Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Charbay Artisan Distillery & Winery

As shoppers stroll down the vodka aisle of their favorite liquor store these days, they are apt to start thinking they’ve wandered mistakenly into the candy section.

Vodka isn’t just vodka anymore, but comes infused with all sorts of peculiar flavors, many of them associated with childhood.

Thus, when I meet up with Marko Karakasevic at the Starbucks in the Village at Northstar above Lake Tahoe, I’m primed to propose a kind of vodka that would capitalize on a wildly popular flavor and also help his family’s Charbay Artisan Distillery & Winery make a big splash in the market – a vodka infused with chipotle chili peppers.

“There is one already,” says Karakasevic. And if there weren’t, he wouldn’t be interested, he quickly makes clear. The beverage world is oversaturated with gimmicky flavored vodkas, he says.

Besides, Karakasevic family’s portfolio of wines and spirits is pretty extensive as it is, running to nearly 40 products. What’s more, they already are making a big splash critically and commercially in the world of adult beverages.

Charbay is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Over the past three decades, it has grown from a small and tentative Mendocino County winery and distillery producing wine and brandy under the brand Domaine Karakash to a somewhat larger but still family-owned business whose lineup includes six wines, five tequilas, four whiskeys and seven vodkas, six of the latter flavored.

Yes, Marko Karakasevic and his father, Miles Karakasevic, are responsible in part for today’s fashionable flavored vodkas, which they started to release in 1998.

Then, as now, however, only vodkas infused with fresh whole fruit intrigued them. Their first fruit-flavored vodkas, and still the most popular in the Charbay lineup, are the blood-orange vodka and the Meyer-lemon vodka, both made with fruit Marko Karakasevic gathers from orchards just outside Porterville in Tulare County. Their only flavored vodka not infused with fruit is green tea, introduced in 2005, the first such vodka in the United States.

Karakasevic was at Northstar this fall to participate for the 17th time at the Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival. He and his wife, Jenni, traditionally oversee a tasting when they introduce a spirit and serve it straight and in various cocktails, generally accompanied with food.

This year their new spirit was Charbay “S” Hop Flavored Whiskey, a smooth, bracing and complex whiskey distilled from Big Bear Black Stout by Bear Republic Brewing Co. of Healdsburg.

It had the smoke, structure and sweetness to stand up to Smoky Joe sliders rich with blue cheese, as well as the complexity and focus to prolong the pleasure of a classically made Manhattan.

The Karakasevics are restyling the package and reinvigorating the promotion of their Charbay Clear Vodka, distilled solely with Midwest corn and rye and not at all infused with anything other than Mendocino County water.

Their emphasis on the pure vodka is being spurred in part by their sense that a backlash against juvenile-flavored vodkas may be setting in among spirits drinkers ready to return to vodkas not tricked-up with Gummi Bear, root beer, espresso and similar flavors.

Their Clear Vodka was added to their production only after they’d introduced fruit-flavored varieties, at the urging of an Oklahoma liquor distributor who saw an opportunity for a straight Charbay vodka. Only then did the family patriarch consent to a vodka not infused with any kind of flavor. It was an immediate commercial and critical hit. “Damn, we missed five years of selling that stuff, but that’s the way it is,” Marko Karakasevic says.

Nowadays, Charbay’s annual 10,000-case production runs largely to spirits, but the family also makes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, a couple of other varietals and a few ports at their winery and distillery high on Spring Mountain outside of St. Helena in Napa Valley. The Karakasevics also have a distillery at Ukiah in Mendocino County.

Marko Karakasevic represents the 13th generation of “master distillers” in his family, a lineage that began in 1751 in the former Yugoslavia.

His father, Miles Karakasevic, entered the family business in 1954 and earned a degree in viticulture and enology at the University of Belgrade before he emigrated to Canada in 1962, Michigan in 1968 and California in 1972, where he was appointed assistant winemaker at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley.

A little more than a decade later, Miles Karakasevic started to make wine and distill brandy in Ukiah, releasing his first products under the brand Domaine Karakash, which they changed to Charbay in 1991. (“Charbay” derives from “chardonnay” and “brandy,” inspired by a style of dessert wine that Miles Karakasevic had just created.)

From the start, the Karakasevics have been recognized for introducing imaginative if not unprecedented products – a California apple brandy, a black-walnut liqueur and a spirit distilled from sunroots, or sunflower tubers, which the family claims is the “first original American spirit.”

Marko Karakasevic joined the business full time in 1995, but it wasn’t until 2009 that his father anointed him a “master distiller.”

The apprentice must introduce a kind of spirit never before made by a family member. For his “liquid thesis,” Marko Karakasevic created Charbay’s Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey, a lighter-style whiskey distilled from an IPA beer, aged for just one day in oak barrels but held for five years in stainless-steel tanks. (The name “Doubled & Twisted” refers to how a stream of high-proof whiskey looks as it comes out of a still.)

When his father tasted the finished whiskey, recalls Karakasevic, “he slapped me on the back and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a master distiller. Let’s go drink some and smoke cigars.’”

Marko Karakasevic will continue to experiment with spirits, but for the most part is focusing on refining and expanding Charbay’s production of vodka, though he doesn’t expect to introduce any new flavors. “I like the flavors we are making now,” he says.