(This piece, as well as the last two columns posted, are excerpts from ‘A Rite Of Paso: Paso Robles Wine Country’ to be released December 1, 2013 by Intoxicology Press, LLC.)
If Alex Trebek posed the answer, ‘The smartest guy in Paso Robles’, what would your question be?
The more I think about it, the more I figure that mine would be: ‘Who is Alex Villicana?’
Some Rhône-focused winemakers use a Spanish technique wherein they bleed juice from the vat after crushing the grapes and allow the leftovers to macerate with double the volume of skins, thus concentrating available phenolics. The loanword used is paso doble—Spanish for ‘double pass’—and the extra juice is considered superfluous and usually dumped.
Suppose you walked into the brainstorming session at the winery—in this case, I promised not to name names—and said, ‘Not only have I figured out how we can avoid pouring out all that watery, thin juice down the drain, I found a schmuck who is willing to pay real money for it.’
Would you be the smartest guy in Paso? Nope. You’d be the schmuck who sells your thin, watery gold to the smartest guy in Paso: Alex Villicana.
No rational businessman likes to waste product, which is where petroleum jelly comes from: It’s essentially the waxy residue that occasionally has to be removed from oil rig pumps. And was simply trashed until 1873, when Sir Robert Chesebrough refined it and renamed it Vaseline.
Ah, That Word: Refined. Or, Re:Find.
Since opening the doors to 13-acre, 1800-case Villicana Winery in 1993, such cavalier wine wastage rankled Alex Villicana. I mean, it stuck in his craw like a slivver of French oak. He says, “The free-run juice can be made into saignée rosé, but not very good saignée rosé; if you’re going to make a pink wine, you grow, pick and vinify for that. Sugars are too high in our bled juice, and the wine winds up pretty flat. I don’t want my name on that.”
Still, pouring it into the irrigation reservoir is not an appealing alternative—it smells yucky and attracts fruit flies. Why it took nearly a quarter century to figure out that you could make moonshine out of it may be another Jeopardy answer, but it did. In any case, Re:Find Distillery opened two years ago, and has been a success nearly worthy of the knighthood that Robert Chesebrough received in 1883 (upon which Queen Victoria extolled his product’s usefulness, claiming that she ‘used Vaseline every day’).
That’s a quote I will not touch, except to say that a few shots of Re: Find might have greased her skids even better.
The first year, Villicana turned a thousand gallons of surplus saignèe into 200 cases of liquor, and knew he was onto something big when he sold out immediately. So, the following vintage he began to nose around comrade crushers to see if they could be convinced to sell them their garbage at a premium price.
Rhetorical question, evidently. Last year, when the brainchild was barely into its Terrible Twos, Villacana peaked at ten thousand gallons of what has been described as ‘amazingly alluring’ by the Tasting Panel magazine and went for the gold in Martha Stewart’s 2013 Audience Choice awards.
First, a few re:marks on Re:Find’s rou:tine.
The fact that our word ‘alcohol’ is derived from the Arabic كحل (al-kuḥl) and first distilled by Islamic chemists—a faith that bans its consumption—is perhaps not as ironic as the fact that the first ‘mandatory’ Pledge of Allegiance legal challenge came from a Christian denomination: Jehovah’s Witnesses. In any case, distillation involves heating a fermented liquid to a point above the volatility of its alcohol content (172 °F) but below the 212 ° required to vaporize its water content. The cooled, re-condensed steam contains ethanol—the stuff that makes us dance on bar tables, streak football games, sing karaoke and propose to people we just met—along with other lower-boiling-point impurities like methanol and acetone.
Because both of these undesirables evaporate at a temperature even lower than alcohol, they end up as the first drops in the collection vessel. The wise distiller throws these away; the unwise distiller has a seeing eye dog—as little as 10 milliliters of methanol can cause blindness. These are called the ‘heads’ of distillation. The ‘tails’ are the heavier fusel oils like butanol (paint thinner) and the absurdly named furfurol, which causes an explosive free-for-all if allowed to get too hot.
Traces of each remain, so, if the liquid is put through the process again, a more pure—and hence, smoother— eau-de-vie emerges. The theory is, by the time you have done this an infinite number of times, you are left with a substance that is, by definition, perfect—pure ethanol without taste, color or odor.
The concept of perfection, of course, is unachievable; in his treatise Metaphysics, Aristotle described it as ‘that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better’, which is why distillers keep on keepin’ on. Funny thing is, the imperfections that don’t kill you—called congeners—are what give grog its persona; strip them all away and you are left with what the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau defines as ‘a neutral spirit distilled from any material so treated as to be without distinctive character, aroma, or taste’.
In other words, vodka.
A key misconception about vodka is that it is necessarily Russian or Polish in origin; that it made from grain or root veggies—and that each brand has its own identity beyond marketing schtick. Note that the TTB specifies that vodka qua vodka (more Aristotlese) should have nothing within it’s essence that detracts from its neutrality. If it is not intentionally flavored, one ideal vodka should taste exactly like any other ideal vodka, which is to say, like nothing at all. As such, it can be made from anything… rye, potatoes, beets, lawn clippings…
Or Paso Robles Saignée.
With the sun on a downward arc, lighting the late September hillside with glints of gold and russet, Alex Villicana looks simultaneously relaxed and hyperkinetic. He’s a handsome guy in the sort way that gets instant approval from the girl next door’s mom; he’s a marathon runner and it shows. He waves a hand toward the slope, where the vines are in process of summer sayonara. His harvest has been in for a week, the grapes crushed and fermented (primarily grenache, mourvedre and syrah), and the first step of distilling—he calls it the stripping run—has begun.
“One distinct benefit of grape vodka,” he says, “is the compound glycerol which is produced during the fermentation. It forms the ‘legs’ in a wine glass and has a sweet, viscous quality that gives liquor uniquely smooth, soft characteristics.”
This is true grape brandy, and cannot be confused with the kerosene-like grappa distilled in Italian farmhouses. Grappa is not made from grape juice but from grape pomace—the leavings of a winemaking operation—and distilled dry by employing steam via a bain-marie-type gizmo. Villicana does it the way they do it in Bavaria, with a Holstein copper vertical still. This is a sparkling spire of form-follows-function engineering; a beautiful thing to behold. Yet, though the elixir that dribbles from the business end is truly magnificent, it does not get passing grades on the TBB’s vodka exam: It’s anything but neutral. Bubbling throughout the spirit’s intoxicating infrastructure are fleeting floral flavors and a rich, almost oily concentration of citrus and vanilla as well as the striking scent of…wait for it… lawn clippings.
Gentle and gentile at the same time.
And then there are the cucumbers. Seasonally, Villicana will infuse his vodka—Russian for ‘water of life’, BTW— with various organic delights, and on the day I stopped in, it was ripe cucumbers, which was an effortless indulgence; a sweet, unalloyed triumph . He’s got artisan gin as well, and the macerated blend of coriander, orange peel, lavendar, grains of paradise(an African spice related to ginger) and orris root is a velvet wash across the tongue.
To figure out how to make such a silken purse out of saignée sow’s ear requires a new breed of radical, an auspex on the advance-guard of the alcohol army.
How cutting-edge is Villicana’s Re:Find? Put it this way: If the Double Jeopardy! clue is ‘As of September, 2013, the only craft distillery in the entire Paso Robles AVA’—consider yourself a shoe-in for the cash.
The last name is spelled “Villicana”
— Your friendly, neighborhood Proofreader-man.
Thanks. I suppose you’re gonna tell me that it is Sir Robert CHEESEbrough, too.