John on Wine – A Taste of Redwood Valley…and bourbon…and mushrooms!

This piece ran originally as a wine column in the Ukiah Daily Journal on Thursday, October 19, 2015

This weekend, on Saturday, November 21 and Sunday, November 22, the wineries and distilleries of A Taste of Redwood Valley will host their 13th annual Holiday Wine Sale & Artisan Faire.


A simple, bring your own tasting glass complimentary wine and spirits tasting event, you’ll find live music, great discounts, arts & crafts, and holiday cookies, light fare, and more as you go from location to location throughout Redwood Valley.

Participating both days, visit Barra of Mendocino/Girasole Vineyards, Brown Family Wines, Frey Vineyards, Giuseppe Wines/Neese Vineyards, Silversmith Vineyards, and Testa Vineyards on either Saturday or Sunday.

Participating on Saturday only, visit American Craft Whiskey Distillery, Germain-Robin Distillery, and Graziano Family of Wines on Saturday or miss out.

Again, this is a free event, just grab your tasting glass and visit Redwood Valley for a great time, and stock up on wines for Thanksgiving dinner and beyond, at a great savings.


The Nation’s Best Bourbon might not be made anywhere near Bourbon County, Kentucky

Recently, I tasted Crispin Cain and Tamar Kaye’s new straight bourbon, and it was stunning. What a wonderful alternative to mass produced crap. Clean, pure, candied sipping heaven. I also got enough quotes for a stand-alone column around that one taste, so look for that in the future. In the meantime, remember American Craft Whiskey Distillery Low Gap Bourbon; find it, buy it. If visiting American Craft Whiskey and Germaine-Robin Distilleries on Saturday, November 21 during the 13th annual Holiday Wine Sale & Artisan Faire, bring a glass for complimentary tasting, and a credit card for a one day sale!

If you miss Saturday’s tasting and sale, you can still make an appointment to taste and purchase at the distillery’s retail location, by calling (800) 782-8145 to set a time and get directions.

After my bourbon tasting, I attended the Barra Vineyards winemaker’s dinner at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah, as a guest of Charlie and Martha Barra. Thank you!

The five course mushroom themed dinner was held in association with Visit Mendocino’s Mushroom and Wine Festival.

The Crush Chef’s Wine Dinner series recaps are among the most commented upon, a favorite among those who read my column, and this is not one of those dinners. Instead of being Crush’s event, featuring a winery, this was Barra’s event, held at Crush, and a brilliant choice as Crush has amply demonstrated an ability to prepare and serve a meal to highlight a winery’s wines.

Crush manager Kevin Kostoff welcomed the fortunate guests to Barra’s winemaker’s dinner, introduced his brilliantly able staff. Owners Doug and Debbie Guillon were introduced, and Doug explained that the wine dinners at Crush are served ‘family style’ with wine, food, and conversation passing freely. Charlie and Martha Barra were introduced, and Martha told the guests, “we are just very pleased that Charlie, at almost 89, is here with us, and we want to commemorate his 70th year in the vineyard tonight.” Winemaker Owen Smith introduced the six wines served, and Chefs Steve and Jason introduced the food dishes, almost too numerous to count.

The reception meet and greet appetizer course paired the 2014 BARRA of Mendocino Pinot Noir Rosé with a Mushroom Pâté.

One of four tables filled with happy Barra Winemaker's Dinner guests

One of four tables filled with happy Barra Winemaker’s Dinner guests

The seated first course paired two wines, the 2010 BARRA of Mendocino Pinot Grigio and 2014 BARRA of Mendocino Chardonnay with Dungeness Crab Lettuce Cup – Thai influenced flavors complemented by pickled shiitake mushrooms; Wild Mushroom Bisque – with thyme, roasted garlic, Parmesan; Porcini Mushroom Arancini – with tomato reduction sauce and fresh basil; and Kobe Beef Mushroom Tartare – accompanied by crispy shallots, toasted popover boats and Dijon drizzle.

2013 Barra of Mendocino Pinot Noir

2013 Barra of Mendocino Pinot Noir

The second course had two more wines, the 2013 BARRA of Mendocino Pinot Noir and 2011 BARRA of Mendocino Petite Sirah, for Braised Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie – made with onion reduction, chive, potato purée; Slow Roast Veal Shoulder – served with a mushroom Marsala reduction; Heirloom Polenta – mascarpone, fontina, rosemary; and Haricots Verts – with cippolini onions, portobello, and sea salt.

Noted wine writer, Heidi Cusick Dickerson, shared, “What a dinner… Crush chef and crew get a high five and more for amazing flavors and combinations. Not fussy and so mushroomy… exquisite combinations. Well done and I am so happy to have been there to taste Barra of Mendocino wines with such thoughtful creative dishes. I thought the mushroom bisque with the Pinot Grigio would be my favorite and then there was the Pinot Noir and Arancini and then melt in your mouth veal with mushroom sauce, polenta and the Petite Sirah… Heavenly… Thanks to all.”

I’m a sucker for Arancini, stuffed risotto balls, and loved the wild mushroom bisque and the Kobe beef and mushroom tartare when put in the popover boats, but my favorite dish was created at the table by putting some of the rich mushroomy sauce from the slow roasted veal on top of the wonderfully creamy polenta made with chicken stock, cream, truffle oil, and butter.

As for the wine and food flavor combinations, I especially liked how the depth and flavors of the 2014 Barra Chardonnay paired with the richness of the mushroom bisque, and how the richness of the 2011 Barra Petite Sirah went with the rustic and richly flavored shepherd’s pie, but unsurprisingly, to me, it was the 2013 Barra Pinot Noir that paired most beautifully with the broadest array of mushroom based dishes, and especially well with the veal sauced polenta.

The dessert paired the 2014 Girasole Vineyards Muscat Canelli with Truffled Honey Panna Cotta – orange cookie, pear, vanilla bean; this was another wonderful pairing.

Martha and Charlie Barra

Martha and Charlie Barra

At dinner’s end, Martha presented Doug and Debbie with a wood boxed assortment of Barra’s finest wines, in recognition of the incredible job, above and beyond all expectation, done by the Crush crew, both front of house and in the kitchen. I must confess that I was very well stuffed after this incredible dinner.

Barra of Mendocino will be open both days of Redwood Valley’s 13th annual Holiday Wine Sale & Artisan Faire, so visit either day this weekend for complimentary wine tasting and fantastic sale prices.


The next Winemaker’s Dinner at Crush will be held Wednesday, January 20, 2016, and feature the wines of Seebass Family Winery. Contact Crush directly at (707) 463-0700 to get on “the list” as these dinners sell out early.




John on Wine: Summer vacation

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, August 13, 2015

The metal band Gundriver visited the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room and liked it. Photo by John Cesano

The metal band Gundriver visited the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room and liked it. Photo by John Cesano

Few would choose Yuma, Arizona as a place to vacation in the summer but, as you read this, that is where I am. For those unfamiliar with Yuma in summer, pull out an illustrated Bible and flip to a picture of Hell. Same thing.

My son Charlie leaves for U.S. Army Infantry training at Ft. Benning, GA in two weeks, on Aug. 24, and we made plans to visit my step-father Lyle before Charlie leaves.

Joining the Army, and choosing to be an Infantryman, would not be my first choices for my son, but he follows in a long line of Cesano males who make questionable choices in youth.

I was a U.S. Army Infantry Sergeant. My brother showed up at the Army enlistment office. My father and step-father were both Army. The Cesano clan isn’t necessarily bright, but we serve.

While in Yuma, in an air conditioned house, we will enjoy tastes of Crispin Cain’s Rye Whiskey from Redwood Valley, and Zinfandel from throughout the county to go with meat cooked outside at night after temperatures drop to 90 or so.

Charlie and I will also be visiting my brother Thomas just before Charlie leaves. Thomas is out with Kelly Clarkson, and we’ll see him in Mountain View on the off day preceding Kelly’s concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre. On a previous tour, earlier this year, my brother was out with the Michael Schenker (Scorpions, UFO) Group, and band members ordered wine to go on their tour bus when we caught their shows at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

Afterward, the opening band Gundriver came to Hopland, parked their bus in front of the tasting room, and ended up doing a wine tasting. It was great fun to see and pour for R Ev Jones, Tomes, Tom, Alex, and the whole Gundriver crew. Quite a bit of wine ended up going on that bus too.

Kelly’s production manager is a “wine head” and we’ll take the McFadden tasting room show on the road, with the help of the tour’s caterers, and do a tasting for the crew when we visit.

It is gratifying to spread the message about the quality of Mendocino County’s wines through unconventional outlets, and tastings for popular musicians is just one more way to do it.

While Charlie and I are visiting my brother Thomas, on Saturday Aug. 22, the Yorkville Highlands Growers and Vintners Association will host the Yorkville Highlands Wine Festival at Meyer Family Cellars, 19750 Highway 128, Mile Marker 34.2 between Yorkville and Boonville. The event starts at 1 p.m.

This year’s festival will celebrate 13 years of wines from the Yorkville Highlands. Highlights will include tasting award-winning wines made and grown within the Highlands around Anderson Valley. Tickets are $60, and $30 for designated drivers; the price includes a delicious farm-fresh lunch and dessert, a silent auction, and a grape stomp. Head to Meyer Family Cellars for this year’s celebration of Yorkville Highlands wines.

Yorkville Highlands member wineries include: Bink Wines, Halcon Vineyards, Judson Hale Winery, Le Vin Estate Winery, Lone Oak Ranch Vineyards, Maple Creek Winery, Mariietta Cellars, Meyer Family Cellars, Route 128 Winery, Theopolis Vineyards, and Yorkville Cellars.

Visit http://www.yorkvillehighlands.org to purchase your tickets.

Attend the Pure Mendocino Organic Dinner & Farm Tour on Saturday, Aug. 29, if you can, for a summer evening enjoying the perfect blend of Mendocino County’s bountiful harvest, generously offered by local farmers and producers. This unique celebration honors Mendocino County’s leadership in organics and community health, and is the major fund raising event for the Cancer Resource Centers.

Held at Paul Dolan’s Dark Horse Vineyard at 5341 Old River Road, Ukiah, attendees will enjoy a wine tasting and appetizers reception beginning at 5 p.m. with the farm-to-table dinner at 6 p.m., and, after dinner, dancing under the stars to live music from Mendocino’s talented selection of artists. A silent auction will run from 5 to 8:30 p.m..

Chef Olan Cox and friends will showcase the community’s finest organically grown food and wine. Participating wineries include Barra Vineyards, Bink Wines, Bonterra Vineyards, Frey Vineyards, Golden Cellars, Handley Cellars, Jeriko Estate, Masút Vineyards, McFadden Vineyards, Oster Wine Cellars, and Yorkville Cellars.

Tickets are $135, online at http://www.puremendocino.org.

Pure Mendocino is a memorable celebration of the uniqueness of this community, its people and our bounty. Nationally recognized, Cancer Research Center Mendocino County is the only direct-service organization of its kind in Mendocino County, and 100 percent of all donations stay in the county to provide information, support and advocacy services free of charge to those facing cancer.

CRCMC’s vision is that no one in Mendocino County faces cancer alone, and the funds raised at this dinner will help provide support services to over 300 people.

Please join Pure Mendocino in a commitment to the sustainability and care of our community. The feeling you will get helping fight cancer, making someone’s fight a little easier, will make you feel pride for having helped in your way. Again, please attend if you can.


John On Wine ­ – Crab, wine & more

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on January 23, 2014 by John Cesano


This week, I look back at last weekend, reflect a bit, and look ahead to more events this week.

On Saturday night, I went to Patrona in Ukiah for a winemaker dinner boasting a very crab-centric menu, because the Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Fest is going on. The meal also featured the sparkling and still wines of Roederer Estate winemaker Arnaud Weyrich from nearby Anderson Valley. I was thrilled to use the event as a reconnecting date, the first in over 20 years, with a dear friend, June Batz, who will likely be accompanying me to more wine events in the future.

Arnaud visited each table, welcomed guests to the event, and shared some information about the winery, and the night’s wines. Showing far more humility than I would have, he refrained from noting that one of the night’s wines, the Roederer L’Ermitage was named the #1 wine of 2013 by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Some of the folks attending included Lorie Pacini and Allen Cherry, who are two of the biggest supporters of Mendocino County wines I know, Gracia Brown from Barra and Girasole along with her husband Joseph Love, and Christina Jones, owner/chef of Aquarelle restaurant in Boonville – who is doing her own winemaker dinner tonight, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. with wines from Handley Cellars.

The three bubblies, Roederer Estate Brut, the L’Ermitage, and a Brut Rose, were everything you would hope and expect, simply perfect when paired with crab egg rolls, crab stuffed chicken, and an orange marmalade crepe with whipped cream respectively.

The two surprises of the evening were a pair of still wines, the 2012 Carpe Diem Chardonnay, barrel and tank fermented, with a majority of used oak, yielding a gorgeously balanced wine that paired beautifully with butter poached crab and avocado, and the 2011 Carpe Diem Pinot Noir, a delightfully characterful wine that went well with pork belly.


Overheard at Barrel Tasting 101 last weekend: “Why is this Chardonnay cloudy? I think it is corked.”

Whoa there; a wine that is still in barrel, a wine not ready for bottling yet, a wine that has never seen a cork, can’t be “corked.”

Often time, Chardonnay in barrel is held “sur lies” or with the spent yeast of fermentation to provide the wine with a little weightiness or richer mouth feel. Barrel samples of these wines will be cloudy. Similarly, red wine barrel samples are colored, but often not clear. I will write more in advance of the next barrel tasting event I point to.

The most important thing to know about barrel tasting is that wines tasted from barrel are not finished wines, some do not taste particularly good, but will eventually yield delicious bottled wines. Barrel tasting provides clues, hints, at what you might expect from future wines. Some wineries offer cases sales on wines tasted from barrels, wines that are not released yet, but will be released in the future, and these offerings and sales are known as “futures.”

Tasting room folks that I talked to reported an interesting mix of folks attending the event; some who knew what a barrel tasting was about, other folks who were open to learn, and still other folks who were interested in consuming as much wine and crab as they could for $10.

June and I visited Maria and Rusty at Testa Vineyards in Calpella on Sunday, and it was great to see the crew working, pouring wines, serving up tasty treats.

Rusty pulled samples from the barrels in the cellar; I enjoyed the barrel samples I tasted, and thought the Petite Sirah would be great held separate instead of used up in blending. Charbono, Carignane – all my old favorites – tasted great from the barrel. Rusty is usually busy manning the grill, barbecuing chicken or oysters for an event, when I see him, so it was a treat to hear him talk about the wines and wine making.

Back upstairs and outdoors, we enjoyed tastes of current release bottled wines with Maria, paired with mighty delicious crab spread atop a slice of toasted French bread. Well, yum.


The folks at Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in writing about their Blackberry Shine and Champagne cocktail, the MoonMosa. I’ve written about spirits when I visited with Crispin Cain and the folks from Germain Robin in Redwood Valley, and I work for a place with two Double Gold sparkling brut wines, so, sure, why not?

I received a mason jar of Ole Smoky Blackberry Moonshine. The packaging is fantastic.

Gary Krimont, a friend and wine industry socialite, helped me evaluate this unique beverage.

First, Moonshine might be pushing it. While the folks at Ole Smoky do produce a few products at 100 proof, the Blackberry Moonshine is just 40 proof, or 20 percent alcohol.

Honestly, the lower alcohol is a good thing, as it made this an easily enjoyed, flavorful sipper. The aroma is pure blackberry pancake syrup, but the flavor is more complex and layered. We mixed equal parts Shine and Brut, and both Gary and I felt that the cocktail was less than the sum of its parts. If you see one on a retail shelf, pick up a jar, and enjoy Ole Smoky Blackberry Moonshine by itself, it is light enough to drink uncut, and too delicious to dilute.


Saturday is my birthday, and I will be attending ZAP, the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers Zinfandel Experience event at the Presidio in San Francisco. Sessions include a Sensory Tasting, a Terroir Tasting, and a Reserve & Barrel Tasting. Two Mendocino County wineries participating are McNab Ridge Winery in Hopland and Edmeades Estate Winery in Philo, and I look forward to tasting their Zinfandel, plus the Zinfandel wines made by many friends outside the county as well.


Crab Fest continues this weekend, with the big events moving to the coast.

The Crab Cake Cook-Off & Wine Tasting Competition will take place this Saturday, Jan. 25 from noon to 3 p.m. under the big white tent at the corner of Main and Spruce in Ft. Bragg.

There is an all you can eat crab dinner, with wine, from 6 to 9 p.m., that Saturday night at Barra in Redwood Valley.

A host of winery tasting rooms along Highway 101 inland, and Highway 128 on the way to the coast, will be offering up crab taste pairings with their wines this last weekend of the Crab Fest, so get out and enjoy the bounty of our county.

John On Wine – Location, location, location

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on November 14, 2013 by John Cesano

Tasting wine. It is important to do. Last weekend, I ventured south to taste wines in Sonoma County with a friend from the Sonoma Valley. I tasted more Cabernet Sauvignon wines than I do in a month of tasting in Mendocino County, which, if only for the novelty was a treat. I also reconfirmed that, by and large, the wines grown, made, poured in Mendocino County are just as good as I find anywhere else. It is also entirely possible that by tasting the wines of Mendocino County so frequently, so overwhelmingly, that I am developing a county-wide house palate.

A house palate is what you get when you work for, taste, and drink the wines of one winery. I completely admit to having developed a house palate for the wines made by Carol Shelton when I worked at Windsor Vineyards in the 90s and now I have the same thing going on for the completely different wines grown by Guinness McFadden.

I came to love Carol’s wines for their sexy, feminine, soft, lush, rich fruit forwardness. Now, I look for the food-friendly balance that Guinness’ cool, climate grown, high acid fruit yields in the wines I pour every day. That said, I am just as pleased by wines that are different.

Even though I tend to lean toward the wines I pour daily, I am beyond open, I’m excited to taste new wines. I love finding delicious wines made by wineries I might have dismissed after less than stellar tasting experiences years earlier. The only way to find out what great wines are out is to taste wines.

I’ve been tasting wines for 30 years and can describe the differences that the place a grape is grown can have on flavors, how varietally correct wines from one area differ greatly from varietally correct wines of another area, and how with these differences they can both be varietally correct. I remember when I first fell in love with Pinot Noir, exploring the mineral complexities of a genuine French Burgundy, the candied cherry and rose petal of a Russian River William Selyem, the meatiness of a Monterey Chalone, the Carneros gravel, the way different areas flavored the same grape.

Wine isn’t Kool-Aid or soda, wine is different depending on where it is grown. Of course, vintage and winemaker also play a huge role in how wines taste, but today we’ll stick to place.

Compare Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and the same wine made from grapes grown in the Dry Creek Valley, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, and inland Mendocino County. Heck, compare the wines made by Rosati Family Vineyards using Ridge estate budstock and the same wine made by Ridge using grapes from the same budstock. Paul Draper and Zelma Long are both great winemakers, the wines of both are great, and for all their similarities the Cabernet Sauvignon of Rosati grown in Mendocino County will taste different than the Ridge grown Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the mountain ridges above Santa Clara.

Look, I know that not everyone is wine geeky enough to appreciate subtle differences between wines made from grapes grown in two different northern California wine regions, but try this: imagine tasting Chardonnay made from grapes grown in the dry desolation of baking hot Texas or the wet fetid swampiness of Louisiana. You don’t have to be a Master Sommelier or your crowd’s own Frasier Crane to know that grapes grown in many places outside of California’s wine regions could be horrible.

If you can accept that there are places that grapes shouldn’t be grown, then accepting that we live in a pretty magical area for grape growing should not be too hard a leap of faith. Just look around, there are grapes grown everywhere. Right out in the open, legal, not in hiding, no nasty cartels. Grapes are the real heart of a healthy Mendocino County agricultural scene. We are home to the greatest concentration of green growers. Our grape growers are family farmers, organic, bio diverse, biodynamic, fish friendly, carbon neutral. Seventy-five percent of the county’s grapes end up in the more famous and more expensive wines made in Sonoma and Napa Counties.

We are a farm county and our grapes are highly sought after, offering buyers incredible quality and ridiculously low prices. The wines we make in our county, from the grapes we keep are the bomb. I go on about inland Mendocino County almost every week, heaping deserved praise on wines made by wineries along the Highway 101 upper Russian River corridor, but the Pinot Noir from Toulouse and the Rose of Pinot Noir from Navarro in the Anderson Valley, or Yorkville Cellars’ Late Harvest Semillon grown in the Yorkville Highlands, are wines as good as you are likely to taste anywhere. How do I know? Because I try to taste wines from everywhere.


A Taste of Redwood Valley, the group who would love you to come taste wines in Redwood Valley, just north of Ukiah, with greater frequency, will be holding their Holiday Wine Sale and Juried Art Faire on Saturday, Nov. 23 and Sunday, Nov. 24 from 11 a.m. ­ 5 p.m., which will provide you a great opportunity to pick up wines for Thanksgiving at savings of up to 40 percent off. Different wineries will have different hours and offers, and some will be open just one of the two days. For more information, visit ATasteOfRedwoodValley.com, and to find me visit Germain-Robin where I will be stocking up on Crispin Cain’s Rose Liqueur and his Absinthe.




John on Wine –

Spotlight Winery Distillery: American Whiskey and Greenway Distilleries

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal by John Cesano

Walking into Germain-Robin’s distillery during June’s A Taste of Redwood Valley event, the aroma of apple and pear fruit, as brandy distilled, perfumed the air in a way different than the gorgeous aroma of a winery’s barrel room – richer and more pungent – these were aromas so big they penetrate beyond mere smell sense, but touch your soul.

On that day in June I met Crispin Cain.

Crispin Cain

Crispin runs the American Whiskey Distillery, Craft Distillers, and Greenway Distillery, all distilleries within a distillery, co-located at Germain-Robin. Passionately answering all questions and proud of his products, Crispin poured his pre-prohibition styled clear malted rye whiskeys. Gins, absinthe, and rose liqueur.

Crispin applies the handcrafted cognac method, improved by Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale in Mendocino County, to distilling his whiskey and the result is breathtaking.

From the craft distillers website, “Whiskies are spirits distilled from grain: barley, rye, corn, wheat. The grains are prepared in various ways, including malting and drying, to convert starches into sugars. Water is added to create a mash,’ which is fermented to convert the sugars into alcohol. Distillation can be on either potstills or column stills.”

I tasted the 2010 single barrel malted wheat, 84 proof and single barrel #1-100 proof whiskeys.

I bought a bottle of Crispin’s Russell Henry London Dry Gin, distilled from wheat. It tasted of sweet candied juniper berries, with notes of lemon peel, cardamom, and iris.

Crispin also served up a bowl of Absinthe ice cream, homemade using the Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieure, which is made by Crispin.

That 20 minute visit led to a subsequent longer visit with Crispin where he gave me a tour, tasting, and did his best to expand on the frighteningly rudimentary knowledge of distilling I had gleaned from television’s Moonshiners, aired on the Discovery Channel.

Crispin told me he jumped at the chance to interview with Hubert to be his assistant, and worked in that capacity from 1989-92, moving to Redwood Valley winery Gabrielli in 1993 and 94, before coming back for most of 1995 through 2000. A back injury in February 2000 set Crispin back “really bad” and unable to work, he went through his savings until with just $500 and an idea, he convinced Ansley to let him come in to Germain-Robin and set about making what would become Crispin’s Rose Liqueur.

“It took until 2003, three years, to get what we have now,” explained Crispin, as he poured a taste of his rose liquor for me. Not perfumy, not sugary sweet, but an intense infusion of old David Austin and Don Juan rose petals in an apple honey mead brandy, with underlying notes of raspberry and chocolate.

When I told my friend Margaret Pedroni that I had tasted Crispin’s Rose Liqueur and was undone by it, she described it as “sex in a glass,” which is the perfect description. Both the dictionary definitions of “lovely” and “delicious” feature a picture of a Crispin’s Rose Liquor bottle.

“I intended the Rose and Absinthe to be a part-time job,” Crispin said, before adding, “this is where my passion is.”

Today, the role of distiller consumes Crispin full time, and his wife and children also work in the business.

Making whiskeys, liqueurs, gins, vodkas, absinthe, and more, Crispin engages in a blend of science and art that to me seemed a little like the potion and concoction making of a wizard or magician.


Barrel of aborted alien fetuses

Happening upon a vat of gnarled Buddhas Hand citron fruit, used for flavoring a vodka to be released this fall, did nothing to dispel the impression. The tools of his trade, the cognac stills, one as old as 1830, round copper pot stills, and many windowed column stills, further lend a mad scientist feel to his endeavors.

The math and methodology of cognac style distillation was a little more complex than what the television show hillbillies go on about. A first distillation of grain mash results in the brouillis, which Crispin hesitated to show me because it is somewhat off-putting, a blue blend of alcohol and water with sugars and fats not wholly resolved. The brouillis reduces the original mash volume to just 25 -30 percent, and that is reduced in a second distillation in a separate still to just 25 percent again. Barely over 8 percent of the original mash volume is left, but this is the heart of the heart, with barely 3/10ths of one percent sugar left. Cutting the high proof spirit with collected rainwater can lower stratospheric alcohol levels. Move the spirit to a barrel, perhaps new oak, for a year or more, and we’re talking some amazing whiskey.

Occilation Overthruster - Early Model

While most whiskey is colored by the oak barrel it is held in, Crispin has some clear whiskeys. Crispin’s Low Gap Clear Wheat Whiskey was named the Whisky Advocate’s 2012 Artisan Whiskey of the Year and his absolutely clear malted rye whiskey spent just 204 minutes in a used neutral barrel so it could legally be called whiskey. These are incredibly smooth and flavorful spirits.

Crispin took me through his whiskey barrel room, where some of his spirits are aging and picking up color. A great variety of barrels were assembled; Bourbon, Limousine, Cognac, and Minnesota were well represented. Crispin shared that his dairyman grandfather got barrels from the same barrel maker in Minnesota for his (illicit) distillations of grains, fruit juices, honey, and whey; the dairy smells, butter and cheese, hid the smell of whey fermentation and distillation.

For the second time, we tasted two finished whiskeys that have graduated from barrel to bottle, Low Gap Single Barrel No. 1, an incredible 100 percent malted wheat whiskey running at 100 proof, and Low Gap Single Barrel No. 2, that made me say “yum” and running at 84 proof. These are drier whiskeys with very little sweetness, but amazing for their cleanness or clarity of flavor.

Crispin pulled a sample of 94 proof gin that was being barrel aged. It blended the bright flavors of gin with the color and weight that comes from time in a barrel. Barrel color for a gin was unusual for me, but really no more unusual than clear or uncolored whiskeys.

Another barrel sample, of rye whiskey, was smooth and oh so tasty, the rye flavors were almost like candy. Crispin opened a container of the rye malt and it was wonderful to smell the aroma both before and after distillation. Crispin’s rye whiskeys were far and away the best rye whiskey I’ve tasted.

Promised future tastes include a candy cap mushroom liqueur, barrel aged seven years, in apple honey spirits.

Visiting with Crispin and tasting through his spirits is worth the price of any A Taste of Redwood Valley event. The next ATORV event will be their big holiday weekend sale, the weekend before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23-24, 2013. Look to this column for ticket information as we get into the fall season.

For more information about Crispin’s many spirits, or to try to schedule a tasting appointment, call (707) 468-4661.


John Cesano writes about wine and reposts his columns to JohnOnWine.com


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