Beer for the Grape Harvest
Along the shores of Seneca Lake, it was the winery that came first in 1978, then the brewery in 1997. Wagner Vineyards is among the larger Finger Lakes wineries and also operates a popular restaurant, in addition to Wagner Valley Brewing.
“Beer is the beverage of choice for winemakers during the harvest,” says Laura Wagner Lee, who handles public relations and commercial sales for the company. The winery operation is still much larger than the brewery, but it gives Wagner a real point of differentiation.
Wagner Valley brewmaster Dean Jones notes that many people touring local vineyards save Wagner for the end of the day. “They come in and taste the wines, but they end up on our deck overlooking the lake with one of our beers. It’s a nice change of pace,” Jones says. The brewery turns out a number of draught only and bottled beers, including Wagner Valley IPA, Sled Dog Doppelbock and Sled Dog Trippelbock Reserve.
The crossover movement among brewers, distillers and vintners is growing. You can find it in Flagstaff, AZ, where the Mogollon Brewing Co. and Arizona High Spirits share ownership. In Denver, Flying Dog Brewing and Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey share common owners and a wall. In Massachusetts, Buzzards Bay Brewing and Westport Rivers Winery can be found along the state’s southern coast. Others will soon join them.
At Michigan Brewing outside of Lansing, president Bobby Mason is working with distiller Kris Berglund to release some specialty vodkas and Celis Flemish Style Gin over the summer. In Chapel Hill, NC, proprietor Scott Maitland of the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery is awaiting the delivery of a still and equipment. Top of the Hill Distilling will make vodka and gin, with plans down the road to make a whiskey.
“Our plan is to use exclusively North Carolina agricultural products. We’ve been looking around for a warehouse to store the whiskey if we go that route and I’ve found a piece of property that would work for that and be perfect home for a winery,” Maitland says. “It takes seven years for the vines to mature to make wine and in the meantime we could use the grapes to make brandy.”
Firestone Walker Brewery in California started in 1996 and is the offspring of Firestone Vineyards, which began making wine in 1972.
“It’s a bit of a homebrewing project gone awry,” quips proprietor Adam Firestone. Firestone is a third generation operator of the Santa Barbara winery and is a partner with brother-in-law David Walker in the brewing company. At first the company was looking for a use for old chardonnay barrels and considered making single malt whiskey or sherry. They then thought about wood-aged beers. They found out the used barrels had microbial issues that prevented them from being used to age beer. Then they turned to a system similar to the Burton Union technique developed in 1840, where beers are fermented in the oak barrels. They focus on pale ales and use British yeast strains.
Does Firestone think there is room for more crossover drinks companies?
“The real thrust in the market right now is in quality, higher-end beverages. I can definitely see any small winemaker or craft brewer crossing over because it is all about the passion and interest in making great products,” Firestone says.