New Use for Napa Grapes: Vodka

Distillery makes varietal vodka from Sauvignon Blanc

by Paul Franson
napa vodka
Napa Valley, Calif.—A new tipple from Napa Valley uses the same raw materials as the region’s world-famous wines. A local entrepreneur has introduced a varietal vintage-dated vodka made from Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

Most vodkas are made from inexpensive grains like wheat, or traditionally from potatoes, but the beverage can be made from anything that can be fermented, then distilled.

Arthur Hartunian, owner of Napa Valley Distillery, says Napa Vodka is distilled six times to 190 proof (95% alcohol), before being diluted with de-ionized and filtered spring water to 80 proof. It doesn’t have the added flavoring agents of most vodkas, because Hartunian wants the varietal character to peek through subtly. “Even after being distilled to that level, it still has the crisp, distinctive character of Sauvignon Blanc,” he says.

The vodka was made from 2008 grapes harvested from a single vineyard in Napa Valley and fermented into wine, then distilled in a Vendome copper pot still at Stillwater Spirits in Petaluma, Calif. “We used their still because it worked well with our wine,” Hartunian says. “Our master distiller is Jordan Via from Stillwater, and his assistant was Philip Ladner, formerly the assistant winemaker at Pahlmeyer.”

It takes nearly 2 tons of grapes to produce the 3,000 gallons of wine needed to make 300 gallons of high-proof spirits, which are then diluted to 500 gallons. The company says it paid up to $2,000 per ton for the grapes.

The spirit was transported back to the company’s facility in Napa, where the remaining resting period, filtration, bottling and packaging was completed. Napa Vodka is filtered 10 times, first through activated bone charcoal and then through platinum-plated filters, removing minute impurities. This step takes more than two months to complete.

Hartunian says he tried other grapes but wasn’t satisfied with either Chardonnay or red winegrape flavors. Notably, Brandy is traditionally made from early picked neutral Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano) or Folle Blanche grapes, which make indifferent wines.

While there appears to be no legal requirement, Hartunian secured approval from the Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Valley Grapegrowers for his project.

Napa Vodka produced only 2,600 bottles, and it sells for $75 retail. Not surprisingly, the company suggests you drink it neat, slightly chilled, or in a very dry Martini—not compromised with strong flavored mixers.

Hartunian’s background is similar to that of many boutique vintners. A former financial executive, he got bored and decided to make a business of what had been a hobby. He had made wine, and also liqueurs. He considered starting a winery but looked at the competition and asked himself, “What could I offer?”

Hartunian decided on spirits instead. His first product was a Limoncello liqueur using local Meyer lemons and cane sugar. Next is a rum made from Hawaiian molasses, and a brandy is in the works, but of course it needs aging.

A distilled history
In early days, most Napa Valley wineries, like the others in California, distilled wine or pomace to produce alcohol for fortifying wines and aging into brandy. Though a number of “still houses” remain in the valley, the last brandy producer in the valley was RMS Brandy, a joint venture between Remy Martin and Schramsberg that eventually was sold along with its impressive copper stills. The facility now houses Etude Winery, part of Treasury Wine Estates, the U.S. wine arm of Foster’s beer company of Australia.

The master distillers of the Karakasevic family of St. Helena, Calif., produce numerous spirits under the Charbay name, but its distilling operation is in Ukiah, Mendocino County. It has a small still at its headquarters used for distilling flowers and other essences, but not beverage alcohol.

Leslie Rudd, who owns Rudd Winery and the restored Edge Side Winery in St. Helena, wanted to use the latter’s still house, labeled “Registered Distillery 209,” to produce gin, but the county now won’t approve distilling except potentially of local agricultural products. Rudd set up the operation in San Francisco to make his well-regarded gin, dubbed Gin 209.

Outside Napa, there are many craft distillers, including St. George Spirits in Alameda, which makes Hangar One Vodka, and Germain-Robin, a premium brandy producer in Ukiah.

Jepson Winery near Hopland, Calif., used to produce brandy as well as still and sparkling wine, but it’s not clear what’s happening there, since it was acquired by Ken Wilson’s mini wine empire.
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