Turns out you can crush a grape and get gin. There are a few steps involved, of course, so don't try this at home, but that's where Paso Robles' Villacana Winery and its distillery arm Re:Find step in. Forget about recycling, this is a project that's keyed to re-using a part of the winemaking process that often is just poured away.
Villicana originally just made wine, but Alex and Monica Villicana eventually realized what seemed like a waste product--the juice from the first light press and de-stemming of grapes--might be used for something. "A lot of boutique wineries will extract a percentage of that free run juice from red grapes," Monica explains, "as the color, flavor, and personality comes from the skins. At that point if we lower the percentage of juice going into fermentation, it actually concentrates our wines."
The French term (this is winemaking, after all) saignée, which translates as bleed, is what's left over, and Monica says, "Some wineries take that and bottle it as a rosé. Instead, we will pick for our rosé, picking some syrah grapes a month early to get the natural high acid and low sugar we like in a rosé." That meant for years they discarded the saignée, and as Monica says, "It's not healthy for your leach fields and it's not healthy for your bottom line. We only make 2000 cases of wine a year, and we were disposing of 10-30% of our grape production before we made a drop of wine."
One day Alex had his a-ha moment reading a journal that pointed, out, according to Monica, "Basically vodka is anything fermentable distilled up to 95% alcohol. We're used to vodka being made from potatoes or grain, but you can make it from anything. Poland and Russia make vodka from potatoes and grain because they are cheaper and available there. They'd be looking at a $120 bottle of vodka if you grew grapes just to distill vodka." But, of course, the Villicanas were growing grapes, for 21 years on their estate, for wine.
After two years of researching, fine-tuning, and using their saignée, they released their first batch of Re:Find Vodka in 2011. That batch sold out quickly, partially, Monica says, "Because premium red wine grapes contain the compound glycerol. When you swirl your wine glass, what forms the legs is the glycerol, and it does that to your mouth, too. That gives the distilled spirit a nice, heavy weight. It takes a product that's generally neutral and it helps wrap those flavors in your mouth." (As an aside, the grape-based spirits are also gluten free.)
The product line soon grew to a gin and seasonal flavored vodkas, but those, too, meet exacting, farm-driven standards. "Once cucumbers go out of season, we're done," Monica says about their summer flavor. "We know all these farmers personally, we literally go and get it ourselves when it's ripe and in season." It's all part of the ever-growing demand for artisanal product, for as Monica puts it, "People demanded craft wines, craft beers, and now they're demanding craft spirits."
Even better, the demand for Re:Find (and they're even distilling a rye now on their soon-to-be three copper stills from Germany) has led to the Villicanas buying saignée from their neighboring vineyards. "In 2013 we saved fifty farmed acres of grapes from being disposed," Monica claims. "It's very exciting to have the wine industry here working so collaboratively. It's very synergistic: we need the wineries to provide their bleed for the greater demand for the distillery which then leads to better wines at the wineries."
And if you're wondering, they re-use the back end of the winemaking process, too--Villicana makes a grappa, as they distill all the must and seeds and skins after wine production. "It's another sustainable step," Monica says. "If people look back to European farm areas, most had a common still." There's nothing common about Re:Find, though.