Turning Wine into Spirits
A distillery that leaves no grape behind
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 processing grapes for his wine label, but he is also collecting 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 Italy. 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 for perfect integration and balance. Villicana says, “It is an incredible labor of love.” After it is zested, the fruit is given 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.
Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.