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Bringing a winemaker’s lens to spirits, beer and cider in Napa Valley

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 13, 2021 series
  • Updated

Napa Valley may be most famous for its wine, but some winemakers and entrepreneurs are venturing into other premium beverages. Let's meet some of them.

Cider from hidden orchards

Will Drayton, director of technical viticulture, sustainability and research at Treasury Wine Estates, has been making cider as a hobby since he arrived in the United States over 15 years ago.

“There were a bunch of apples and pears that were going to waste, so I started making small-scale cider for personal consumption in about 2005,” he said.

Upon sharing the cider with buddies from school, Drayton’s crew also got hooked on making cider, and the group of winemakers (plus a grape grower and a brewer) quickly dove headfirst into their new apple-based craft. Soon, Sawhorse Ciders was born.

“We completely geeked out, as you do when nearly all of you are UC Davis related with a scientific background in winemaking and experimentation,” said Drayton. “It just sort of snowballed from there, and we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could have a side gig doing cider at the same time?”

“There probably wasn’t enough forethought going into what we were doing," he added, "but we were excited about dealing with a different fruit.”

In particular, Drayton was surprised at how many orchards there are in Napa Valley, many left abandoned and unused. He said Spring Mountain, Oakville, Carneros and Howell Mountain are his top spots to pick from.

“There aren’t acres and acres in a row, and they aren’t easy to get to, but there are some really cool orchards with five or 10 or 50 trees all over the place, and people don’t know what to do with them,” he said. “This was a good way for us to explore those corners of Napa and try our hand at something different ... We deal with grapes all day, every day.”

Similar to grapes, Drayton said apples can capture the “sense of place” and “terroir” that winemakers are constantly talking about, giving him a new canvas to work with.

“Virtually none of these orchards are irrigated, and many have big, established trees that have been there for multiple generations, so it is kind of like making wine from old vines,” he said.

Apples don’t grasp onto the distinct flavors of fruit quite like grapes do, though, so Sawhorse’s ciders are also made with a blend of pears, quince and medlars to round out the beverage. Drayton said the way that the tannins of these fruits interact with each other makes the process sort of like winemaking, but you have to watch sugar and alcohol levels much closer due to their volatility.

“They have a bunch of sugars and enzymes and acids and other components in there that we don’t normally have with wine, so the balance is a little bit trickier,” he said. “With wine, you know what the rules of the road are, and with cider, you have a new set of parameters of what is important.”

Estate brewing

For Nile Zacherle, his dual experience in brewing and winemaking has allowed him to keep a hand in both of his passions as winemaker for David Arthur Vineyards and co-founder of Mad Fritz Brewing. He was enamored with wine because there was so much to learn from the fruit and its chemistry, but after experimenting more and more with beer, he learned that he could apply these same principles to create innovative, authentic brews worthy of a wine glass.

“That’s what we are attempting to do here,” said Zacherle. “After two decades of making wine, the idea was to approach beer with more of a winemaker lens.”

As a result, the idea of authenticity of origin is above all else to Zacherle, so the company has built itself up slowly to ensure that they don’t lose sight of their goals. Local hops — while expensive — are integral to the Mad Fritz operation, and exploration never stops within the production facility.

“Unfortunately, brewing is a lot of cooking, and those processes tend to interfere with the sense of place. What we have been trying to do is eliminate that based on ingredients,” he said. “We aren’t The French Laundry of beer, but I want people to think about beer on a different level.”

While Mad Fritz started small, the brewing company now has over 500 members buying their artisan beers. A brief stint with a taproom before the pandemic confirmed Zacherle’s suspicions — “We don’t want to be a bar” —  he is now primarily focusing on staying true to his passions as a brewer.

“We always get questions about what is our top selling beer, and I know what they are — it's a double IPA and an imperial rye stout — but if I just brewed them all the time and had them available, that is what you become … You become what people want, not what you want,” he said. “I think the challenge is getting people to look at beer differently and to be a little bit more open minded.”

While Mad Fritz has a "kickass" IPA, Zacherle said that isn’t all they are about. Limited edition brews and new releases are in abundance, with 14 very different varieties currently for sale. One of these is “The King and the Frogs” which is 60 percent malted spelt from the 13th century.

“These are time machine beers that take you back in time with ingredients that add a whole other dimension of flavors,” said Zacherle. “That is the journey — exploring all the flavors and dynamics and layers of beer that these different origins can provide, not just producing something that people want or think they want.”

Passion for the still

Over in Sonoma, Daylight Wine and Spirits has also expanded beyond vino with their brand Ammunition. Initially, the Ammunition label sold a red blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Syrah, with cofounder and child-of-wine-country Andy Wahl at the helm.

“We started our company in 2013, and I actually had a different idea, but growing up in wine country, I saw how important these brands were,” said Wahl. “The thing that we say is that a great wine starts in the vineyard, and grapes are the ammunition to make great wine.”

Wahl and his business partner Bill Kerr ran with the wild west theme for Ammunition, and released their first vintage in 2014. Since then, Wahl says they have doubled their wine sales every single year, often selling out of popular varietals. So instead of adding another wine to the label, they branched to whiskey.

Wahl had been a drinker of whiskey for years and had even been in Ireland and Scotland during the Jameson craze, so this new project was one of passion. Less expected, though, was how well their new product would go over with their existing clients.

“After going to a lot of different wine dinners and things, the women loved the Ammunition brand, and they would bring their husbands who were not necessarily drinking wine. But because it said ‘Ammunition,’ they would at least try,” said Wahl. “We would start with wine and would end up drinking bourbon together at the end of the night at the bars, so it was sort of a progression.”

Ammunition sells a straight bourbon and a straight rye whiskey, both of which are finished in barrels used for Ammunition wines. After switching from Pinot to the hard stuff without cleaning his glass one night, Wahl realized the potential to use this byproduct as an asset for whiskey production.

“I immediately noticed how it changed the color of the whiskey, and it was a bit more aromatic,” he said. According to Wahl, using these three-to-four-year-old barrels gives the whiskey a complementary berry flavor.

While Ammunition will likely keep expanding into the world of spirits, Wahl said that nothing quite compares to winemaking.

“From a making standpoint, there is no doubt wine is way more fun ... especially here in Napa and Sonoma,” he said. “There is this affinity of, ‘Oh, you’re a winemaker, what vineyards do you have?’ but when I make whiskey, you don’t ask about my cornfields.”

“There is nothing like that proximity to product.”

Distilling the essence of wine

This proximity to product is also important to California Brandy House and its labels, Argonaut and Germain-Robin, although in a slightly different way. Since brandy is a sort of byproduct of wine, as it is created by distilling vino, California Brandy thrives on its parent company, E. & J. Gallo Winery.

“There is so much storied history and there are so many cool pockets to go into with [brandy],” said Brandy House Experiential Specialist, Damon Boelte. “But we can’t go into that until we understand brandy, so that's what we are doing here,”

Opened in 2020, California Brandy House is a stand alone tasting room specializing in -- you guessed it -- brandy, and in celebration of its anniversary, California Brandy House staff hosted a blending and tasting session where trade and media were able to concoct their own flaskful of brandy.

In addition to Boelte and tasting room staff, Germain-Robin’s lead blender and distiller David Warter also was in attendance, and gave a bit of context surrounding Gallo’s entry to the world of brandy.

“Bob used to tell me different stories about his dad, and that family has such a passion for brandy,” said Warter. “In 1979, it was this really rainy year and it was one of the worst harvests that people in the valley remember, and this was really early in the North Coast history of growing wine so Julio Gallo said he needed to go up to the cab growers and make sure they made some money that year.”

Thus, Gallo acquired a bunch of grapes below their premium cabernet standards. But rather than getting rid of these grapes, Warter says these wines were simply laid down and put off to the side for a while.

“He did that every year from 1979 … We have laid down all sorts of different things,” said Warter.

These set-aside wines were eventually distilled when the company launched its brandy offshoot, resulting in 20-plus year old bases for these California Brandy House products. With age comes “rancio” -- which Warter describes as the leathery, layered flavor that brandy experts look for.

“You can really smell all sorts of different elements of the fruit coming together to make it so you can think, ‘I can just sip on this glass,’” he said.

While its safe to say the Gallos weren’t intending on having a downtown Napa tasting room entirely for brandy, Warter, Boelte and other enthusiasts are thrilled to be able to share the almost-parallel story of brandy here in wine country.

Go inside Napa's new Cambria Hotel Napa Valley. This 90-room hotel is located at 320 Soscol Ave. It is managed by Azul Hospitality.

You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

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Napa Valley wine industry reporter

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