Last we spoke with Arthur Hartunian, the owner of the one-man Napa Valley Distillery, he was telling us about his mid-life limoncello making crisis and soon to launch Sauvignon Blanc vodka. He also mentioned (several times) that he is Armenian-American, not Italian-American. Which means, for those of us who were thrown off by the Armenian-Italian relevance, that he is actually more of a vodka drinker than a digestif guy. A point that becomes pretty obvious when you taste the limoncello, almost a sweet vanilla vodka riff on the pure lemon original.
We circled back to talk to the distiller now that his grape-based vodka has been released. Turn the page for more on why he wanted to give Sauvignon Blanc grapes a second life as vodka (quite literally, it seems, judging by the packaging).
Hartunian admits that he started thinking about making vodka for purely personal reasons. “I wanted to make something I would enjoy drinking,” he says. Vodka also happens to be the number one selling spirit in the U.S., with 25% of spirit revenue market share in 2009. Not a bad business plan, assuming you don't make the same old potato number.
“Vodka doesn't have to be made with traditional ingredients like potatoes or wheat,” says Hartunian, a firm believer in the old adage that yes, you can make vodka from just about anything with residual sugar. “You can't find vintage grapes or maple syrup vodkas over in Eastern Europe, where vodka is originally from,” he adds. Though apparently, you can find Skittles vodka.
“Here in the U.S., we can really raise the bar on what vodka can be,” says Hartunian. As he happened to live in Napa Valley, he went with local grapes. “The pieces of the puzzle really just fell into place,” he says. “We didn't want just any grapes, but single vintage, single estate grapes — no one was doing that in the vodka world.” And therein lies the tricky part in a spirits world where a $30 mass produced vodka made from cheap ingredients (read: huge profit margins) is considered premium.
Hartunian says it takes nearly twenty tons of grapes to produce a 300-gallon batch. With Sauvignon Blanc grapes in the area fetching upwards of $2,000 a ton, those just-released 2008 bottles are pricey to make. Hence the reason the bottles are hand-signed and come with a $75 price tag (this year's release was limited to 2,600 bottles).
“I wanted something distinct, not tasteless,” says Hartunian on his insistence on high-priced Napa Valley grapes — you'd think a vodka that is distilled five times would taste just fine with leftover grapes from a slightly less high brow/high dollar wine region. “Soul-less,” is the word Hartunian uses to describe a vodka made from anything but premium grapes.
Taste-wise, the vodka is smooth, with a slightly sweet, complex finish from the grapes. The sort of spirit you really don't want to mess with (drink it straight up, or shaken with ice). And after a glass or two, you might actually start to like that rather elaborate (to put it politely) bottle and packaging, complete with a monarch-worthy crest for a logo, jewel-like bauble on the cap, and pearl-colored satin lining the black box. Sort of makes you feel like a very tipsy pall bearer at a royal funeral.