RE:FIND Spirits – A delicious lesson in sustainability

I’ll begin with a bit of understatement:  Alex Villicana is a high-energy kind of guy, who is passionate about what he does.

And that’s a very good thing for all of us.

Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery
Alex Villicana of Villicana Wines and RE:FIND Distillery

He is the embodiment of the Paso Robles pioneering spirit that’s made this area such an interesting and exciting wine region.  He and his wife Monica began producing their estate-grown wines under their Villicana label in 1999–but that’s a story for another time (which I’ll cover in the coming months).  Just know for the time being that those wines are beautifully crafted and you should stop by if and when you’re in the area.  Taste some, buy some.

RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still
RE:FIND Tasting Room and the Original Still

But it’s their secondary business that really caught my interest recently.

I’d seen their sign on Adelaida Road for years (there are a lot of wineries on Adelaida Road; I’m still trying to visit ALL of them).  And along with the sign directing you to their tasting room, there’s also a sign for RE:FIND Distillery.  While there’s no shortage of great wineries in Paso, I had never seen a distillery set up shop there, and never really seen anything stronger than port promoted at a handful of other wineries.

I was looking for someplace new to try on a trip a couple of months ago and decided to finally check out this Villicana/RE:FIND operation and see exactly what they were up to.

And what they are up to there is something pretty amazing.  Villicana had been bothered for years by the fact that there was nothing much to do with the saignée–the “bleed” of juice from some wines (mostly Rhone varietals) that was otherwise dumped down the drain.  It seemed unacceptably wasteful.

“Growing wine grapes has a pretty big carbon footprint,” Villicana notes.  “When you think about the cost and energy and water that goes into farming those grapes, it’s a shame to just pour out thousands of gallons of juice.”

Stills at RE:FIND
Stills at RE:FIND

And then he had an epiphany.  He stumbled on a grape-based vodka in the mid-2000s, and it was good.  “I didn’t know you could do that,” Villicana said.  “It was my ‘Aha!’ moment.”

So Villicana set about figuring out how he could take that otherwise wasted saignée and recycle it by turning it into spirits.  He visited Dry Fly Distilling in Washington state to learn how to use distilling equipment.  And then he began the long process–about three years–to obtain a license to run a commercial distillery, something that wasn’t widely done in California since before Prohibition.

Spirits in the Making
Spirits in the Making

“My local ABC guy (California Alcoholic Beverage Control) was very helpful in figuring our way through this, fortunately,” Villicana said.  The tricky part about the licensing process is that you must own a still before you can get the license.

“But stills are expensive, so we were torn about whether to make such a big investment before we knew if the license was a sure thing,” he said.  But as soon as the ABC official told him that it looked like he had a clear path to getting that license, “I wrote the check out that day [for the still], and sent it off!”

“We got our license in 2011, and produced 200 cases the first year,” Villicana said.  And with that, RE:FIND was on its way.  They initially had a single 60-gallon still–since those first few years, they’ve added another 60-gallon still and a 300-gallon still, and currently produce around 2,000 cases a year.

“With this setup, we can turn over as much as 50,000 gallons of saignée, and produce as much as 6,000-7,000 cases of spirits a year.”

The second year, Villicana had to shop around for enough saignée to produce the desired amount of spirits, which has led to ongoing relationships with other local winemakers to recapture their run-off as well.

A Lineup of RE:FIND's Spirits
A Lineup of RE:FIND’s Spirits

Villicana said he approaches his flavor profiles in distilling the same way he does with his wines, and the results are exceptional.  RE:FIND currently produces a vodka, a cucumber vodka, a barrel-aged vodka (which is actually closer to a whiskey in flavor and color profile, which makes this bourbon girl all kinds of happy), an extraordinarily lovely and aromatic gin (sold in the tasting room as a “botanical brandy”), a rye, and a limoncello.  Between my first visit and my visit last weekend, I’ve tasted through all of these spirits–they’re remarkable.  Every one of them.

Everything is hand-crafted–even the bottling process.  “We actually contracted with a bottling operation for our spirits, but at the last minute they told us their insurance wouldn’t cover the job because of the risk of explosion.”  So, they hand-bottle their spirits as well.  “It’s actually better,” he said, “because it gives us better quality control.”  Always glass-half-full, that Villicana guy is.

The distillation process, to put it overly simply, involves removing the bad alcohol (acetone and methyl alcohol) from the good alcohol.  And of course Villicana has found a way to recycle that, too.  “We use the bad alcohol as a cleaner!”

Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education
Aromatics on Display for a Little Tasting Room Education

He also tries to use local producers whenever possible–something that’s a bit of a challenge when acquiring the grains and aromatics needed to craft the spirits.

“I’m now working with local farmers on getting the specific grains and aromatics we want, and we use the lavender we grow right here at the winery.”

Villicana has found a way to recycle his winemaking byproducts into something truly beautiful–and now produces almost the same amount of spirits as they do wines.

“One of the great things about this is that the spirits have kind of filled in some of the gaps that are part of the ups and downs of winemaking,” he said.  “This gives us greater flexibility to focus on the quality of both, and actually makes winemaking more fun. And it’s allowed us to take some risks we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

In an example of recycling writ large, the Villicanas recently purchased the dilapidated Fox Theatre in downtown Paso Robles, and plan to make it the new base for RE:FIND.

“We have the conceptual drawings and floorplan now,” he said.  “We hope to start construction around the end of the year, and expect about a 12-month build.”

When completed, the renovated (nee, recycled!) theatre will also house, among other things, a performance space and a professional kitchen.  Stay tuned; I’ll write more about the theatre in coming months.  It should prove to be a fantastic addition to Paso’s downtown scene.

Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room
Explore the spirits and learn what goes into making them at the RE:FIND tasting room

Villicana’s dream to use an otherwise discarded product to turn out beautiful spirits has also opened the door for the competition.  But he doesn’t see it that way.  Currently 8-9 new distilleries are in the plans in the Paso Robles area, and Villicana is thrilled, going so far as to offer guidance with the licensing process.

“It’s a cool way to be sustainable,” he says.  I’ll second that.

RE:FIND Distillery and Villicana Wines are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 2725 Adelaida Road (805.239.9456).



Love small producers like I do? Check out the Garagiste Festival!

Small producers have everything to do with my fanatical love of wine.  Sure, you can walk into a BevMo or independent wine shop and pick up a bottle of something perfectly lovely to drink, but a big part of the charm for me is getting to know that bottle’s story–which usually means visiting the place it came from, or chatting with the (person with the) hands that crafted it (indeed, it’s this blog’s very raison d’être).

One of the great things about living in California is that doing such a thing on a regular basis is easily possible and a lot of fun.  And there’s perhaps no better embodiment of this small-lot bonanza than the California Garagiste movement.

What is a Garagiste?  It’s the name first given to microproducers in Bordeaux, France in the early to mid-1990s, who were producing more robust (bigger fruit, higher alcohol) wines than those in the style of the traditional chateaus.  While the movement in France seems to have stalled somewhat, American winemakers–especially those in California–embraced the concept and the California Garagiste movement was born.

The majority of California Garagistes come from the Paso Robles area (though there are producers ranging from Santa Barbara to Napa who also participate), and they’ve been actively promoting these small producers of 1,500 cases or less since 2011 when they held their first festival in Paso Robles.  They’ve since expanded south to the Santa Ynez Valley, and onward still to Los Angeles.  The third annual Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure is this Saturday, July 9, at The Wiltern in Los Angeles.

2016 Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure
2016 Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure

What makes this festival so special is that many of the winemakers who will be there do not have tasting rooms–this is your chance to do something otherwise impossible: taste those great small-production wines and chat with the winemakers in person.  These are people who began making wine as a labor of love–no corporate nonsense here.

If you live in Southern California and you love great wine, you need to go to this festival.  There are three ticket levels available: the public grand tasting, which runs from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., is $69.  If you’d like to get a jump on things before the crowds arrive, the $99 ticket will allow you in for early tasting at 2 p.m.  And better still is the VIP Backstage Seminar Access, with admission beginning at 1 p.m. and which offers the seminar “Understanding Oak Varieties: Tasting the Winemakers Spice Rack.”  Ticket price is $129, and this is where you can get your wine geek on.  From the festival website:

With Panelist Ryan Render, Rendarrio Vineyards and Michael Larner, Larner Vineyards

What does oak really taste like? French oak, American oak, neutral oak, heavy toast… these are some of the words we hear all the time in the wine world, but what do they really mean? How do you tell the flavor of oak from the flavor of the wine itself? We will taste it for ourselves as our VIP guests will get an All Access Pass to the world of oak in wine.

It almost impossible to learn the difference in oak flavors unless you can sample a single wine with different types of oak treatments side-by-side. Once you do this, you’ll be able to identify oak flavors at whole new level and for the rest of your life. We’ve done it and it’s powerful, fun, and enlightening way to raise your tasting chops.

The discussion will be led by Ryan Render, a representative for the famous French tonnellerie Cadus. Ryan, an accomplished Garagiste winemaker in his own right and owner of Rendarrio Vineyards, will guide attendees through a history of barrel making and it’s nuances covering everything from forest origin to grain influence to toast levels as we taste and compare wines from both his vineyard and the Larner Vineyard.

This is not something you can achieve at home – you need the Garagiste Festival to make it possible!

Once the seminar is over VIP guests will enjoy unlimited tastes of over 200 ultra-premium, hard-to-find wines provided by over 60 wineries; exclusive tastes of “Rare & Reserve” wines* ONLY being poured from 2-3pm; a $10 food coupon to our onsite food truck;  bread, cheese & charcuterie, as well as product samples provided by selected artisan food vendors. These tickets are limited.

This is going to be a rare opportunity to learn some of the most important basics of winemaking, along with an exclusive tasting of rare and reserve wines, followed by the general Garagiste tasting.

Go to this link for tickets, and if you’d like to see a listing of which producers will be there, that’s conveniently provided on the festival website here.  I’m already familiar with a handful of these winemakers, and can tell you you’re in for a treat (and some amazing wine).  Even better?  Proceeds from the event are donated to the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program, thereby investing in the future of great California winemaking.