John Kinney and Dave Hendrickson have been hard at work perfecting the three new gins they are set to bottle, now that they have label approval on two out of the three. “Learning the TTB rules for distillates takes a little navigating,” admits Kinney. “We’ve learned a lot about how to do spirit labels. Wine labels are pretty much interchangeable between front and back, but spirits rules are very strict.” They’ve got special bottles with glass stoppers lined up for silkscreening and are pretty excited about the contents.
The first gin, called Dry Gin, is their juniper forward example, pretty typical and market-friendly. The second is called Botanical Gin, with very amped up aromatics, owing to a more floral presence, including influences from cucumber and roses. Kinney says it is quite reminiscent of Hendricks gin, known for its essence of Damask rose.
The third gin is dialed between the juniper and herbaceous types, with a good deal more complexity. “It’s not dominated by any one element,” says Kinney. “Instead, it will take on a little sweetness and color from a short rest in a red wine barrel. Winemaker Dave (Hendrickson) wanted to add a little color, so we decided on red. He went to Europe earlier this spring to look at different barrel-aged gins.”
They plan to bottle about 60 cases of each of the first two and 23 or 24 of the barrel-aged gin, which Kinney thinks might be a harder sell.
“If you call your gin either ‘dry’ or ‘botanical,’ says Kinney. You don’t need formula approval from the TTB. But if you put it in a wine barrel, then you need formula approval!”
If you haven’t had their Eau de Vie and grappa yet, you’re missing out, and if you weren’t lucky enough to try the sweet vermouth that they sold out of very rapidly, you’ll be pleased to know that they’re increasing production. It’s even better, says Kinney, because this year’s Sauvignon Blanc, the 2018 from the Ghielmetti Vineyard, is better than ever. “It’s outstanding and we’ll be making more dry vermouth again, too.”
He pauses to digress on grape versus wine prices. “Livermore’s problem is that wine prices have their sweet spot between $20 and $30,” he notes, which doesn’t cover the cost of farming or making good wine. “Yet, the fees are going up for all government agencies and the city is adding extra fees as well. In fact, everything is going up in price except bottles. Rent is going up. Storage costs are increasing. We haven’t done a price increase in years. Our Cabernet is still $30 (fact check: the 2015 is actually $35) and our new Sauv Blanc is $25, while many other wineries are going to $28 for SB.”
Kinney notes that spirits have some significant advantages over wine in that they never go bad. You can bottle on demand, with no vintage dating necessary. He economizes by buying glassware in bulk. Wine has to be constantly topped off, whereas with spirits, this isn’t an issue. “When we sell spirits, we don’t have to put them into inventory and pay tax on them until we sell them, unlike wine.”
In fact, he says, we are going to have to do something about the business model of winemaking. “People expect everything for free in the wine business. At a brewery, you don’t expect a refund of your tasting fee when you purchase. We give away a lot of wine. We still have to pay sales tax on it, plus we have to pay someone to pour it. We give too much wine away. At Sidewinder, we do not have a free tasting model.”
Spirits are winning more mindshare with Kinney and Hendrickson. Sidewinder is sitting on a 10-year old example they plan to bottle later this year. For now, the dry and sweet vermouths, both $29, the Grappa ($29) and the Eau de Vie ($35) are available under the Sidewinder label.
They’ve also embarked on a whiskey program, and by September, will legally be able to call it “bourbon.” This spirit is actually a high rye bourbon, which means it is comprised of at least 20-30% of rye in the mash bill. By law, bourbon must be at least 51% corn, with the remaining 49% of the mash bill usually comprised of wheat, malted barley or rye. Rye is the boldest, most flavorful of the grains, while wheat is typically more mellow. Bulleit is a popular high rye, and Makers Mark represents to many the pinnacle of smoothness derived from high wheat. Kinney says they also have a rye whiskey in barrel that needs another year before it’s ready. Meanwhile, they’re busy formulating some single malt, for which they have already obtained barrels.
Kinney is particular excited about the partnership they’ve developed with the only floor malting shop in Northern California, Admiral Malting, which happens to be on Alameda Island. Kinney explains that floor malting is the key to a robust, earthy flavor favored by the whisky makers of Europe: think Scotland. The organic barley grain, which comes from the Sacramento Valley and Tule Lake in California, is gently germinated on the floor by hand, to develop distinctive flavors that no other germination method can produce. It is then kilned for a rich, freshness you can really taste. “ Floor malting is a lost art these days,” observes Kinney. “There’s a local biome that develops in environments like this. Like on the Isle of Skye (Scotland), where when you open the big bay doors, the sea air rushes in. It’s not quite the same, obviously, but it does produce a unique flavor, and we want to work with small artisan producers dedicated to their craft.”
They have recently unveiled three new wines. Get ready to embrace winemaker Dave’s latest 2017 Founder’s Chardonnay (Del Arroyo Vineyard, $38), 2018 Rosé of Grenache (Fong Vineyard, $25) and 2018 Sauvignon Blanc from Ghielmetti Vineyard ($25).
On June 22, Kinney will present “The History of Livermore in Three Wines,” a session he deems necessary to debunk the misinformation surrounding the winegrowing lore of Livermore. “We have all been told that Livermore Valley is one of California’s oldest wine regions, that the Spanish missionaries planted the first wine grapes in the 1760s, and that Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the 1840s. But, of course, none of this is true. In fact, Livermore Valley was a latecomer to viticulture,” insists Kinney.
The actual history of Livermore Valley is much more interesting. It is the story of the land, the people, and the railroad. Says Kinney, “In this class, we take a step into Livermore’s past and discover the factual history of our Valley as told through the story of three wines. Ticket includes a guided wine tasting accompanied by a classic California menu item from the 1890s.”