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Monday, January 17, 2011, 4:55 am

SSU grad embarks on high-end vodka venture

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    Investment, award lift $30-a-bottle Väd line started by SSU grad

    Will Mentesh

    PETALUMA — A 26-year-old Sonoma State University graduate is stirring up the market for ultrapremium vodkas with a $30-a-bottle line rolling out of a local craft distillery.

    Though originally started a couple of years ago with an Oregon producer, the Väd brand — pronounced like “vodka” — was relaunched in December from Stillwater Spirits of Petaluma with new financial and back-office support, according to founder Will Mentesh.

    “We did not want to be a vodka on the shelf that no love went into,” Mr. Mentesh said about launching the new distiller.

    Just out of college in 2006, he took a Central Valley job in medical sales for a couple years as he amassed a couple hundred thousand dollars to develop and produce a patent-pending bottle cap that could be a jigger for 1- or 1.5-ounce shots, a container for shots or glass rimmer. Mr. Mentesh conceived of the cap his freshman year in college.

    In 2008, he tried the venture full time but later took a day job at a San Francisco tech firm while the vodka venture matured. The cost structure of the brand had to be retooled to trim the original $35-a-bottle price as the economy worsened.

    Recently, New Age Wine & Spirits, producer of Väd, landed an investment from William Pope, chief executive officer of SunChase Holdings, a real estate development and investment firm based in Arizona with an office in Roseville. That led to Mr. Pope’s son David becoming part of the venture and   SunChase back-office services becoming available.

    Different from the Oregon distillery, Stillwater’s 500-gallon copper rig allows for high-touch production, and the company is open to hands-on production, according to Mr. Mentesh. And the facility’s 350,000-case-a-year capacity — also tapped by local makers of brandy, grappa, liqueur and whiskey — allows room to grow.

    The Väd brand has three vodkas made from American winter wheat. There’s a five-distillation vodka smoothed further in American oak barrels; an energy-drink vodka called Synergy; and Thrive, which has vitamins and antioxidants.

    The Synergy drink, boosted flavorlessly with caffeine, guarana and ginseng, is an export product for now. Though approved by federal regulators a couple of years ago, the drink has been caught in the controversy over alcoholic energy drinks in the past couple of months, according to Mr. Mentesh.

    In November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to four other makers of caffeinated cocktails, telling them to kick the caffeine after reports of deaths connected to the beverages.

    Though the caffeine content in Synergy is much lower than in other targeted drinks, Mr. Mentesh hopes the much higher price will convince regulators it isn’t binge booze.

    At the beginning of this year, the Väd vodkas were being poured and sold in 20 locations in San Francisco and on the Peninsula, with placements pending in the North Bay.

    The brand has been building buzz by word of mouth, helped by a silver medal in last year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. But future marketing likely will focus on participating in charity events, Mr. Mentesh said.

    Though predominantly Wine Country, the North Bay has seven craft distilleries, according to the American Distilling Institute. That includes Stillwater, Domaine Charbay in St. Helena and five in Mendocino County.

    For more information, contact 866-927-6540 or www.vadspirits.com.

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