For Alex and Monica Villicana, the desire to reduce, reuse, and recycle resulted in Re:Find — a distillery project designed to produce sustainable handcrafted spirits from premium wine grape juice.
The Villicanas established Villicana Winery, their family-owned wine label, in 1993 and quickly became known for their well-balanced and food-friendly vintages, primarily from their estate vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles. Unfortunately, part of the process of making quality wines involves bleeding off and usually discarding the initial juice (also known as the “first run” juice or “saignée”) that’s pressed off the grapes after harvest.
“That was about 10 to 15 percent of our product that we were just throwing right down the drain,” said Alex. “It drove me nuts!”
While some wineries use that juice for rosé wines, the Villicanas didn’t want to go that route. As luck would have it, Alex’s passion for other potent potables provided another possibility.
“I love craft spirits such as whiskies and brandies,” he said. “While I was researching that hobby, I realized that you can really make spirits out of almost anything, and the light bulb went on.” He also observed that, much like recent trends in wine and beer, “the paradigm is changing. Artisans are getting back involved in spirits and reviving a craft industry that really disappeared after Prohibition, and consumers are seeking out those artisanal flavors.”
After several years of learning both the craft itself and the specifics of legal compliance for producing and selling spirits (an entirely different set of standards than for wineries), the Villicanas joined the ranks of artisanal distillers in August 2011 when Re:Find was officially licensed.
They launched the label with two products: a neutral brandy that’s essentially vodka, and a botanical brandy that’s akin to a gin.
Because of the quadruple distillation process the brandies go through, the results are extremely smooth and clean to the taste. Recently, the Villicanas have also added a cucumber flavor and a limoncello (a traditional Italian spirit) using the carefully hand-peeled rinds of 800 pounds of femminello lemons, and are continually experimenting with small batches of other seasonal flavors.
“We really love the fact that we’re making these all ourselves — they’re truly craft spirits,” said Monica. She added that the plan is to begin growing many of the botanicals used in the gin, as well as eventually using vineyard cover crops such as rye, wheat and barley to produce other spirits.
To further the sustainability concept, the Villicanas are thinking about making small quantities of grappa, which uses the post-fermentation end product of winemaking.
All in all, the processes of winemaking and distillation go remarkably hand-in-hand, and not just in reusing products. Technically, the distillery is a separate entity inside the existing winery building, but the Villicanas can use equipment such as stainless tanks that would otherwise sit unused much of the year, and Alex has found that his personal expertise also meshes with both spheres.
“I think that 20 years of winemaking has helped me craft spirits because you’re still making sensory judgments, especially with the gin,” he said. “I also think crafting spirits has helped make me a better winemaker, in part because some of the decisions help lift both businesses. For example, I can make the call to pull more of that first run off, which results in a better wine, because I know I can use it for Re:Find.”
Paso Robles Wine Festival
Paso Robles is uncorking its 31st Annual Wine Festival this weekend. For more information, go to www.pasowine.com.