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Reinventing Vodka

At Domaine Charbay, the reclusive Miles Karakasevic is at the head of a microdistillery movement

Miles Karakasevic has lived on the top of Spring Mountain for 17 years. Sometimes he accepts a job as a consultant, and then he will drive down into Napa Valley 2,300 feet below and make a Chardonnay or a vermouth or a brandy for someone else, but mostly he stays at home tending his own winery and distillery, Domaine Charbay. He has been known to go for three weeks or more without leaving the mountaintop. In these periods of reclusiveness, he does not see anyone but Domaine Charbay's three other employees: Susan, his wife, Laura, their daughter, and Marko, their son. Marko reveres his father but does not share his love of lofty isolation: "I'm like, 'Wow, Dad. I'm going away for a little while. See you later."

Miles was born in 1941 in what was then Yugoslavia. Marko has lived in California for all of his 26 years. Yet as business partners, the eccentric émigré father and his gregarious American son are ideally matched. For nearly two decades Miles has been quietly making extraordinary spirits that range from grappa to persimmon liqueur, but the world has rarely been given the chance to enjoy his work. Now that Marko is doing the family's publicity and marketing, along with much of the distilling, that is about to change.

Domaine Charbay is one of a small but growing number of independent little distilleries. Like the microbrewers of the past decade who rebelled against mass-produced beer, these microdistillers are turning out re-markable drinks in both age-old styles and innovative new ones. As with microbrews, not all the products of small distilleries are first-rate, but a handful of honest-to-God artisans are making things that have the power to alter our expectations of what great spirits should taste like. This is the case with Domaine Charbay's new line of flavored vodkas.

At the peak of the winter citrus season, Miles and Marko go shopping in Texas for ruby-red grapefruit, in Florida and Mexico for Key limes and in southern California for blood oranges and Meyer lemons. They run the whole fruit through a shredder, then allow the mash to steep in high-proof grain alcohol for about four months. Some of this infused spirit is then redistilled. The finished vodkas capture the true taste of the fruits, from the sharp citrusy tang and sweetness of the juice to the bracing bitterness of the zest and pith.

These four vodkas are the only ones on the market made with fresh fruit instead of flavorings and sweeteners. As the Karakasevics know, vodka is the best-selling spirit in the country. Huge sales have never been their top priority, however. They may not even have ranked fourth or fifth. Miles did not enter the distilling and winemaking business to earn a quick buck; he was, quite simply, born to it. The Karakasevic family has produced alcohol for more than 300 years. In the Serbian village of Mol where Miles was born, they fermented white table wines, and they distilled eaux-de-vie from every fruit they could get their hands on. When Miles's father married, he chose a woman from a wealthy farming family, a potent merger of technology and raw materials that should have cemented the Karakasevic distilling dynasty for another 300 years.

Then, when Miles was four years old, "the Communists came to Yugoslavia and brought equality," he says. His mother's side of the family had owned thousands of acres of farmland and orchards; Miles grew up on an acre and a half. "I have pictures of my father at 16 with a brand-new car and a chauffeur. Hell, I didn't have a bicycle when I was growing up."

At 21, with little to look forward to in Tito's Yugoslavia, Miles emigrated, the first Karakasevic to move away from the village in 12 generations. He went to Canada, where he found little in the way of a winemaking industry and so accepted a job in pharmaceuticals instead. Then, for a time, he made wine in Michigan from Labrusca, the same grapes that Manischewitz uses. After a few years, this, too, proved unsatisfying, and he went to California to work for such large-scale wineries as United Vintners and Beringer.

But his ultimate goal was to re-create what he had left behind in Yugoslavia: an independent, family-run business. In 1983, he set up a still on Spring Mountain and began producing his own kind of spirits. One of his early inventions was an aperitif of Chardonnay fortified with brandy and sweetened with grape juice. He called it Charbay, a contraction of Chardonnay and brandy, sort of, and gave the name to his company.

For many years, the biggest consumer of Domaine Charbay products was the Karakasevic family. The first drink Miles made was a brandy in the Cognac style. It has now been aging for 17 years in oak barrels but has not yet been offered to the public. In 1988 he bought a few tons of Jerusalem artichokes and created a drink named Pachanga, which he claims was the first spirit ever distilled from a plant indigenous to the United States. It was something like mezcal and, as Marko says, "great to party with," but it was never released. Life at Domaine Charbay continued in this way for a while. "Made a framboise," Marko says. "Drank it. Didn't sell it. Messed around with black Mission figs. A lot of work. Don't think we're gonna sell it."

Miles asked his son to begin working with him at the still when Marko was in the sixth grade. The mechanics were simple; absorbing the standards by which his father judged the smell and taste of a spirit was a more complicated process. Today Marko is as fanatical about distilling as his father, and he has contributed something of his own as well: he knows what people want to drink. Marko says it took him two years to persuade his father to try his hand at vodka, a spirit the elder Karakasevic had long disdained. The rapidly escalating popularity of Domaine Charbay vodkas--production has gone from 300 cases in 1997 to about 8,000 this year--is largely the result of Marko's enthusiastic visits to bars and liquor stores around the country.

The Karakasevics are also developing a product with nearly as much market potential as their vodkas: a whiskey. On a recent trip to New York City, Marko shared some of it with me. I marveled at its smoothness, its expansive bouquet and its rich, fruity taste, which changed as it sat in the glass. It had a lot of character for something only eight months old. I asked Marko how long he planned to keep aging it. "All my life," he said.

Next year will be an important one for Domaine Charbay. Besides releasing a little of the whiskey (which will then be two years old) the company will put out an apple brandy that has been in the works since 1986 and the original Cognac-style brandy from 1983. And come that April, Miles will turn 60. With his family business making a modest profit for the first time and a son who learned the art of distilling the Karakasevic way, Miles may even consider leaving Spring Mountain for a while and seeing a bit of the world. "In a few years," he says. "But not yet."

Published April 2000
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