As part of shift of the company toward more premium products and a long-held passion by the proprietor, Purple Wine Co. and Sonoma Wine Co. of western Sonoma County has installed a distillery to produce high-end spirits.
The maker of branded and custom wines, renamed Purple Wine + Spirits, carved out a 5,000-square-foot space in its expansive winery in the community of Graton to create a separate business, Graton Distillery Co.
The distillery is inside of a wine operation that has 170 employees and makes 800,000 cases annually. The first spirits product, a craft gin, is currently being distributed to select locations in the Bay Area. Broader distribution and more labels are planned.
A distillery project was something Purple proprietor Derek Benham has been seeking for years.
“I love spirits, and I love gin, in particular,” said Benham.
He rediscovered gin a few years ago while touring Europe. The gin culture of Spain intrigued him — well-made gin is mixed with ceremony and care into cocktails such as martinis and gin and tonic. High-quality American gin-makers have emerged, but a common problem he’s seen domestically is in presentation at the lounge: too-small ice that leads to too much dilution and improper mixology.
The addition of higher-priced spirits is part of a planned shift for Purple and will help the company get more distribution to trade accounts that are looking for craft beverages, Benham said. The spirits and other projects got a capital boost with the mid-2012 sale of the 1 million-plus-case-a-year Mark West pinot noir label to Constellation Brands for $160 million.
Building on its Cogenra Solar hot water and electricity installation, Purple recently has gone more green, adding a Tesla stationary battery system to store solar power and a nitrogen generator to pull inert gas from the surrounding air.
Few North Coast wineries have their own distilleries for branded products. For example, of the three dozen federal distillery licenses in Sonoma County, almost all are full-fledged distilleries or alcohol-adjustment service providers. Yet more hybrids could be on the horizon.
Consistent with that shift toward $15- to $25-a-bottle wines, the company introduced in the past year the national brands Raeburn, a Russian River Valley chardonnay; pinot noir-focused Calista and Flint & Steel sauvignon blanc.
About a year ago, Purple Wine consolidated with the Sonoma Wine contract-services company, which provides custom-crush capabilities at the Graton, Russian River Valley and American Canyon wineries, and with a new distillery venture to form Purple Wine + Spirits. Also a year ago, the distillery inside the Graton facility started operating.
Benham is set to be on the diversification panel at the Business Journal’s Wine Industry Conference on April 28.
The Journal interviewed David Franke, executive vice president of sales and marketing, about the company’s continued upscaling of its wine, recent launch of the spirits venture and how the distillery fits into a coordinated beverage alcohol strategy.
On targeting $15-$25 price points for new brands.
DAVID FRANKE: Based on the overwhelming data trends, that’s where consumers are going now, and that’s where we think we can provide more interesting and appropriate value. It’s hard when you get below $10 to be particularly creative with what you’re offering, because of the cost structures and the investment. Consumers are interested in trying new things and spending in the mid- to high-teens in price points.