All photos by Keith Allison.
People go to Napa and Sonoma for wine. I think that’s pretty well established. Maybe food and some shopping, but mostly wine. So naturally, I went to Napa for whiskey. Up a narrow, winding road to the top of the forest-and-vineyard covered ridge that separates California’s two wine valleys you will find the Charbay Winery & Distillery. And here is where the irony of going to wine country for whiskey gets even more complicated – because of the screwy California state laws, you cannot serve spirits in a tasting room. So Charbay, the distillery in wine country, cannot serve what they distill, so they make wine that is only available at the distillery.
Admittedly, I am not much for wine. Oh, I like it, but judging its subtleties, its complexities, or remembering the difference between one grape or another — I’m pretty hopeless there. I can tell a terrible wine from a good wine, but probably not a good wine from a great wine. To quote 21st Century sage Karl Pilkington, “I’m glad I’m not that person who likes the good wine. Because it’s just makin’ their life difficult for them.” But a trip through Napa and Sonoma is one of the great American drives, and in terms of scenery alone, it lives up to what you want. The brown scrubland of southern Napa slowly gives way to vineyards, becoming lusher and greener and more packed with wineries (and tourists) as you head north.
Perched atop Spring Mountain, straddling the line between Napa and Sonoma, Charbay is a bit off the beaten path but well worth the visit. The distillery was founded in 1983 when Miles Karakasevic and his Alambic pot still set up shop in the heart of wine country. He was making brandy back then, a product still distilled under the stewardship of the Charbay’s current distiller, Miles’ son, Marko. Since then, the portfolio has expanded to include vodka, apertifs, and of course, whiskey. Charbay first came across my radar some years ago when I wound up with a bottle of their blood orange vodka — using actual fruit, not artificially flavored syrups — and shortly thereafter a bottle of their rare small-batch whiskey.
As craft distilling became more popular, Charbay’s profile rose, though they still maintain a small operation and produce whiskey in very small amounts. Their focus now is on “hopped” whiskey, made from finished beer (from Bear Republic in nearby San Francisco) and inheriting a unique flavor from the hops used in brewing. They currently have two expressions on the market — one made from a stout, and the other from Racer 5 IPA. Oh, and they make wine, which is what we were going to be tasting at the distillery. (Editor’s note: Charbay also imports Tapatio Tequila in partnership with Carlos Camarena.) The wine is produced in even smaller batches than the whiskey and brandy, using an almost “on a whim” style since it is only served and sold in the distillery’s tasting room. After touring the distillery (which is pretty easy to do, since it’s just the one still — though they have another, slightly larger facility elsewhere), we settled in to taste their wine.
Charbay’s blessing and curse for me has always been having a very high quality and unique product at a price point that was a little too high for me. Their current line of whiskey maintains the quality but shrinks the price substantially, and though wine is not their focus, what they make maintains the high quality showcased in their spirits. The line-up for the tasting was beefy: a Cabernet Sauvignon from 2006, a Syrah from the same year, a 2010 Chardonnay that will make you rethink the tendency some have to dismiss Chardonnay, their Distillers’ Port and Still House Port (by this point, things were getting a little overly excited), and a green tea apertif. All were exceptional, though I am again the first to admit that my wine palette is far from refined. I was more trusting of the couple who arrived in the middle of our tasting for a tasting of their own — thought o be fair, the middle of our tasting ended up being ten minutes after we should have wrapped things up. A hospitable bunch up there on the ridge.
Charbay’s current whiskey offers are exceptional entries in the small but poised for rapid growth category of hopped whiskies. Right now, Charbay and Michigan’s New Holland Brewery both offer hopped whiskies as part of their regular line, and Nashville’s Corsair has more hop whiskey mad experiments under the belt than a sane man can keep track of. It’s a shame California law keeps Charbay from being able to pour their amazing spirits for people, but luckily, they have expanded their business and lowered the price on their whiskey, so you can find it around or order it online. And while you cannot buy their wine in stores, they too can be ordered online.
Napa and Sonoma may be something of a drinking traveler’s cliché, but that’s like saying Islay is a bit of a cliché for Scotch fans. Some things are popular for a reason, and both California valleys lived up to the expectations I had for fun, beauty, and a wee sip or two. But if you need to get away from the traffic, from the big vineyards and towns full of luxury goods, you’d be well served by turning off the beaten path, winding your way up Spring Mountain Road, and spending an hour or more drinking wine and talking whiskey at the still on the hill.
4001 Spring Mountain Road
St Helena, CA 94574