Napa Valley, internationally famous for grape fermentation, is filled to the brim with wineries, making it far easier for the wine connoisseur to find quality wines than it is for the winemakers to separate themselves from the pack. But those who travel up St. Helena’s Spring Mountain to a small, family-owned winery called Charbay, are greeted by something that can’t be found elsewhere in the Napa Valley.
Charbay is home to Napa Valley’s sole winery/distillery, meaning they’re the only Napa area winery that uses self-produced brandies in their fortified wines. These brandies are hand distilled, and visitors to Charbay can come get a firsthand look at how they’re produced. Most impressive, though, is the family behind Charbay—the Karakasevics—and the scope of their legacy in the world of spirits. Miles Karakasevic, who founded Charbay in 1983 with his wife Susan, didn’t exactly stumble into the wine business. He’s a 12th generation winemaker and distiller, and his family has been producers of alcohol for centuries. Miles has been around stills and wineries for as long as he can remember, and he speaks of fermenting and distilling with the passion of an artist. Though Charbay has become a success, Miles says the money aspect of the winery and distillery has always been secondary to him.
“This is not a business. This is a way of expressing ourselves and making a living the way we’ve done for more than 300 years,” Miles said. “If I was a shoemaker, I would be making custom shoes for your feet. I don’t; I make custom spirits for you to drink.”
There are two different sets of federal laws regarding the production of wine and distilled spirits respectively, and similarly, Charbay is split into two locations: first there’s the Domaine Charbay distillery located in Ukiah where most of Charbay’s products, including their vodka, rum and whisky, are produced. Then there’s their winery in St. Helena, equipped with a smaller alembic pot still that’s used only to distill wine into brandy, which is then used in the production of ports, aperitifs and dessert wines. The St. Helena winery and distillery, affectionately known by the Karakasevic family as the Still on the Hill, is one of very few wineries that has its own still for fortified wines. Most other wineries have to buy their brandy from an outside source, and this gives Charbay’s products a leg up on quality.
Not that they needed the help. The Karakasevic family legacy as winemakers and distillers stretches back to before the signing of the US Constitution, and they’ve been refining their techniques since then. Most recently, in 2009, Miles’ son Marko was given the title of Master Distiller, after a 26-year apprenticeship, which began when Marko was 10.
“I was small enough to fit inside the still and be able to clean it. That’s where I started,” Marko said of his beginnings in the family business. “I would go to the distillery after school and work with my dad.”
In the Karakasevic family, one earns the title of Master Distiller by proving they can produce spirits that are equal to or better in quality than those of their mentor. By doing that, Marko has ensured that the Karakasevic legacy will extend for at least 13 generations of winemakers and distillers. It also serves as a symbol of Charbay’s footing in the Napa Valley—Marko is the first Karakasevic whose apprenticeship began and ended in the United States.
“In Europe, in the old days, you stuck with your profession,” Miles said. “I’m the first person to leave the village where I was born and where 11 of my grandfathers are buried.”
Miles, a former citizen of then-Yugoslavia, came to North America in 1962, first arriving in Canada and eventually making his way to Northern California. There he worked for various wineries in the area and also did some consulting work in the Mendocino area where Charbay would later establish a distillery. The whole time he kept the goal of starting his own winery and distillery in the back of his mind.
“When I came here, I realized I’d have to learn to think the way Americans do if I’m going to survive,” Miles said. “It took me 10 years to achieve that. It’s hard to comprehend the differences in culture, coming from one society to another.”
Thanks to those efforts Charbay is now an established success, and it hasn’t been difficult for the Karakasevic family to maintain their legacy as alcohol producers. Marko’s upbringing in fermentation and distilling was a seemingly natural process; an indication that the cultural differences Miles referred to weren’t enough to discontinue the Karakasevic family’s tenure.
“As soon as Marko was crawling and walking, he was in the winery. So there is nothing new,” said Miles, whose own upbringing was similar. “The location, and the size—those things have obviously changed. But fundamentally, nothing has changed.”
Now, Marko and his wife, Jenni, will have a chance to raise their own son in the midst of the Still on the Hill. In 2011, they welcomed a baby boy to the world, naming him Miles (he’s often referred to as Little Miles). Big Miles isn’t going to force his own lifestyle upon his grandson, but the odds seem to be in the Karakasevic’s favor to add a 14th generation of winemakers and distillers into their already extensive genealogical line.
“Little Miles has been bred; he has that fermentation and distillation in his genes and in his blood,” Miles said. “I believe that he will continue, but I won’t be here to see that. That will be up to himself and his father to decide what they want to do in their lives.”
Since its establishment, Charbay has worked to diversify its products. Miles describes himself as an impatient man, which at face value doesn’t seem like a good quality for someone who makes something that often needs to be aged for many years—sometimes even a decade or more. But Miles’ self-proclaimed impatience has actually helped Charbay’s expansion.
“If I was making only cabernet or sauvignon it would drive me nuts, no matter how great that wine is going to be,” Miles said. “Our power is difference in the repertoire. What is important is that Charbay products have that clean, long finish. But we go out of our way to create difference from one release to another.”
Between Charbay’s two locations, the winery & distillery now makes more than 25 different products, comprised of wines, ports and distilled spirits, each with a unique taste and different components. They produce differently flavored vodkas, including green tea, and they’ve even released a clear whiskey. All this allows the Karakasevic family to be creative and keep things exciting.
“This is a brutal business, regulated and dominated by gigantic corporations. If you’re going to continue a family-size business, then you have no choice but to make the best quality possible,” Marko said. “And I’m totally happy with that. It’s super rewarding when people taste products and they freak out and go, ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic!’ That’s what it’s all about.”
Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.