Generally when one thinks of microwineries in California, the image is often that of a small retirement business, producing a small amount of wine from a few acres of grapes, usually planted on the home property. Rancho de Philo, which won a gold medal and “Best Microwinery-Other” award for their non-vintage California Triple Cream Sherry this year, is a bit of that and a lot more.
“My grandmother’s family, the Vachés, arrived from France and settled in San Juan Bautista in 1832, where they planted grapes and built a winery,” said Janine Tibbitts, winemaker and co-owner of Rancho de Philo with her husband, Alan. “It was Mexican California then, and that was six generations ago.
“The grapes and the winery were in the Gavilan Valley, but their wine store, along with a bakery, were in San Juan Bautista. Later the family moved to Hollister and then Santa Monica.
“They had a winery in downtown Los Angeles called Vaché et Cie. The grapes came from Anaheim until phylloxera got to them.
“In the late 1800s they decided to plant a vineyard and open a winery near Redlands in the San Timoteo Valley. There was a brook adjacent to the winery so they called it Brookside Winery.
“My great grandfather Biane came from France and, since he was an engineer, went to work for the City of Redlands building storm drains and streets. His son, Marius joined him, and went to work at Brookside Winery. When his contract with Redlands ended, my great grandfather returned to France, but his son stayed.
“The Vaché family would come up from Santa Monica to spend time at the winery and that is where my grandparents met. My father, Philo Biane, was born on the winery property.
“Before selling Brookside to Beatrice Foods in the 1970s, he and my mother were involved in a program put on by the Wine Institute and the U.S. State Department. Over a period of five or six years in the 1960s they were sent to other countries to meet with other winemakers. In Spain he discovered the Spanish solera system for making sherry. He thought that would be a good retirement for him and in 1963 started the process of making sherry.
“In 1974 he retired and in 1975 released his first sherry. I went to work for him in 1977 and continued learning at his side until his death in 1999.”
The solera system involves a stack of 15 barrels with five on the bottom row, four above, three above those, then two and then one.
Rancho de Philo has 15 separate soleras and once a year they take 15 gallons out of each of the bottom barrels. The bottom barrels are then refilled from the barrels above, which are then refilled from the next higher row until the top barrel is emptied. Since they only bottle a portion of what they take from the bottom barrels, they refill the top barrels with a mix of that and sherry that has been separately aging in their cellar for seven years. Therefore their sherries do not have a vintage date as they are really a blend of many vintages, all 12 years or older, including some, albeit only a small amount, of all their vintages back to 1963. For the consumer’s convenience, they put an estimated average age on each yearly release.
“The barrels in our soleras are neutral American oak from whisky distilleries,” commented Alan. “They are more porous than many other oak barrels, and since it is a continuous oxidation process, they work well.”
“Many of the 140 gallon hogsheads in which the sherry ages for its first seven years were used by the Spanish and Portugese to carry wine to the ‘New World’ over 150 years ago,” added Janine. “There is a lot of history there.”
All of their sherry is made from Mission grapes that grow in their own six acre vineyard. Mission is the grape the Spanish brought to their colonies and it got its name from being the grape most commonly planted around the missions in California.
Some Spanish scholars believe it was originally exported to the Canary Islands and then to the Mexican colonies and is the listan prieto or palomino negro grape, from Spain.
“We had 1450 vines that were about 60 years old until 1998 and 1999, when the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter infected them and we lost all but 30 vines,” said Alan. “With help from Dr. Raymond Hix, who had been hired by U. C. Riverside to work on the problem, especially in the Temecula area, we were able to replant the vineyard using our own vines as stock.
“We don’t make the wine here, since we have become a residential area and people don’t like the fruit flies and the aroma,” added Janine. “My father made it at Brookside, until he sold it, and now it is made by Galleano Winery, which is about 12 miles away. They do the fermentation for us, and we take it from there.”
“Our annual production is only about 325 cases of the triple cream sherry,” continued Alan. “We open for sales on the second Saturday in November, and stay open for nine days, unless we sell out earlier. Rain or shine, it doesn’t matter. Our customers are there to buy, and they buy not only wine to drink, but wine to put away since it continues to age. Because of that I guess you could call us a ‘cult winery.’
“It took us quite a while to expand our production to reach the 15 soleras we now have,”
continued Alan. “It is an involved process since when we build a new solera we have to move wine from the bottom row of the existing soleras into the bottom row of the new one, and so on, so that all of the soleras have the same wine in each row. We can’t just double our capacity overnight.
“We are very proud of our sherry and often receive high medals and even best of show awards when we enter it in competitions,” added Alan. “I had just come out of the shower when I received a call telling me about this outstanding award. Janine was out pruning roses, so rather than tell her I just told ther she had a call so she could be surprised. After 47 years of marriage, I guess I can get away with that.”
This 2011 release of the Rancho de Philo California Triple Cream Sherry has an alcohol content of 18.5 percent and 13.5 percent residual sugar.