Dida’s Distillery – Pressed…Not Mashed!
By Bob Tagert
As a number of Virginia wineries have sought ways to create new profit centers, some have turned to creating their own breweries while others have decided to put their grapes to use creating spirits and building a distillery. Rappahannock Cellars is one of those. This winery, opened in 2001, is one of Virginia’s top producers and award winners. Owner John Delmare brought his wine making skills from California as well as his young family. Those kids are now grown and son Allan proposed the idea of a distillery at Rappahannock Cellars. His dad backed him and in October of 2017, Dida’s Distillery open their doors.
Unlike Allan’s mentor, Rick Wasmund, and his successful Copper Fox Distillery a few miles down the road in Sperryville, Didas’s spirits are made from grapes while Copper Fox is made from pot stilled grains. This gives Dida’s a distinct advantage…they are already producing grapes that serve as the spirit source that is pressed into intense wines and then small batch distilled in their custom 100 gallon stainless pot and column hybrid copper stills. This is why Dida’s says, their spirits are “Pressed, Not Mashed”.
From their grapes they are making luxurious brandy, groundbreaking vodka and refreshing gin. Since the distillery is relatively new, the majority of the brandy now offered is of the “immature variety”. In order to have a mature brandy it must age in an oak barrel for at least two years. “We will be offering some classic mature brandies in the very near future,” Delmare tells me. They do have a limited amount of mature brandy and when we tasted the brandies there is a marked difference between the immature and the mature. Although the immature brandy was very good, the mature brandy had more color and seemed smoother and richer.
As we toured the property with Allan, we became aware of the massive size of their wine making facility. From fermenting tanks and barrels, to a group corking sparkling wine bottles, to the lab where all the magic is created, back in the corner is the heart and soul of the distillery. The “chemistry set” and the pot/column hybrid copper still are the first things you see. We did notice that a portion of the big pot still is very carefully wrapped in tin foil – a little strange since this is new equipment. When asked about this foiling project, Allan explained, “We needed to get the temperature a little bit higher and the least expensive way to do that was to wrap the still in tinfoil, and it worked. Remember, this is a big investment and cutting costs is important.” The copper still you see in the photo is where the vodka is distilled.
“This corner of the winery is the best we could do for now,” Allan says. “There are plans for a new location that will stand alone beside the winery…but all in good time.” In the meantime, he looks right at home in his space.
In the pot/column still the spirt is heated and forced through the column at pressure and through the flavoring mix that will give that batch its unique flavor. Dida’s is a more traditional gin and they use a mix featuring juniper berries. The resulting gin has that mainstream gin experience while maintaining the floral notes they are seeking. After leaving the distillery section, we returned to the tasting room.
The tasting room is adjacent to the large winery tasting room and is very comfortable. While Allan made some of their signature cocktails, we sampled the gin and vodka…this was the good part. These products are so finely distilled that they can stand alone and be tasted neat. The juniper taste was very slight, yet you knew it was gin, but the other flavors just kept building. The vodka was just as intriguing. It was flavorful and very easy on the palette with rich undercurrent flavors. Lani, who is a vodka drinker, is very fond of the Dida brand. It is vodka martini and gimlet worthy in her eyes.
Here is a note of interest. This past year has been very difficult for Virginia Wineries because of the early and constant rains that drove away a lot of their walk-in business, and then the heavy rains and hurricane that came about harvest time. Where, for the wineries, this was bad news…for the distillery, it was a chance to harvest early when sugar levels were lower, and it was perfect for making a wine-based spirit. These are the kind of innovative ideas that Virginia Wineries must adapt in order to maximize profits.
The name Dida is Croatian for ‘Grandfather”, and that is what they called their grandfather. Allan tells me, “In 1906, great-grandpapa Dida immigrated to California where he planted fruit trees and continued farming to support the family. His son, grandpa Dida, built the farm into the Mariani Fruit Packing Company, which is run today by our family.” In 1996, John Delmare and Marialisa Mariani-Delmare, moved the family to the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, leaving behind their winery, Saratoga Vineyard/Mariani Vineyards in Saratoga, California. In 1998 John founded Rappahannock Cellars. Of their 12 children, three work full time at the winery today with others pitching in at the tasting room on weekends. As you can see…this is truly a family affair.
Check out Dida’s Distillery in Huntley, Virginia right outside of Front Royal. As the warmer weather arrives, it is a great time to take a drive to the mountains. If you go, take the scenic route. Take route 66 to Marshall and pickup Crest Hill and check your GPS and follow the directions to Rappahannock Cellars/Dida Distillery. You won’t be disappointed.
14437 Hume Road