Paso Robles, CA
Winemaker, Distiller, All Around Great Fermenter
You wouldn't expect a shot of gin to remind you of sipping a cabernet, but that's what happens when a winemaking veteran tries his hand at distilling. Alex Villicana was searching for a way to minimize the waste from his winery when he first began experimenting with distilled spirits. Four years later, his Re:Find Distillery is now creating unique gins and vodkas with some distinctive wine-like qualities.
California’s Central Coast is a highly regarded wine region that is quickly moving out from under Napa Valley’s shadow. Alex and wife started the Villicana winery in 1993 when there were only 17 wineries in the area. After renting space for several years, they finally built their own winery in 2002 when the number of regional wineries had jumped to around 60. In 2014, that number had grown to nearly 300. Clearly, Alex knows what he's doing to have survived as a winemaker during periods of major growth and expansion. In 2011, he decided to open the first distillery in the area because he wanted to make his winery more sustainable.
To make his high-quality wines, Alex uses a technique known as “bleeding.” In bleeding, Alex increases the skin-to-juice ratio by pressing the grapes as they come in, placing the juice and skins into fermentation tanks, then skimming off as much as half of the juice. The result is a wine with great color and a lot of texture. The drawback from this process is that, unless a winery wants to make a bunch of middling rosé, that juice all goes down the drain. When grapes cost $2,000-3,000 per ton, it is easy to imagine Alex’s pain in watching all that juice go to waste. In researching ways to use the bled off juice, he learned that vodka could be made from grapes. The Re:Find Distillery was born.
What happens when an experienced winemaker sets out to make a spirit? For Alex, it meant focusing on fermentation with an obsessiveness that few distillers can match. The wine-like mouthfeel of Re:Find’s spirits are not accidental. Rather, Re:Find’s base spirit is prepared like a wine, maximizing the amount of glycerol – the sugar that produces legs that coat wine glasses – in the spirits. Glycerol is the reason flavors from great wines linger in the mouth (and why bad wines don’t – their producers try to minimize glycerol as much as possible). Glycerol coats the mouth and keeps the flavors alive after swallowing. Re:Find's high glycerol content is carried over through the distillation process.
When making wine, he doesn’t want lose the subtle characteristics that he’s worked so hard to create by stripping them out, which is why he doesn't hard-filter his spirits. To him, keeping his wine away from carbon filters is a symbol that he stands by what he’s crafted. He treats his spirits the same way, saying “if you do your job right from the beginning, you shouldn’t have to filter in the end.” After 22 years in the liquor business, Alex knows that ending with a great product is a lot easier when you start with one.
Being an established winemaker and the first distiller in the region has also allowed Alex to create some unique partnerships and joint ventures with local breweries. While Re:Find’s gin and vodka are grape-based, it’s whiskeys and ryes start life as some of the Central Coast’s best beers. Even though he isn’t in charge of every step of the process, Re:Find’s whiskeys stay true to Alex’s belief that the best end product must start with the best beginnings.
Ever the confident crafter, Alex doesn’t hide his spirits behind anything in his tasting room. When people come in, he pours them a tasting at room temperature. In his opinion, serving a spirit chilled is just another way to hide subtle flavors and he wants people experience everything Re:Find has built and bottled. The public is responding. Orders for distilled products are now keeping pace with the winery, and Alex ow has to call around to other local wineries to get their bled-off wine. Not only has he reached his initial goal of reducing the waste of his own winery, he’s taking in the cast-off juice from elsewhere just to keep up with demand.
Re:Find distillery certainly proves one thing – the distilling world can learn a lot from fine California winemaking. So much attention is paid to the distillation and aging practices of spirits makers. Re:Find is proof that high-quality spirits start well before a still is fired up.
To find out more about the Re:Find Distillery visit its website at http://www.refinddistillery.com/.