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Winemakers Turned Distillers

Paso Robles husband-and-wife winemakers Alex and Monica Villicana, of Villicana Winery and Vineyard, couldn’t bear to see even a portion of their hard-earned grapes go to waste. So they rallied local winemakers to combine saignée (bled grape juice), which they distill into vodka and gin under the Re:Find Spirits label. Next in their bid to make sustainable spirits: turning grain used as vineyard cover crop into rye whiskey.

How did you get your start in wine?

Alex: I thought I was going to go into the restaurant field. I met Victor Roberts [who was winemaker at Creston Vineyards in Paso Robles at the time], who said, “If you’re going into the restaurant business, you need to learn more about wine. They go so well together.” Looking back, I think it was just a way to get me to participate with the harvest. I worked at Creston for three years, and I just fell in love with the whole process. I knew I wanted to be here.

Alex and Monica Villicana
Alex and Monica Villicana / Photo by Jayme Burrows

What inspired your interest in making spirits?

Alex: We were looking to be more sustainable and utilize our raw materials. We started playing around with Rhône varieties, which became popular in this region. One of the things winemakers do with certain varieties is bleeding—to change the ratio of juice to skins. You’re removing a small portion of that prefermentation, first-run juice everyone says is the best, but there’s no use for it. By bleeding it off, winemakers are adjusting the ratio of juice to skins in the upcoming fermentation to produce a wine with better color and mouthfeel.

“I saw a way to use that wasted product to create a secondary one: distill it into a spirit. I reached out to other local winemakers to see if they had additional juice…. So now we collaborate.”

Some wineries will turn this saignée into a rosé. But small premium wineries generally discard this juice, especially in warmer climates, because red wine grapes tend to be picked at high ripeness levels. For premium wineries, it makes more sense to sell off this bleed.

I saw a way to use that wasted product to create a secondary one: distill it into a spirit. We started making spirits in fall 2011. I reached out to other local winemakers to see if they had additional juice. They were totally supportive—they hated wasting it. So now we collaborate. It’s something we’re all proud of.

How is it different from making wine? Does it scratch a different itch?

Monica: Unlike wine, [most] spirits don’t have vintages. In winemaking, the variables from year to year are vast, and a boutique winemaker looks to embrace and highlight them. In distilling, once you have perfected your formula—which can take years—you are looking to replicate it.

What are you working on next?

Alex: The Paso Robles Spirits Trail—we have officially been approved by the government. We have eight founding members: seven are existing wineries that are expanding out into spirits. By the end of the year, I bet there will be more. As nice as it was to be the only distiller for four years, now it’s good to have others. We’ll push each other and the quality level.