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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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!”
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.
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).