The World In A Grape

The world in a grape

Vic McWilliams spends his days enthralling people with his enticing and pricey syrahs, cabernets and zinfandels. He travels around the country talking about his wines, and offers tastings in a bungalow just off the town square in Sonoma, California. But when the visitors have cleared out and gone off to the four-star restaurants, when the limousines have taken the swells back to San Francisco, McWilliams drives his truck back to the center of his world: a little farmhouse in the middle of a vineyard. Although McWilliams' business is selling what is essentially a luxury product, he is at heart a farmer and a scientist, beginning work at dawn, toiling among the vines and working the soil, experimenting with new viticultural techniques, all to create grapes that will become great wine.

McWilliams' Castle Vineyards and Winery started as a hobby that became a sideline and then a full-time business. At the root, what keeps McWilliams going is the relationship between wine and the senses, between wine and life. "This is about creation," McWilliams says. "Being in the vineyard, watching things grow, through fermentation to the final bottle of wine -- this is about bringing about new life."

Castle is not one of the larger wineries in the valley, but McWilliams' wines are carefully crafted and well respected. At his vineyards in the Sonoma Valley, which lies just to the west of the Napa Valley, McWilliams has become known for working with a broad range of grape varieties and continually experimenting with new methods of cultivating the fruit, extracting the juice and fermenting and bottling the wine.

McWilliams is living what is a dream for many: building one's own winery in one of the oldest and most prestigious wine-growing regions in California, where palm trees may sway over the cabernet vines and perfect weather washes over the chardonnay grapes every day. Many multimillionaires and billionaires have found the dream attractive enough to spend up to $175,000 per acre for the best land in the Napa-Sonoma region, put in another $50,000 per acre to develop it, then have enough left over to plop a mansion down at the entrance to the vineyard.

The now-retired pharmacist from North Dakota didn't use wads of cash to create his winery. Instead, Castle was a product of McWilliams' pursuit of the good life, and a tendency to wade fearlessly into his passions until he is forced to swim.

McWilliams was born in Devils Lake, North Dakota, where his father was an officer in the National Guard at Camp Grafton. When he was 11, his father was promoted to the regular army, and the family moved to Bismarck. McWilliams didn't think a lot about wine when he was a teenager in Bismarck. His father was an amateur who created wines from native plants like dandelion, chokecherry and rhubarb, but the closest Vic got to the process was stealthily filling a Mason jar from his father's supply on the odd Friday night.

When he went to NDSU in 1970, he never had a question about what he wanted to study. "A lot of people don't know what they want to do, but as far back as I could remember, I wanted to be a pharmacist," McWilliams says. He had seen how a cousin and her husband, both pharmacists in Bowman, were able to live, and how everybody in town knew them. McWilliams set his sights on becoming a pharmacist and "never looked back."

After college, McWilliams also knew where he wanted to go. During high school, he had a girlfriend whose sister and brother-in-law lived in Sebastapol, California, a then rural town which lies to the west of Sonoma and is famous for its apples. "I came out here in the '60s," McWilliams says. "I remember sleeping under the redwoods, selling for a dollar a crate in San Francisco the apples that we had picked that morning. I realized that this bohemian life was what I wanted."

In the early '70s, McWilliams got a clinical pharmacy residency in the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto. "There were a lot of NDSU pharmacy students in the VA system at that time," he says. "They liked North Dakota students because they were very hard working, they had a good work ethic." McWilliams demonstrated his own work ethic by pursuing additional training as a physician's assistant in a tough program at Stanford Medical School, which was just down the hill from the Palo Alto VA.

McWilliams got in touch with an old friend from North Dakota who was a tour guide at the Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma. He went up to visit and fell in love with the place. Despite the glamour, "Sonoma is basically a small town," McWilliams says. "Residents would walk down the streets and know everyone, and people would leave their doors unlocked and their keys in the car." McWilliams found a doctor originally from Williston, N.D., to sponsor him in a clinical rotation as a physician's assistant in Sonoma, and he moved as soon as he could.

For four idyllic months, he and his friend would hang out daily in the Sebastiani Winery tasting room, imbibing free wine for hours. "We would help close the place down every day," McWilliams says. Ultimately, family patriarch August Sebastiani took a dim view of the locals using the tasting room as a bar, and put an end to the drinking club. By that time, however, McWilliams was hooked on good wine. He needed to find another source. The answer seemed to be to make it himself.

Amateur winemaking is not uncommon in Sonoma, McWilliams says. "A lot of people have a barrel of homemade wine in their backyard." He and a friend would beg or buy grapes if they had to, but the preferred method was to ask vintners if they could glean the passed-over grapes from vineyards that had already been picked.

He learned that winemaking is basically a simple process -- allow yeast to ferment the juice from ripe grapes, filter out the solid elements, then let the fermented juice mature in a barrel or a bottle. But the difference between expensive elixir and vinegary plonk is found in all the myriad variations that can be used during each step in the process. From his first batch of homebrew wine, McWilliams was experimenting, trying different grapes, varying fermentation times and temperature, using different kinds of oak in the casks.

What he learned was that among all the factors he dealt in making a bottle of wine, the quality and source of the grapes was the trump card. "Grapes are number one in importance," McWilliams says. "It all starts in the vineyards. If you don't have good fruit, you aren't going to have good wine."

He also learned to handle the fruit carefully. Instead of crushing the grapes, McWilliams used an ancient technique of simply desteming them and allowing them to begin their fermentation in the skins. His signature style of wine became what it is today: a "fruit forward" taste that preserves the fruity qualities of the grape and balances tannins and alcohol. The result is a soft wine that is drinkable early but that also improves with age.

In order to learn about and control every step of the winemaking process, McWilliams bought land and began planting many different varieties of grapes. "I learned that what I like are the cool climate grapes like zinfandel, syrah and merlot," McWilliams says. "Hotter climate grapes like those that are used to make Napa cabernets require very intensive vine-by-vine management." McWilliams especially loves pinot noir grapes, which he used to create wine that first established him as a talented winemaker among connoisseurs. Pinot noir grapes hate heat and are highly sensitive to soil conditions. Luckily, Sonoma Valley is the perfect location for cool climate grapes. Sonoma Valley is warm enough to grow grapes, but as the land warms up, it draws in cooler air from the ocean through the Petaluma Gap to moderate the temperature. "Every day at 3 o'clock the breeze comes up and cools the grapes, which keeps them longer on the vine so that their flavor components mature," McWilliams says. "The strong fruit component and the high acidity creates the basis for a wine that pairs well with food." Through an analytical approach and an insatiable drive to improve, McWilliams began making some good wines. Soon he was making very good wines, and winning every amateur winemaking award there was.

In order to control how the grapes were raised, he decided he had to buy some land and grow them himself. With his investments in land, equipment and labor, somewhere along the way McWilliams stopped being an amateur.

Being a vintner is basically an agricultural job. McWilliams leads the simple life of many farmers. He drives a truck. He spends most of his time tromping about the soil, getting dirty and sweaty doing whatever job needs to be done that day. He shares the small clapboard house in the vineyard with his long-time girlfriend and business partner Erin McClary, who oversees sales and marketing for Castle. Nearby is a guest cottage that they rent out to visitors. Each building is dwarfed by the five-car garage with a soaring roof across the yard, where he has done most of the fermenting, barreling and bottling of the wines.

In 1993, McWilliams officially opened Castle wines, making 250 cases of wine in the first year. By the late 1990s they were making 10,000 cases of wine a year, selling some under the Castle label and some under other wineries' labels.

By 2000, something had to give. McWilliams was doing three jobs: pharmacy, farming grapes and making wine. Every day he was up at 5 a.m. to work in the vineyards, then off to the hospital at noon to be a pharmacist until 8 p.m., then back home to work well into the night on winery business. On weekends, they opened up the garage as a tasting room, pouring for the few visitors who made their way out from town. At that point, McWilliams decided to stop being a pharmacist and devote himself to winemaking full time. "I decided I was through practicing -- it was time to do it for real," he says.

The decision to be a serious businessman has created its own new demands. Realizing that they couldn't get the foot traffic and recognition they needed selling out of the garage, McWilliams last year bought the Sonoma bungalow near the town square, where people can walk in after shopping or eating. With sales in many other states, including North Dakota, he spends time traveling to promote the wine and lectures on food and wine.

The pressure to grow also is pushing the winemaking out of the garage. It used to be that every fall, McWilliams would do the fermentation and pressing on the cement pad out in front of the garage. McWilliams' father would also come out every year to join in the work, delighted to slip a glass into the stream of fermented juice and raise it to his lips, perhaps taking back with interest the jars of dandelion wine his son borrowed decades before. Now his father has found that age makes the work too wearing and doesn't come out at harvest any more. The winemaking process itself has moved to a nondescript warehouse.

One thing that McWilliams is determined not to relinquish as he scales up is the gentle handling of the juice during and after fermentation. "The challenge is to take the small-scale philosophy and techniques and put them into effect on a much bigger scale," McWilliams says. He also is set on keeping and expanding the direct-to-consumer interactions and sales as a cornerstone of the business.

McWilliams remains excited by the challenges of creating a great wine and a big winery, but as he moves through his 50s he also is thinking ahead to retirement of some sort. "I can't see doing this into my 70s," he says.

Yet even as he muses about retirement, a faraway look settles into his eyes and he talks about a certain corner on the county road. Right now the corner is surrounded by vineyards, bare fields, and a dumpy little gas station and deli. But this little corner sits at the gateway to Sonoma Valley.

It lies directly on the road that leads up from San Francisco, and thousands of people drive past it each day. McWilliams has secured land right on that corner and envisions building a sleek new Castle Vineyards tasting room, the first Sonoma Valley wine tasting room that these thousands of daily visitors will see. "That's the dream," McWilliams says.

-- Christopher Vaughan