21 Nov Where San Francisco- Distillery Boom: Artisan Spirits Take Over Napa and Sonoma
Napa and Sonoma bring to mind rolling hills and valleys covered in vines and tasting rooms and restaurants where wine flows freely. But there’s more to the New World’s first landmark wine country than wine. Craft, or essentially small batch, distilleries are cropping up throughout the region, just as they are all around the country, and business is booming.
But it’s not all newcomers, even here in the most important wine region outside of Europe. One of the pioneering distilling families in the United States has been distilling on Napa’s Spring Mountain since the 1980s. A long, winding road in St. Helena leads to Charbay, a property Miles and Susan Karakasevic bought in 1972. A certified master distiller who studied enology and viticulture in Germany, Miles came from generations of distillers dating back to the 1750s in the former Yugoslavia, where he emigrated from in the 1960s. Along with making wines and ports, the couple shipped in an alembic pot still from Cognac, France and began distilling a brandy in 1983 that had the Old World elegance of Cognac and Armagnac.
Today Susan runs much of the Charbay business, and Miles’ son Marko is a 13th-generation distiller, breaking ground with his fresh fruit-flavored vodkas, rum, Tequila (distilled in Mexico), grappa and exceptional whiskies. He and his wife Jenni also own Marko K Spirits, which imports quality spirits like Tapatio Tequila.
“Charbay was started as a living for my family,” Marko says. “We have no loans, we own all of our equipment. We buy materials to produce products, bottle it, sell it and spend the money to do it again and again and again.”
At Napa Valley Distillery, owner Arthur Hartunian creates Sauvignon Blanc vodka, Old Hollywood Ginn, Meyer lemon liqueur, plum brandy and bottled cocktails. His distillery is known for its shop in Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, where visitors can taste all of the products and also find one of the best selections of bitters in the country, all of which can be sampled before purchase.
Meanwhile, across the mountain range, Sonoma has seen a surge of new distilleries open in the past few years. Husband-and-wife distilling team Timo and Ashby Marshall opened Spirit Works in 2013 in Sebastopol inside The Barlow, a forward-thinking complex housing food and drink businesses. Besides employing a female distiller, Ashby, the outfit is making waves with its excellent sloe gin made from wild sloe berries (a fruit in the plum family) that are foraged in Timo’s native United Kingdom. The pair also distills gin, vodka, wheat and rye whiskies and recently released a barrel-aged gin.
“Spirit Works’ commitment to a ‘grain to glass’ philosophy is a core part of who we are,” Ashby says. “This means that we bring in whole grain—organic California-grown red winter wheat—which we mill, mash, ferment, distill and bottle entirely on site at the distillery.”
Once a market becomes oversaturated, it shifts to quality. The products that sell and endure are those that have been tweaked, tested, perfected and offer something unique to the consumer and to the bartenders creating drinks from the spirits. Ashby Marshall has already noticed a change in the marketplace. “There is a real demand from consumers for transparency in terms of production,” she says. “People want honesty from brands, and people want to know who is making the product from what.”
Though wine will likely always be king in Napa and Sonoma, spirits continue to gain ground. “We’re in good company here,” Marshall says. “People already associate great wine and great food with this region.” Now discriminating palates and cocktail aficionados will find more to choose from than ever in Northern California, as the region’s spirits keep in step with the quality of taste synonymous with Napa and Sonoma.