A dis­tillery that leaves no grape be­hind

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY GINA BIRCH

Turn­ing Wine into Spir­its

Small-batch spir­its are the rage these days. While ev­ery pro­ducer has a story, none is quite like that of Alex Vil­li­cana, owner of Vil­li­cana Win­ery and RE:FIND Dis­tillery in Paso Robles, Cal­i­for­nia. Vil­li­cana is a wine­maker who turns sur­plus juice into vodka, gin and the like. To be clear, these are not the wine-based spir­its that restau­rants with­out a liquor li­cense use to make faux mar­gar­i­tas and Bloody Marys. Vil­li­cana ac­tu­ally dis­tills grapes, mak­ing a le­git spirit.

When grapes are be­ing fer­mented for wine, a por­tion of juice is of­ten drained from the tank. The idea is to get more con­cen­trated fla­vors in the wine that is left be­hind. The so-called “bleed-off,” or

saignée, oc­ca­sion­ally gets made into rosé; most of it, how­ever, lit­er­ally goes down the drain.

“It drove me crazy to throw away 30 per­cent of my wine,” says Vil­li­cana. Think­ing sus­tain­ably, he be­gan re­pur­pos­ing his saignée, and even­tu­ally that of his Cen­tral Coast neigh­bors, turn­ing it into spir­its un­der the RE:FIND la­bel. “In 2017 we used 29,000 gal­lons of juice, the equiv­a­lent of nearly 200 tons of grapes that other­wise would have been thrown away.” The saignée con­tains fruit solids and other fer­men­ta­tion byprod­ucts that can cause clogs at winer­ies, so his juice re­cy­cling also helps the en­vi­ron­ment.

Be­ing an in­no­va­tor comes with a lot of trial and er­ror—as well as per­mit­ting. No one had ever put a dis­tillery and win­ery un­der the same roof in Cal­i­for­nia. The laws are vastly dif­fer­ent when it comes to dis­till­ing ver­sus fer­ment­ing.

Vil­li­cana’s work is fast and fu­ri­ous dur­ing har­vest. Not only is he pick­ing and pr ocess­ing grapes for his wine la­bel, but he is also c ol­lect­ing saignée for RE:FIND. The first round of dis­till­ing has to take place im­me­di­ately af­ter the bleed-off. Then it can pro­ceed at a more man­age­able rate.

The juice is fil­tered a num­ber of times through an elab­o­rate sys­tem us­ing two types

of stills—pot and col­umn—to achieve the clean fla­vors the en­thu­si­as­tic dis­tiller de­sires.

His sig­na­ture vodka has some com­plex­ity, spice and a tex­ture that lends it­self well for mix­ing. Once he got the ba­sic dis­till­ing process down, Vil­li­cana says, “I did not want to make fla­vored vodka, but my wife loves sum­mer cu­cum­ber cock­tails, so ... ” he trails off, rais­ing his arms in sur­ren­der.

Vil­li­cana juices or­ganic cu­cum­bers from lo­cal farms, and then puts the juice into the vodka’s fi­nal fil­tra­tion. The cu­cum­ber vodka is re­fresh­ing and in­deed per­fect for the Cal­i­for­nia sum­mer, or all year long in Florida.

When RE:FIND Gin is poured, the smell of its botan­i­cals im­me­di­ately fills the air. Made from 50 per­cent ju­niper, the rest is co­rian­der, laven­der, or­ris root, grains of par­adise, lemon and or­ange peel. It’s like spring in a glass and is best when mixed with drier ton­ics such as Jack Rudy or sim­ply over ice.

RE:FIND (e) is an aged spirit that re­sem­bles whiskey in both ap­pear­ance and fla­vor. (The name is a play on spell­ing: is it whisky or whiskey?) Fin­ished in a rye whiskey bar­rel, RE:FIND(e) is soft and easy, with notes of vanilla and toast.

Speak­ing of whiskey, it is also made here. RE:FIND col­lab­o­rates with lo­cal brew­ers on a non-hop mash of rye, wheat and bar­ley that is fer­mented, dis­tilled, aged and bot­tled on-site. It’s clean with a smooth fin­ish, and it sells out.

“Limon­cello is the first al­co­hol I tasted as a kid,” says Vil­li­cana, and the one that he makes at RE:FIND is good stuff—the fla­vor­ful kind you find in South­ern It aly. He uses Santa Teresa lemons, the same species used to make the iconic limon­cel­los along the Amalfi Coast.

The process goes well be­yond sourc­ing the proper lemons. The wine­maker and his wife, Mon­ica, per­son­ally zest the 10,000 pounds of citrus as it ar­rives. The peels soak in vodka for months, re­leas­ing color and fla­vor, while sim­ple syrup is added a lit­tle at a time f or per­fect in­te­gra­tion and bal­ance.

Vil­li­cana says, “It is an in­cred­i­ble la­bor of love.” Af­ter it is z ested, the fruit is giv en to cus­tomers, bars and restau­rants, once again keep­ing waste to a min­i­mum.

At press time, the terms for Florida distri­bu­tion of RE:FIND spir­its were still be­ing ironed out. Un­til then, you can have them shipped through Third Base Mar­ket and Spir­its in Cal­i­for­nia and wow your friends with not only a great story, but also a great bot­tle to back it up.

The so-called “bleed-off,” or saignée, oc­ca­sion­ally gets made into rosé; most of it, how­ever, lit­er­ally goes down the drain.

Cal­i­for­nia wine­maker and dis­tiller Alex Vil­li­cana re­claims wine that would other­wise be wasted to pro­duce unique small-batch spir­its and liqueur at his RE:FIND Dis­tillery in Paso Robles.

RE:FIND is the first dis­tillery in Cal­i­for­nia to share space with a winer y. Gina Birch is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known me­dia per­son­al­ity in South­west Florida.

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