Friday, April 27, 2007

Jason Grizzanti of Warkwick Valley Winery and Distillery

(Profile No. 1 in the Young Turks series)

There is no hiding my admiration for Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery. From their Cabernet Franc and Black Dirt Red to their great ciders and now unique distilled products, who can fault me? you've seen my reviews of their wines over the years. But who is the winemaker there?

It’s Jason Grizzanti. I recently had the pleasure of meeting him at the HVWGA Awards.. Warwick’s cider is one of the great ciders of North America, which I guess makes Jason Grizzanti one of the best cider makers in North America. That’s pretty big praise for someone who graduated from Cornell in 2000. But Jason just didn’t step into it. It’s actually been a long road to his recent successes. Aside from numerous awards, Warwick Valley is now distributed in seven states.

Jason and girlfriend, Erika Duncalfe.

“I started out making beer in high school. I made a stout. It came out OK,” said the native of Montclair. “My first wine was an apple cider. In retrospect, I had no idea what I was doing. I had worked [at Warwick Valley Winery] with the previous wine people. But the old crowd was gone by the time I got back from school. It was horrible,” Jason now admits.

“Luckily enough, my father had a friend, a retired bio chemist from the pharmaceutical industry. He gave me some suggestions, and my next batch came out much better. He was a great guy.”

“I went to cider school in England, at Pershore College. It was probably the best thing I did. I got to talk to a lot of great cider people, and learned more about cider in a broader, larger sense”

How did he originally get interested in wine and cider making. “I don't even know how it happened. The eternal search for alcohol in high school and college was probably the beginning. When I went to Cornell, I had a really great professor who was into cider. At that time, Cornell didn't have a winemaking program so his enthusiasm for cider rubbed off.” While at Cornell Jason went to Michigan State to search for more information. “I went to Michigan for a short week course to see their still, while at Cornell. It was at that early moment, during his junior year, that the bug really took hold, especially for distilling. “A bunch of Michigan wineries were getting stills. I wanted to do it too, but I didn't know how. Then the RFP from Grow New York arrived.”

Just after I graduated from college I got a RFP [Request for Proposal] for a grant from "Grow New York State," which was part of the department of Agriculture and Markets. “We wanted to be the first fruit micro-distillery. We wanted to make ciders. brandies. cordials. calvados. That was my thing.”

“We got a got a matching grant from the state for $50,000. We got our still from Germany. It came in 2001 or 2002. I started playing with it as soon as I got my license.”

“I distilled everything. I distilled water, raspberries, apples, pears, peaches, I stuck with apples and pears now. Recently we’ve done cherries and currants. Everything we make with our still is an eau de vie, or fruit brandy. These are the backbone of our cordials and our port.”

Harlequin port is named after Jason’s 8-year Harlequin Great Dane, named Winston. He got Winston when he was 21, and just Finishing college.

“Before the distillery, I was making port. I had been doing that for eight years,. We used to buy neutral spirits, but now we exclusively use our own, which we make ourselves.”

But Jason is a restless soul, constantly driven to try new things. He’s an experimenter, a tinkered. “We're coming out with our new liquor, a pear liquor. It's probably going to be available at the end of April, or thereabouts. We're always experimenting with new ciders.”

And the thirst for knowledge never diminishes. He's also been working on a master's degree from Heriot-Watt University, Scotland, in brewing and distilling. “I've done a lot with brewing, even though we don't make beer. There's not a lot of cider info out there, and tere is some cross over between brewing and cider making.”

Warwick's cider style is much more in keeping with the British style. I asked him if he was interested in making a French-style cider as well. “We may in the future add another more traditional French style. “The British style has much more mass taste appeal then the French. I’m not sure the American palate is ready for a full, French farmhouse styled cider...but I could be wrong,” he said with a chuckle.

“We're experimenting with strawberries, mint, in 50 and 100 gallon batches. If it comes out well, we can bottle it...and if not,” he chuckles.

“To be honest, I thought the cherry cordial was going to be a bust. It had a lot of off notes when we put it off to the side in a 55 gallon drum. Six months later it had become this cherry/cinnamon flavored beverage.” They bottled it immediately.

The winery is currently owned by Jason and Jeremy Kidde along with Jason's father Joseph. “Jeremy and I were friends since middle school. We went to high school in Montclair. Jeremy went to Colby College where he majored in finance and economics. We always wanted to market hard cider together but making that decision out of college was a difficult. We both were going to try more traditional career paths. Jeremy moved to San Francisco to work for Credit Suisse/First Boston as an investment advisor. I toyed with the idea of going to law school but decided that the winery and farm were really what I wanted to do. Two years later Jeremy wanted to come back to east coast.”

Jeff and Jason (mugging) at the winery.

Jason said, “Why don't we do the cider thing? And he said, ‘Great,’ and now we run and co-own the winery together. I make the product and he sells it.”

Joe Grizzanti is the founder and is responsible for the orchard. Jason runs the music
bookings. Warwick Valley has live music every weekend and large music festival regularly throughout the year. They also have a restaurant and cafe run by Katherine Grizzanti, Joe’s wife, who is a CIA graduate in her own right. And the things there are wonderful. So it really is a family affair. But it all comes back to the wine, cider and spirits.

Jason Grizzanti is still experimenting. And it’s that wonderful for all of us!