Turning Winemaking’s Trash Into Excellent Booze

California’s Re:Find Distillery is utilizing a byproduct of wine to produce brandy and gin.

Alex Villicana uses copper stills to make his grape-based spirits. (Photo: Re:Find Distillery)

We recycle wine bottles, so why not do the same with the ingredients that go into them? Central California winemaker Alex Villicana of Villicana Winery wants winemakers to adopt that mentality and stop dumping the leftover grape juice, a byproduct of the winemaking process, down the drain. His solution? Distill it.

Unlike grappa, which is made from pomace (the leftover pressed seeds, pulp and skins of grapes), Re:Find spirits are made from saignée (French for “bleed”), the leftover juice. To produce some red wines, as much as 50 percent of the juice is bled from the grapes to increase the ratio of skins to liquid, which results in a final product with more concentrated flavor. It is a common practice in the production of Rhone-style wines, a specialty of the Paso Robles area. Some winemakers use the resulting saignée to make rosé or an inexpensive red blend, but at many wineries, the juice is simply discarded. As Villicana says, “Unless you’re a large winery with the [financial] ability to use this incredible free-run juice to make a less expensive wine, you’re only real option is to pour it down the drain.”

Villicana and his wife, Monica, are currently producing a vodka-like, neutral brandy and a “botanical brandy” (read: gin) distilled from their winery’s saignée as well as juice from several other small wineries in the area. Their future distilling plans include a full line of grape-based spirits as well as repurposing another vineyard by-product, cover crops (various plants that are interspersed among the vines to encourage the growth and promote healthier soil), to make whiskey.

TakePart: Tell us about your wines and the saignée process.

Alex Villicana: When I first came up here to Paso, I was primarily interested in Bordeaux and Zinfandel. But Rhone varieties eventually really caught me—they’re what I love. Rhone grapes are also typically much larger than, say, a Bordeaux grape, so when we stem and crush the fruit to make red wine, we “pull off” a portion of the juice by bleeding the grapes to concentrate the flavor. Unless you’re a large winery with the [financial] ability to use this incredible free run juice to make a less expensive wine, your only real option is to pour it down the drain.

You’ve been a winemaker for 20 years. You’ve probably seen a lot of juice go down the drain.

It’s always bothered me. You’re paying close to $3,000 a ton for grapes or spending six months farming your own, and you’re just tossing this extra juice. It’s a shame to do that. There’s a lot of energy that goes into farming. It’s also not the greatest thing to dispose of. The juice adjusts [the vineyard] soil’s pH, so you can’t just use it like compost. Some people might dig a pit or pour it into a pond, or just dump it down the drain. I didn’t want to do that anymore. There’s also the quality side. You’ve got this incredible free run-juice, coming out of some of the best and most expensive grapes, that tastes incredible.

Why distill it rather than try to capture the raw, unfermented flavor?

First, we did think about bottling it and selling it as grape juice. It’s sweeter than most grape juice and tastes great. It just never came to fruition. We built a small distillery in the winery, but we can also use some of our wine equipment, which is outrageously expensive and sits dormant during the year. To be honest, I don’t drink a lot of spirits, personally, other than whiskey. It was more about using the resources we have sitting right here, the juice and equipment. And if you start with really good raw ingredients with spirits, you get a much better product. If you were to buy great quality grapes like this and distill the juice, you’d have to charge $200 or $300 a bottle to break even.

Since you are using grapes, you’re technically making brandy and labeling them as such. And yet you are going after the flavor profiles of vodka and gin. Is that due to spirits regulations?

Yes, we have a “vodka” style neutral brandy that isn’t technically vodka but tastes like it. What we call the “botanical brandy” is actually technically both products—a brandy and a gin. Because we’re a winery, we have the right to taste and sell brandy but no other spirits, so we call them both brandy. As we distribute them to other states, they’ll [sometimes] be labeled as vodka and gin. It’s a little bit of game.

How much leftover juice are you using now in spirit production?

The first year, I collected the juice from my winery and another small winery. We were pouring 1,000 gallons [of juice] down the drain a year. This year, we reached out to seven different small wineries and had 10,000 gallons of juice. We had so much juice, we ran out of space, so we’re focusing on growth—new flavored brandies and other spirits. This spring, we’re making a mint, cucumber, and limoncello-style neutral brandy, [essentially] flavored vodkas.

Lots of opportunity there for other winemakers as well.

Yes, I think it’s just a matter of time before we see other winemakers distilling. We are the first in our county distilling from a winemaking byproduct, but I’ve heard rumblings of other people talking about buying stills. It just makes sense.

Are you looking into distilling options beyond grape juice?

Yes, SLO Brewery, here in San Luis Obispo, is actually making a [beer] wort, so we can do a rye and bourbon. But I’m also planting different cover crops, which we have to plant anyway [in the vineyard], so we can actually harvest them and make whiskey. I’m going to plant rye, wheat and barley. We’re going to grow corn separately to make bourbon. I had to sneak in whiskey somehow.   

Re:Find spirits can be purchased online and in many specialty liquor shops. Check the distillery’s website for distribution information.   

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