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Crafting an industry: Paso wine country pushes into the art of distilling with grape juice, grains, and creativity

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The sweet smell of fermenting wine is distinct in an area as saturated with grapes as the hills around Paso Robles are. But grapes are for more than wine, and it’s turning winemakers into distillers and grape juice into brandy and more. 

NOT YOUR MOM’S JUICE :  Paso Robles area grapes have graduated to the next level of liquor at places like Wine Shine, which distills brandy from the fruit that makes the area famous. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • NOT YOUR MOM’S JUICE : Paso Robles area grapes have graduated to the next level of liquor at places like Wine Shine, which distills brandy from the fruit that makes the area famous.

Four years ago, there were really only one or two distilleries disturbing the wine country byways—Re:Find, a venture of Villicana Winery founders Alex and Monica Villicana, is one of those that helped push grape up a proof or three. Rather than sticking to grape juice’s boozy sister brandy, Re:Find found the fruit’s liquored-up aunts in gin and vodka. 

Now, the vine-laden trail is mixed up with at least eight distilleries turning vapors into brandy, gin, vodka, and whiskey; a fledgling trade organization, Distillers of SLO County; write-ups in publications such as the LA Times; and some new state legislation to put the craft on somewhat even footing with the likes of beer and wine. 

And all that booze got a pre-emptive push from the tiny round orbs of delicious color that make Paso famous. 

“The wineries have broken that ground for us. So many of us have wineries established. They’re definitely very complimentary businesses. I don’t think we would have a distillery if we didn’t have the winery as well,” Alex said. “With the changes in the law, it’s a lot more possible now to start a stand-alone distillery. I think we’re going to see more distilleries popping up.”

Different ways to booze it up


Dotting the rolling golden hills that are iconic to Paso Robles are vineyards galore. From those grapes, comes some of the best wine known to man. But maybe just maybe, those grapes long for something else. 

PROHIBITION NO MORE:  As a stand-alone distillery, Wine Shine, has the freedom to explore making a wider variety of products, like this lemon hibiscus brandy, which would go great in a cosmo. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PROHIBITION NO MORE: As a stand-alone distillery, Wine Shine, has the freedom to explore making a wider variety of products, like this lemon hibiscus brandy, which would go great in a cosmo.

“That’s all wine wants to be when it grows up is brandy,” Patrick Brooks, co-owner of Wine Shine in Paso Robles said.

Wine Shine, which had its grand opening in June, is one of about eight distilleries that has bubbled up in the Paso Robles area within the last five years, taking the region’s bounty of wine grapes and upping the alcohol content to create a variety of fruit brandies.

While the majority of distilleries are connected to a winery that existed long before that shot of the good stuff was even a twinkle in the distiller’s eye, Wine Shine is a stand-alone operation (although one of the company’s partners, Don Burns, does own Turtle Rock Winery). This allows the distillery to focus on offering a wider variety of spirits. Stepping into Wine Shine’s tasting room is like being in a boozey candy store. In addition to the token neutral brandy, hibiscus lemon brandy, orange brandy, cinnamon brandy (think classy fireball), and the Manhattan Project (a pre-mixed whiskey cocktail) are also offered at Wine Shine. The company is also in the process of creating a bigger still so it can increase production of its spirits. 

BOOZE TOWN :  With the demand for craft spirits continuing to grow in the county, Wine Shine is currently working on getting a bigger still so they can increase production of their spirits. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • BOOZE TOWN : With the demand for craft spirits continuing to grow in the county, Wine Shine is currently working on getting a bigger still so they can increase production of their spirits.

“We kind of rolled out with a bunch of different products,” Brooks said. “Making brandy is really cool for these wineries, and some of them won’t even go past that—they just want a clear brandy or an oak brandy and that’s it. We’ve got a lot of different flavors, and we’re doing whiskey, too. I think within the next year the amount of distilleries will double. Everyone wants craft libations.”

Over at Opolo Vineyards in Paso Robles, grappa, pear brandy, and walnut liquor have been distilled in small batches onsite for about five years. 

“There’s a mutual benefit between having a winery and a distillery,” Paul Quinn, head distiller at Opolo said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship because you can use the grapes you’re harvesting in a more efficient way.”

While wine is still the main focus at Opolo, Quinn said a tasting area is currently being added to the distillery and should be open by February. Plus, having a distillery gives wineries a little something extra to keep patrons interested. 

“People mainly come for wine tasting at Opolo and then they hear about the brandies,” Quinn said. “Paso Robles has had some publicity about spirits, but it’s still mainly a wine crowd. People are finding ways to use their wine products. It’s something else to play with.”

—Ryah Cooley

From grapes and wheat


The backbone of Paso Robles’ up-and-coming craft distillery scene starts with wine—or, more specifically, the grape juice that is otherwise dumped out during the wine making process. After crushing red wine grapes, some juice is bled off in order to get a higher ratio of skins and stems to liquid—a process called saignée—to concentrate the flavors, phenols, and anthocyanins in the remaining juice.

QUALITY CONTROL:  Stephen Kroener, left, talks about the intricacies of the distillation process as Joe Barton, right, takes a whiff of their distilled brandy. The two, who are both winemakers, make gin and whiskey at their aptly named distillery Krobar. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • QUALITY CONTROL: Stephen Kroener, left, talks about the intricacies of the distillation process as Joe Barton, right, takes a whiff of their distilled brandy. The two, who are both winemakers, make gin and whiskey at their aptly named distillery Krobar.

That leftover juice is perfectly good for use, and if you let it ferment, it becomes perfectly good alcohol. Using that saignée to make brandy or liquor has been an age-old tradition in places like France, but for the relatively young Paso Robles wine region, it’s a new one.

Now, that the local craft distillery scene is under way, the region’s starting to get into the whiskey business, which will mean decoupling from exclusively wine-based spirits and moving into grain-based alcohol.

At Krobar distillery, owners Stephen Kroener, of Silver Horse Winery, and Joe Barton, of Grey Wolf Cellars and Barton Family Wines, are doing both, using wine from their wineries for gin and rye and other grains for whiskey.

When New Times stopped in to see Kroener and Barton at their facility, they were turning wine into neutral brandy, a basis for gin and vodka. Kroener pointed to two huge square tanks holding 4,000 gallons of wine, the leftovers from this autumn’s harvest, which will eventually be distilled into 600 to 800 gallons of brandy.

Some of it was already boiling in a 100-gallon copper kettle, part of the still that they picked up from Kentucky a few years ago. A large, boxy metal steamer kept the wine boiling, at times with temperatures close to 200 degrees or higher.

As the wine boils, vapor is carried up the distillation column, through the lyne arm, and chilled back into liquid form by a condenser. The process first isolates the bad alcohols, known as the heads, which include things like acetone and methane. They’re the first to be distilled, because the higher the alcohol, the lower the boiling point. Those alcohols slowly trickle into a bucket and will be used as a cleaning solution.

Next come the hearts, or the high alcohol base that makes the heart of the drink (small amounts of the heads are sometimes added to the hearts for flavor). As the hearts are distilled, the alcohol content slowly decreases, and the characteristics and flavors change with it. 

The strong stuff came out first, which Kroener said was maybe 75 to 80 percent alcohol. It was sharp, with a sweet underlay that still resembled its grapy foundation. About 15 to 20 minutes later, he offered another taste that was completely different, tasting much more mellow and rounded, and smelling more floral.

LITTLE BY LITTLE:  At Krobar in Templeton, wine is turned into neutral brandy, which will later be turned into gin. As the brandy is distilled, different parts of the finished product are slowly extracted by the still, which isolates components based on alcohol content and its boiling points. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • LITTLE BY LITTLE: At Krobar in Templeton, wine is turned into neutral brandy, which will later be turned into gin. As the brandy is distilled, different parts of the finished product are slowly extracted by the still, which isolates components based on alcohol content and its boiling points.

Every single step of the way requires both an eye for detail and an adherence to monitoring and measuring everything along the way. Call it alchemy if you will.

To make gin, neutral brandy is redistilled and infused with several botanical ingredients, including anything from juniper, the old standby, to grains of paradise, rose hips, kaffir lime leaves, peppercorns, orange peels, lavender, or coriander.

“Any slight variation in the botanicals makes a big difference in the product,” Barton said.

For certain ingredients, Barton said, like lavender, peppercorns, and orange peels, a little bit goes a long way, and the oils can produce flavors much different than what you might expect.

“They are so resinous that if you overdo it, you basically kill what you’re doing,” Barton added.

Barton and Kroener said they haven’t yet totally botched a batch, because they first make it by the gallon in a smaller still to sort out new recipes and to see how their current batch of wine ends up distilling.

“It’s about seeing what doesn’t work,” Barton said. “That’s where it’s artisan-driven as far as the distiller goes.”

For whiskey, the flavors come from the elements that are left in during the original distillation, where the original ingredients like rye and other grains have an opportunity to speak for themselves.

As their small-batch roots keep growing, Kroener and Barton plan to make more gin and whiskey down the road. They have a second 100-gallon still on the way, and are looking to get a 500-gallon still and relocate their whiskey making to San Luis Obispo.

As for the heritage, locally sourced ingredients, Barton said they’re working on getting some of the area’s farming families to embrace particular types of grains that can be grown specifically for beer and whiskey.

—Jono Kinkade

Strength in numbers


For Villicana Winery owners Alex and Monica Villicana, the burgeoning movement of craft distilleries in SLO is like a pleasant case of déjà vu.

DISTILLERS OF SLO:  Alex Villicana (left) serves as the president of Distillers of SLO County, the nonprofit trade association uniting SLO’s growing craft spirit industry. Alex and Monica Villicana (right) operate Re:Find Distillery in Paso Robles. - PHOTO COURTESY OF RE:FIND DISTILLERY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF RE:FIND DISTILLERY
  • DISTILLERS OF SLO: Alex Villicana (left) serves as the president of Distillers of SLO County, the nonprofit trade association uniting SLO’s growing craft spirit industry. Alex and Monica Villicana (right) operate Re:Find Distillery in Paso Robles.

Alex and Monica ventured into the wine industry in 1992, when Paso Robles wasn’t exactly a destination for experiencing world-class wine. The Villicanas witnessed the region’s small local wine scene develop into a global attraction in a relatively short period of time.

“When we started, there were only 17, maybe 20 wineries,” Alex said. “Nobody knew where Paso Robles was. Now, you talk to people about Paso, and everyone knows where it is because of the wine.”

Alex envisions the growth of distilleries in SLO taking a similar trajectory. With new state legislation positioned to significantly improve the business model for distilleries, the stage is set for a major period of growth for SLO distilleries.

In response, Paso Robles’ eight trailblazing distilleries are getting organized. They’ve created the Distillers of SLO County trade association, a nonprofit organization that will represent the local industry.

“Getting this association put together has been a lot of fun because we’re all working toward the same goal,” said Alex, who’s serving as president of the association.

If wineries in Paso Robles have learned anything from their success, it’s in the power of sticking together. Distillers of SLO County is steadfast in its commitment to growing the distilleries as one whole, rather than a sum of its parts.

“It’s about strength in numbers,” said Lola Glossner, the co-owner of Pendray’s Distillery. “All of us standing together actually brings a much larger awareness to the distilleries in the area and the movement that’s going on.”

“It’s like the saying, ‘A rising tide lifts all boats,’” Alex added. “Working together is going to benefit us all in the long run.”

RALLY AROUND SPIRITS:  Distilleries like Krobar are members of the Distillers of SLO County trade association, which consolidates the marketing and education efforts of Paso Robles’ craft spirit industry. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • RALLY AROUND SPIRITS: Distilleries like Krobar are members of the Distillers of SLO County trade association, which consolidates the marketing and education efforts of Paso Robles’ craft spirit industry.

Lola and her husband, Steve, told New Times that Distillers of SLO County will focus on marketing the distilleries as a single destination for visitors, capitalizing on their close proximities to one another.

“What we’re looking to do is to form the Paso Robles Distillery Trail, which is similar to a wine map,” Steve said. “That will take people from place to place to the distilleries that are here locally.”

Just as wineries stand to educate people in the art of winemaking, Distillers of SLO County wants to emphasize the same education in crafting spirits, making learning about the distilling process a large part of the consumer experience.

“Most people don’t know where distilled spirits come from other than a grocery store,” Alex said. “We’re basically showing how it has character, how it has differences.”

In addition to the marketing and education, Distillers of SLO County will act as a political entity. Keeping an ongoing dialogue with SLO County and the city of Paso Robles is important for developing trust and an understanding of the industry’s needs.

“We know how important it is to create that relationship early,” Alex said. “We want to make sure it’s a healthy industry that’s growing and that can support more distilleries as more pop up.”

The association is still getting its legs. Its website isn’t active yet but will be come 2016. Stay tuned for the Fire and Ice event at the Paso Robles Inn on Feb. 27. The event will include tastings of all eight of the local distilleries, and serves as the SLO distilleries’ unofficial coming-out party.

“It’s just something so we can start introducing ourselves as a group to the region,” Alex said. 

—Peter Johnson

Legislative benefits


Craft distillers are looking to build an industry and dedicated customer base to rival those in the wine and craft beer markets, but it hasn’t been a very easy road. Distilled spirits have long carried a stigma that those other products have not, according to Cris Stellar, executive director for the California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

THE HARD STUFF:  Despite getting a bad reputation during the Prohibition era, spirits are making their way back into the mainstream and recently passed state laws will make it easier for distilleries to sell directly to consumers. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • THE HARD STUFF: Despite getting a bad reputation during the Prohibition era, spirits are making their way back into the mainstream and recently passed state laws will make it easier for distilleries to sell directly to consumers.

“Spirits are treated and viewed completely differently than beer and wine, that’s something that goes all the way back to Prohibition,” said Stellar, who is also a distiller himself. “You go back to that time and [spirits] were associated with people like Al Capone.”

The law treated craft distillers differently, too. For years while wine and beer makers could not only serve tasting samples at their premises, but could sell patrons bottles of their wares as well, craft distillers were limited to tasting of no more than six quarter-ounce samples per customer. They could not sell any bottles directly to their customers. And not being able to sell directly to consumers presented a difficult challenge for craft distillers. 

“Whether you’re a winery, small brewery, or small distillery, that’s really the only way to make a living doing something like this,” Re:Find co-owner Alex Villicana said. “You don’t have the volume to sell through distributers 100 percent. We don’t have the marketing budgets of the big distilleries, so if it even does get into a store, nobody knows who it is, because we don’t have the marketing budget to run TV ads and all that.”

But that all changed this year with the passage of new legislation in California. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a comprehensive bill that updates regulations and treats craft distilling businesses more like vintners and brewers. The bill, called AB 1295, was authored by Rep. Marc Levine (D-San Rafael).

“This historic legislation changes Prohibition-era laws for craft distillers to reflect the modern marketplace. AB 1295 allows craft distillers to operate in a similar manner as wineries and breweries under existing law,” Levine stated in a press release. “This bill helps craft distillers to be competitive with large out-of-state distillers. Growth of the craft distillery industry means jobs in our local communities.”

HIGH SPIRITS:  Craft distillers in California like Krobar in Paso are hoping that new state laws will help them get on par with the booming wine and beer industries. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • HIGH SPIRITS: Craft distillers in California like Krobar in Paso are hoping that new state laws will help them get on par with the booming wine and beer industries.

The new regulations, which go into effect on the first day of 2016, allow craft distillers to sell up to three 750 ml bottles per customer per day in their tasting rooms. The law defines a “craft” distiller as one that produces no more than 100,000 gallons of spirits per fiscal year. 

“It’s a game changer,” Stellar said. “Being able to talk to consumers, taste, and have them purchase a bottle directly is an important way to seal the deal. It’s critical to sell them bottles so they will be able to take something home and remember you.”

According to a legislative analysis of the bill, there are about 50 licensed craft distillers in the state. Prior to the passage of the bill, 40 other states in the U.S. allowed distillers to sell their products directly to consumers. Most recently Arizona, Indiana, and Florida established similar laws in 2014 and 2013.  

While the new laws are a step forward for the industry, Stellar said the state distilling laws are complex: A tangle of regulations, some dating back to the Prohibition era.  

“There’s a lot of work to do because California has 100 years of all kinds of laws being passed. Some are good, and some are very convoluted,” he said. “We need to work within the industry and with legislators to clean it up and clear it up to make it much more understandable and enforceable.”

—Chris McGuinness

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