Napa and Sonoma bring to mind rolling hills and valleys covered in vines and tasting rooms and restaurants where wine flows freely. But there’s more to the New World’s first landmark wine country than wine. Craft, or essentially small batch, distilleries are cropping up throughout the region, just as they are all around the country, and business is booming.
But it’s not all newcomers, even here in the most important wine region outside of Europe. One of the pioneering distilling families in the United States has been distilling on Napa’s Spring Mountain since the 1980s. A long, winding road in St. Helena leads to Charbay, a property Miles and Susan Karakasevic bought in 1972. A certified master distiller who studied enology and viticulture in Germany, Miles came from generations of distillers dating back to the 1750s in the former Yugoslavia, where he emigrated from in the 1960s. Along with making wines and ports, the couple shipped in an alembic pot still from Cognac, France and began distilling a brandy in 1983 that had the Old World elegance of Cognac and Armagnac.
Today Susan runs much of the Charbay business, and Miles’ son Marko is a 13th-generation distiller, breaking ground with his fresh fruit-flavored vodkas, rum, Tequila (distilled in Mexico), grappa and exceptional whiskies. He and his wife Jenni also own Marko K Spirits, which imports quality spirits like Tapatio Tequila.
“Charbay was started as a living for my family,” Marko says. “We have no loans, we own all of our equipment. We buy materials to produce products, bottle it, sell it and spend the money to do it again and again and again.”
At Napa Valley Distillery, owner Arthur Hartunian creates Sauvignon Blanc vodka, Old Hollywood Ginn, Meyer lemon liqueur, plum brandy and bottled cocktails. His distillery is known for its shop in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, where visitors can taste all of the products and also find one of the best selections of bitters in the country, all of which can be sampled before purchase.
Meanwhile, across the mountain range, Sonoma has seen a surge of new distilleries open in the past few years. Husband-and-wife distilling team Timo and Ashby Marshall opened Spirit Works in 2013 in Sebastopol inside The Barlow, a forward-thinking complex housing food and drink businesses. Besides employing a female distiller, Ashby, the outfit is making waves with its excellent sloe gin made from wild sloe berries (a fruit in the plum family) that are foraged in Timo’s native United Kingdom. The pair also distills gin, vodka, wheat and rye whiskies and recently released a barrel-aged gin.
“Spirit Works' commitment to a ‘grain to glass’ philosophy is a core part of who we are,” Ashby says. “This means that we bring in whole grain—organic California-grown red winter wheat—which we mill, mash, ferment, distill and bottle entirely on site at the distillery.”
Whiskies are the mainstay at Sonoma County Distilling Company, recently opened in Rohnert Park by owner/distiller Adam Spiegel, who trained with the great French master distiller and California distilling pioneer Hubert Germain-Robin. Spiegel is currently making three whiskies, the flagship being Sonoma Rye Whiskey, made from 100 percent rye grain, as well as 2nd Chance Wheat Whiskey and West of Kentucky Bourbon. The company has a tasting room and offers tours of its Rohnert Park distillery.
“When we started in 2010, we were one of a few distilleries in Sonoma County,” Spiegel says. “We exist to prove that traditionally made whiskeys can still be done in modern times. Whiskey is made from grain, water and yeast. No additives, bought barrels, colorings or flavorings.”
Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka stormed onto the scene in 2012, winning numerous awards for its certified organic, grape-based vodkas infused with natural ginger, boysenberry, mandarin, cucumber and even espresso. A new Sonoma distillery and a visitor tasting room are slated to open in late 2014.
With a distillery in downtown Sonoma, HelloCello is another husband-and-wife business that opened in 2009. Fred and Amy Groth first gained traction with their Limoncello di Sonoma, a tart-sweet lemon liqueur from Northern California ingredients that was based on the duo’s studies of limoncello production techniques in Italy. The Groths also make FigCello and OrangeCello, as well as Hooker’s House Bourbon and Rye under their separate Prohibition Spirits label.
The HelloCello distillery is deeply integrated with local wine culture. “We have access to a lot of great resources such as fruit, French oak barrels and winery by-products,” Fred Groth says. “We’ve worked with local winemakers to identify wine barrels and varieties that would work best with our spirits. For example, our Hooker’s House Bourbon is finished in Pinot Noir barrels from Schug Winery, our rye is in Zinfandel barrels from Gundlach Bundschu and our sour mash and reserve whiskey are in Cabernet barrels.”
Local produce also plays a big part. “We’ve focused our attention on distilling Sonoma County’s unique and abundant fruits. Many of these fruits have been overlooked because of grape-based agriculture. We’ve distilled Gravenstein apples, Black Arkansas apples, Bartlett pears, quince, even prickly pear.”
A 2013 report from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board forecasted the distilling movement’s potential for success in the region. “There is definitely a new energy when it comes to distilling in Northern California. When we first started over five years ago, we were one of two distillery spirits permits in a county that had over 4,000 winery permits,” Fred Groth says. “Since their study, there’s been a big increase in the number of new permits and people in the planning stage.”
With the national distilling boom of the last decade, the industry has grown to an estimated 500 distilleries across the country and continues to expand exponentially. That’s a big increase from roughly over 100 distilleries 10 years ago, but still quite far from pre-Prohibition days, when the country was home to more than 14,000 distilleries.
In light of the recent growth, Marko Karakasevic takes a long-view perspective. “There are a lot of distilleries opening up with fresh minds for creativity, willing to experiment. This is great. But there are a lot of experiments being processed into a bottled product due to the cost factor,” he says. “Experiments belong in the lab and not on the shelf, until that experiment is refined into the best product it can be. That process takes years sometimes to complete. A lot of new distilleries don’t have that in the plan.”
Once a market becomes oversaturated, it shifts to quality. The products that sell and endure are those that have been tweaked, tested, perfected and offer something unique to the consumer and to the bartenders creating drinks from the spirits. Ashby Marshall has already noticed a change in the marketplace. “There is a real demand from consumers for transparency in terms of production,” she says. “People want honesty from brands, and people want to know who is making the product from what.”
Though wine will likely always be king in Napa and Sonoma, spirits continue to gain ground. “We’re in good company here,” Marshall says. “People already associate great wine and great food with this region.” Now discriminating palates and cocktail aficionados will find more to choose from than ever in Northern California, as the region’s spirits keep in step with the quality of taste synonymous with Napa and Sonoma.