever-growing, artisanal spirits industry. “We definitely feel that the American consumer’s attitude is changing about small-batch spirits due to the increased availability of them,” adds Timo Marshall, the co-founder of the Sebastopol, California-based Spirits Works Distillery, which opened in 2012. His family has been producing sloe gin for generations in the United Kingdom.

Having a better-understanding of the overlapping customer base for both wine and spirits is certainly easier when your distillery is part of a 12.5-acre collective of galleries, wineries and restaurants in the charming Sonoma town of Sebastopol where Spirits Works is located.

“People already know Sonoma County for great wine and great food; we’re so excited to be able to add great spirits to the mix!” Marshall notes pointing to one of the most obvious reasons craft spirit producers are seeing such success in wine country.

Both small towns in Sonoma County, as well as Paso Robles – which is half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles – have been leaders in the craft distillation movement. It should then come as no surprise that both geographic regions are also hotbeds of creative, indie wine producers.

“Paso Robles is in the fore front of the craft movement. Obviously this area has made a name for itself in the wine industry for thinking outside the box,” said Stephen Kroner of Silver Horse Winery, who joined forces in 2012 with Joe Barton of Grey Wolf Cellars to create the KroBar distillery, where Kroner is the master distiller. “The beer- and spirit-makers here have the same mentality.” The duo makes brandy, rye whiskey and Bourbon.

Artisan products like Re:Find and Tahoe Blue have an environmental benefit as well as a commercial one.

Wine regions in Europe – like the Veneto and Armagnac in France – have long been hotbeds of both wine production and distillation. The products are often made from the same primary products. The tradition is seems to be slowly crossing the Atlantic with great results.

The lesser-known and more affordable regions of Sonoma have been bursting at the seams with distillers over the last four years. “Sonoma County is a wonderful place to make great spirits because people are so passionate about food and wines,” says Marshall.

The Sebastopol-based distillery makes vodka, various gins and whiskeys along with sloe gin. “We produce all of our products from grain-to-glass, meaning we bring in whole grain which we then mill, mash, and ferment, distill and bottle entirely onsite,” he explains.

Several of the distillers to whom I spoke also said that using the same primary ingredients to make both wine and spirits has helped them reduce waste and support local agriculture.

The Villicanas in Paso Robles use juice from local grapes to make vodka, gin and liqueurs. They were inspired by the desire of being both more economically and environmentally stable by using resources that otherwise be overlooked or discarded.

The distillery uses saignée, or the first pressing of red grape juice, that is often discarded by other wineries for the distillation process. “This practice allows Re:Find to reclaim approximately 50 acres of premium, Paso Robles wine grapes each year through the distillery,” says Villicana. They have also found that they get a better ROI on investments by “using the equipment year-round instead of [solely] during the seasonal high-demand periods of a winery”.

What is more, as at Charbay, the Villicanas also make use of fresh, local produce to flavor their spirits. “In spring, we have a new batch of limoncello, in the summer we release our new batch of cucumber-flavored vodka and in the fall we release our kumquat liqueur,” she says.

Other producers use their wine country locations as an inspiration to support the local environment. At Tahoe Blue, CEO Levitt donates a percentage of his profits to the same lake that provides the local water for the product’s distillation.

The bulk of the distillers I spoke to have tasting rooms and charge similar fees to high-end wineries. Some offer mini, behind-the-scenes distilling tours. Several have, and others are, rolling out membership clubs. California law in many cases limits what they are able to do in terms of tastings and promotions.

At Spirits Works, a $18 tasting features the distillery’s six main products. Tastes are limited to a quarter ounce each per California law. Tours of the distillery are also offered from Friday to Sunday for $20. Marshall is also thrilled that they are now able, as of this year, to sell up to three bottles per person of spirits to customers at the tasting room.

The couple is also working on a spirits club with a focus on helping customers make great cocktails at home. Plans for the future also include the continued release of limited-edition products for the tasting room, such as a cask-strength whiskey and the newly launched Navy Strength Gin.

Tahoe Blue doesn’t have a tasting room but promotes its club through its website. Re:Find hosts parties for members at the distillery – one this summer will feature Bloody Marys and live music.

They are all paving a new trail with the help of boutique wine producers who went before them. As Stephen Kroner of KroBar says: “If you are going to make something, be different – be a true craftsman.”

Read the article on Wine-Searcher here