Good pastis, the anise-flavored, double-distilled French cousin of ouzo and sambuca, is a long, slow labor of love that needs a steady, experienced hand to blend a complex array of infusions and distillations to make a velvety apéritif. Once, all the best pastis all came from France, where it has enjoyed a happy, if relatively short, history since the absinthe ban in the early 1900s. Now, one lone and small California winemaker is making the state's only locally-distilled pastis (Charbay Distillery up in St. Helena made a pastis once, but haven't made another batch since and have created a pastis-lover's nightmare - a waiting list.) . It's smooth and complex, the result of two months worth of distillation, infusion, and careful blending, and it's only an hour and a half drive outside of L.A.
Named after the once brothel-strewn waterfront of San Diego (before it was polished by historical recreationism into the gentrified, convention friendly Gas Lamp District of today), the Stingaree Pastis from Alex's Red Barn Winery in Temecula only became available for public sale this past month. Alex Yakut and his wife Lise, both transplants from southern France, said it took over two years for them to get their distillery licensing sorted out. Their perseverance has paid off, and has made them the only distillery in the Temecula Valley.
The Stingaree Pastis is currently the only product they're selling from the 50-gallon still that Alex has imported from Europe. But he's been quietly aging a brandy, which should be available in another year, and he's in what he calls his "trial and error phase" on a new grappa. When asked when he thought he'd be ready to sell the grappa, Alex Yakut said, "It's trial and error. When you have no more error, it's ready."
The Yakuts are actually accidental winemakers. They bought their vineyard on short sale in 1996 with the intent to be grape growers and hobby winemakers, selling the bulk of their crop to larger wineries. Then the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter, an invasive and lethal-to-grapevines bug, hit the region and no one wanted to buy the grapes. The final straw was when Callaway, the major winery in their region, didn't renew the buying contract they had with the Yakuts and they found themselves sitting on 25 tons of old-vine Sauvignon Blanc grapes. So Alex decided to make wine.
"If you have grapes and you have to sell right then," said Alex. "They only last three or four days. But if you have wine, you can sell over long period time, and we sold it all."
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In fact, Alex won gold for that first Sauvignon Blanc at the Orange County Fair. That early success has made them one of the boutique winemaking gems of the Temecula wine region (we love their '05 old-vine cab and they make a traditional cream sherry that is pure silk).
If you want a taste of California's only craft distilled pastis, you'll need to head out to their tasting barn (Alex's Red Barn Winery is actually a red barn) on the aptly named Calle Contento off the main drag in Temecula. They don't market to local restaurants, nor do they sell through other retailers. And you should probably move fast. Plans for growth and expansion are not on the table. Both Alex and Lise are "retired."
Alex intends to stick to his current output and the 50-gallon still (which only yields about 12 gallons of finished product after double-distillation). Right now it's just Alex making the wine and spirits in the back and Lise pouring tastes in the front room. "We're old," says Lise. "We still want to have fun with this."
Alex's Red Barn Winery: 39820 Calle Contento, Temecula; (951) 693-3201. redbarnwine.com. The tasting room is open Sat-Sun 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Parking is out front.