Brothers-in-law Adam Firestone and David Walker were both working in wine when they decided to start brewing beer back in the early 1990s. Firestone was running the third-generation Firestone Vineyard in Napa Valley, and Walker and his wife Polly (Adam’s sister), were running a small vineyard nearby.
“We took off to an old barrel room at the winery and started meddling with brewing, and started our small brewery in 1995,” says Walker of his craft brewery that is now one of the largest in the country. “We’re a classic sort of estate vineyard story.”
Firestone Walker moved its operations to Paso Robles in 2001 and has maintained close ties to the California wine industry. The brewery’s relationship to wine stretches back more than a quarter century, and it’s a pioneer of a growing number of breweries nationally that are working with wineries, vineyards, and wine grapes to blur the lines between wine and beer.
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Beer Born on a Vineyard
Fans of Union Jack IPA and other hop-forward headliners may be unaware that for Firestone Walker, the American wine industry inspired the founding of the brewery.
“If you look at the story arc of American wine, you went from the early ‘70s when Ripple was the No. 1 wine in America to where we were in the mid-’90s where there were thousands of American wineries flourishing,” Walker says. “It gave us confidence to start a craft brewery, because we saw it through the eyes of the modern American wine movement. We looked at it through provenance, taste, and raw materials, all the things large domestic brewers had stopped talking about.”
A few hours up the California coast, Russian River Brewing shares a similar story. The brewery was originally founded by Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1997. The winery shuttered the brewery in 2002, and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife Natalie bought the rights to the name and reopened the brewery in 2004. While perhaps best known for sought-after IPAs like Pliny the Elder, Russian River works extensively with wine barrels in its sour and mixed-fermentation beers.
Firestone Walker does the same at its sour beer facility, but Walker’s favorite crossover with wine is a bit surprising.
“Probably the best winery collaboration we do doesn’t involve wine at all,” he says. Once a year the brewery creates an anniversary beer that is a blend of strong ales that have been made throughout the year, including imperial stouts, imperial special bitters, and barleywines. These are aged in bourbon or other spirit barrels. When it comes time to blend the beers, the brewers turn to professionals who understand blending more than anyone: They turn it over to the wine blenders.
“We pull together all these great winemakers in Paso Robles and they blend it and compete with each other,” says Walker, explaining the winning blend will be scaled for release. “[Our brewmaster] Matt Brynildson loves the sort of reflexive way winemakers blend with abandon. It utilizes their palate and reflexes as master blenders.”
(Winemakers competed to create the winning blend of six barrel-aged vintage beers for the brewery’s 24th anniversary last year. The result, a blend of select lots of Parabola, Walker’s Reserve, Stickee Monkee, Velvet Merkin, Bravo, and Tequila Helldorado, earned Firestone Walker Anniversary Ale XXIV No. 1 of VinePair’s 50 Best Beers of 2020.)
In addition to beers like Napa Parabola and Napa Saison, which are aged in wine barrels (a practice becoming more common among U.S. brewers and traditional to the lambic producers of Belgium), Firestone Walker has also brewed a wine-beer hybrid ale called Rosalie.
“We acquired almost 30,000 gallons of meritage from a local winemaker, made a really delicious kettle sour, and blended them together, then added hibiscus. It had the exact same profile as rosé,” Walker says. Unfortunately, while the beer was delicious, the brewery had trouble explaining it to drinkers. “Consumers wouldn’t engage,” he says. “They couldn’t figure out what it was.” (For what it’s worth, Rosalie ranked among the best beers of the summer that year.)
Grapes Are Just One More Fruit
That’s a problem echoed by Bret Kollmann Baker at Urban Artifact Brewing in Cincinnati. Since opening in 2014, Urban Artifact has focused exclusively on sour ales, and almost always adds fruit to them. The brewery carved out a niche with shelf-stable, heavily fruited sours. Brewing “Oenobeers” (wine-beer hybrids) in its Brut Fruit Tart series was a natural choice.
“We make a lot of fruit beers obviously,” says Kollmann Baker, co-founder and head brewer. “To put it bluntly, grapes are fruit. It’s a whole world that is owned by the wine industry. There’s no reason why we couldn’t use our expertise in fermenting these other fruits into beer as well.”
Urban Artifact works with Musto Wine Grape Company to source specific grape varietals from California. These get used in what Baker considers grape equivalent of single-hop beers that each showcase a different variety, like Merlot or Pinot Gris. These beers are often around 30 percent grape and 70 percent base beer, and use intact grapes rather than juice or concentrate. When asked how he helps consumers understand these beers, Kollmann Baker points to the biggest problem.
“That’s the thousand dollar question,” he acknowledges. “Our biggest worry is it’s going to fall into the uncanny valley where it’s not quite beer, not quite wine.” Urban Artifact encourages liquor stores to sell it in both the beer and wine sections, but says it’s had more luck with beer fans, even though it positions the branding to be more wine-like.
Despite the frustrations, Kollmann Baker — never shy to speak his mind — sees hope for these beers to remove some of the snobbery from the wine world.
“I’m loving this movement that is getting rid of this stuffy, bullsh*t language the wine world relies on — all this language barrier gatekeeping bullsh*t,” he says. “I love seeing people coming in and saying, ‘F*ck it, this is American red and you should drink it because it tastes f*cking awesome.’”
A Better Destination
For Dalton Union Winery & Brewery in rural Marysville, Ohio, producing both wine and beer (as well as hard cider, mead, and craft soda) has lured a wider range of fans to the 10-acre property and taproom. After starting out as a winery in 2015, owners Tonya and Dale Mabry were surprised by how many guests asked them to serve beer for friends and partners who weren’t wine drinkers. They brought on a professional brewer and released their first beer in 2018. It was brewed on a small pilot system that they quickly outgrew.
The range of offerings has made Dalton Union an appealing option for couples or groups who don’t share a favorite beverage type.“I just think it makes us a very unique stop,” Tonya Mabry says. “A lot of people will do a tasting flight with a wine, a beer, a cider, a mead, and a soda on one board.”
It’s an option that has grown in popularity in the state — over half a dozen Ohio businesses operate as both wineries and breweries to serve as destinations for tourists.
At Firestone Walker, the grape-grain connection is less about tourism and more about tapping into the connection between agriculture and recreation that defines its region. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Walker had organized an annual festival called The Terroir Project. Each year the brewery invited about a dozen breweries around the world to brew a wine-beer hybrid that used fruit from within 100 miles of their breweries. They then brought them together for a festival at Firestone Walker’s Paso Robles taproom. Despite the prominence of the names involved — Sierra Nevada, Beavertown, Crooked Stave — the event struggled to sell tickets because of the difficulty of explaining the beverages themselves. Still, Walker believes there is a bright future for the union of beer and wine.
“What is fascinating with the modern consumer is their sense of adventure. They’re no longer indifferent to beer,” Walker says. “There’s a real sense of authenticity to American wine and American beer. Being able to combine the two — and someone will in a way that’s approachable — I see that as being a great fit. I don’t see how wine and beer can stay apart for long.”
Five Wine-Influenced Beers to Try
1. Firestone Walker Rosalie
Paso Robles, California
In the heart of California wine country comes this light kettle-soured ale brewed with Chardonnay grapes (with small amounts of other varietals) and hibiscus for a bright, tart, and appropriately pink delight.
2. Urban Artifact Brut Fruit Tarts
3. Russian River Intinction
Santa Rosa, California
The Intinction series features a different base beer for each variant that is aged in wine barrels of a particular grape varietal. The grapes or juice of that varietal are added, including Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.
4. Crooked Stave The Grape Gatsby
Eschewing the sour ale format for wine beers, The Grape Gatsby is a Milkshake IPA brewed with Gewürztraminer grapes and lactose, and hopped with wine-remiscencent Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Blanc hops.
5. Allagash Coolship La Vigne
This lambic-inspired beer is inoculated with wild microbes and aged in wine barrels for two years before being aged an additional five months with crushed St. Croix and Sabrevois grapes.