Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Vailia From describes herself as a traveler by nature and says “Desparada is what carries me.” Vailia arrived in Paso Robles in the year 2007, bringing her home on wheels with her. Within a few days she was parked in a vineyard owned by one of the early biodynamic farmers in the area and working at a local co-op as a cellar rat. This story is about the middle of her life journey and the birth of Desparada. The adventure continues below.
Impact on Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
- Philanthropy – Hosting annual fundraisers for local women’s shelters involving Wine Club Members.
- The Explorer Series – Sauvignon Blanc fermented and aged in four different vessels to compare the impact of each vessel.
- Member of the Amphorae Project, documenting grape varieties utilized and varietals produced in San Luis Obispo County.
- Annual expansion of fruit varieties sourced locally with their juice fermented and aged in a variety of vessels each year.
- Winemaking Style – Hands on approach utilizing many types of winemaking vessels with focus on daily movement of wine in each type of vessel.
- Focus on fruit grown with biodynamic farming, organic and sustainable practices.
- Business model – expanding employee benefits, including childcare, physical and mental well-being and a lunch served daily at the winery.
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Credit To The NPS – National Park Service – “no copyright infringement is intended”
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Found at www.Italy-Facts.net
Found at Wikipedia, Trento
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Concrete Tulip Vessel
French Oak Cigar Vessel
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
Photo Credit: Julia Perez
The Story with twists and turns
Vailia From first visited the Central Coast as a tourist in the 1990s. She recalls Paso Robles as casual and welcoming. The former “cowboy town” was known for its famous Paso Robles Wine Festival and the premium grapes grown in the region. The area has a unique history of vineyards and winemaking dating back to the 1860s. Waves of immigrants from England, France, Germany, and Italy arrived in San Luis Obispo County following the California Gold Rush. They homesteaded or purchased land in the Santa Lucia Mountains, valleys and the Estrella plains between 1870 and 1925. Many became farmers and maintained their cultural ethnicity including food, grape varieties and winemaking styles.
The wines in the Paso Robles AVA won national and international awards in the 1970s which brought wine writers and travelers to the area. A wave of new viticulturists and winemakers began to move to the Central Coast in the 1980s.
Vailia From grew up in Snowflake, Arizona, influenced by her resourceful grandmother who nurtured her independence, artistic talents, self-confidence and sense of adventure.
Vailia has been employed in the wine industry in various capacities in both the United States and Canada since age 18. She developed expertise in fine dining and premium wines while working in restaurants in San Diego, California and Scottsdale, Arizona. Her wine education began while working with a sommelier who inspired her to expand her knowledge of fine wines from around the world. She studied for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams, pursuing her Masters of Wine at age 23. In her early twenties however, wanderlust set in. Vailia felt she needed to see more of the world before setting her sights on a new career. She traveled south to Central America and then north to Canada.
Vailia’s journey to Canada opened new opportunities and an important chapter in her education on the sales and distribution of wines. Vailia was hired by a broker of fine German wines to work in sales and then in management. Her second job was with a Canadian company which imported California wines to Canada. She became familiar with California wine regions and tasted wines from the Central Coast, including those produced in Paso Robles. Ultimately, she became bored with the sales end of the industry and decided it was not a good fit for her. She continued her journey.
While exploring wine through the hospitality and distribution industries, Vailia developed her own defining opinions about what a wine could be. She decided to produce her own wine, explaining “I wanted to get my hands dirty and try the production side of the business.” Vailia was inspired by her grandmother’s decision to pursue her artistic talents as a painter when she was in her fifties. Vailia realized that winemaking would become her art. The questions were, where and how?
She reflected on her first visit to Paso Robles where she had visited a number of small wineries. Vailia decided it was the perfect area to begin her own journey as a winemaker. There were many small wineries and young winemakers. Unlike the Napa and Sonoma regions, Paso Robles was affordable and seemed to offer her lots of opportunities. The year was 2007.
The Royal International Diplomat
The first opportunity presented itself in a special vineyard. As she planned her move to Paso Robles, Vailia’s father offered his 1977 Trailer, a Royal International Diplomat, with orange shag carpeting and hideous curtains to house her new venture. In 2007 she found the perfect spot in a vineyard known as Pine Hawk, where she parked the Royal International Diplomat for the next two years. It was a magical place. The Pine Hawk vineyard, located on the east side of Paso Robles, was owned by an amazing woman, Kathy Gambino. When they met and shared their life stories, Kathy recognized Vailia’s commitment and potential. She invited Vailia to bring the Royal International Diplomat and her dog to live in Pine Hawk vineyard.
Kathy was one of the pioneers in biodynamic farming in Paso Robles and became an important mentor. Kathy shared her history and knowledge of farming her vineyard with a focus on sustainability. Vailia sourced her fruit from the Pine Hawk vineyard to make her first wines. Her first two varietals were Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Desparada Wine was born in this vineyard but had not yet been named. The label emerged in full force two years later.
Vailia started her new career working as a cellar rat at a large local co-op facility (members of a cooperative are usually vineyard owners, who deliver grapes to the cooperative which is involved in production of wine for the grapes), Paso Robles Wine Services; she describes the experience as similar to attending a “winemaking boot camp” which actually became the nickname of her workplace. The advantage for Vailia was that 30 to 40 winemakers were working at the facility producing their individual wines in different styles and sourcing a wide range of grapes grown locally. They were using tanks and modern equipment. Their prophylactic winemaking styles were science driven. Vailia had many opportunities to observe and learn about winemaking practices and styles. She began defining her own winemaking style. She also studied various local grape varieties and realized the importance of sourcing the finest grapes possible.
Vailia had always preferred the Bordeaux and Italian varieties. In the 1990s Paso Robles was focused heavily on Zinfandel and historic Rhone varieties. However, many varieties were planted and the climate and terroir provided access to over 40 varieties of grapes. She met local growers and visited their vineyards. She worked with Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Grenache and Alicante Bouquet grape varieties, just to name a few. It was an intense education and very valuable. And she tasted and tasted and tasted many wines produced in the area.
Winemaking – Desparada style
In 2009 Vailia made her own first four barrels of wine, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Syrah, at her “winemaking boot camp.” She knew she wanted to found her own winery and her own brand. But she understood the challenges ahead to raise the capital needed to found a winery and purchase the necessary equipment, supplies and grapes. Developing a brand was even more difficult given the large number of new winemakers coming to work on the Central Coast. She would have to find a special niche. She worked intuitively, moving forward slowly. In 2010 Vailia sourced more fruit than she had in her first year and made more wine. She followed the same pattern in 2011, sourcing even more fruit.
However, 2011 also brought big changes. Vailia moved her production to the Herman Story Winery and produced twelve barrels. She produced the following four varietals: My Comforter, equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Syrah; The Purist, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon; Fragment, 100% Sauvignon Blanc; and Solacer, a Cabernet/Sangiovese blend.
2011 was a defining year in her journey as a winemaker. Vailia started working with Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Over the years she has experimented with a variety of vessels and techniques to produce various vintages of Sauvignon Blanc. This was driven by two of her enduring characteristics: both her curiosity and her desire to experiment. She always wants to learn something new. She has worked with a wide variety of traditional winemaking vessels from her first day working at the co-op, but which would she favor for her own style of winemaking? She started with contemporary vessels – barrels, stainless steel, and later concrete. However, she was also intrigued about past methods of winemaking.
Vailia began to read articles about the ancient winemaking techniques famous for the use of historic clay vessels generally known as amphorae. She soon learned each nation had their own name for handmade vessels crafted by artisans. The names for these vessels – giare or anfore in Italy, qvevri in Georgia and Armenia, tinaja in Spain, dolium in Israel. She decided to try fermenting Sauvignon Blanc grapes in one of these ancient vessels. But which? She decided on the amphora which was widely used in the Etruscan, Greek, Roman and Gallic civilizations.
This decision changed her winemaking style and vision. The next three years were filled with experimentation as Vailia learned how the clay material and the shape of the amphorae influence the movement and fermentation of the wine, the release of heat, and the oxygen exchange in the vessel. Each vintage was unique and provided new insights. The experimentation has become a hallmark of Vailia’s winemaking, creating excitement with each new release.
By 2014, winemaker Russell From asked Vailia to move on because she was taking up valuable space in his winery that he needed for his own production. However, that request did not end the relationship, it was just the beginning; there was a romantic attachment “fermenting” and Russell eventually proposed. Today they are married and raising a daughter along with a menagerie of pets.
They make a great team, but Vailia treasures her own space. Her artistic wine endeavors developed rapidly in her own winery.
Along the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
At the time Vailia was searching for a new location, a new concept was rising among the iconic oak trees south of Paso Robles. It was described by the developer as “an evolving industrial makers market nestled amongst the oaks where friends, adventurers and aficionados come together to partake in craft wine, beer and spirits served up by Paso’s most passionate artisans.” Those who work there describe themselves as “wildly independent artisans that love what they do.” Tin City, as it is known today, became the home of Vailia’s new winery, Desparada Wines.
This “evolving industrial makers market” is located on the historic Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic trail, which reaches back to the earliest wine history in “Alta California” – a territory colonized by Spain. The trail commemorates the 1,200-mile path forged by Juan Bautista de Anza from what is now Mexico to San Francisco Bay in the years 1775/1776. He led 240 settlers to establish a mission (a religious center) and a presidio (a military fort) on the northern border of the Spanish empire. Today the trail connects history, culture and outdoor recreation from Nogales, Arizona to the San Francisco Bay area. In San Luis Obispo County the traveler passes through the Guadalupe – Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge, Pismo and Oceano Dunes, Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa Camp #82, climbs the steep Stagecoach Road in the Cuesta Grade, and crosses three rivers – Santa Margarita, Nacimiento and San Antonio near the Santa Margarita Ranch.
I like this history because it defines the geography and geology of the place where Vailia established her Desparada Wines. She describes Desparada as “the chronicle of winemaker Vailia From’s twists, turns and epiphanies. Working with 17 + of the Central Coast’s most iconic vineyards and a growing arsenal of amphorae, Vailia creates inspired, elegant wines free of stylistic constraints. These are wines for a new world, rooted firmly in the wonder of the old.”
Desparada – The New Frontier and Branding
Desparada represents more than a brand, it represents Vailia’s personality and her journey – a strong independent woman with a purpose, a new winemaker who arrived in a small town dominated for generations by a male cowboy ethos. She is an outlier, working on a frontier with no rules. Desparada has become a name much bigger than her label.
In fact, Vailia had no brand or label the first few years she lived in the Paso Robles vineyard. She had a dream, she was sourcing fruit, making, and aging her wine as she envisioned it should be. When reality set in, she knew she had to concentrate on how and when to bottle it, label it, market it, and sell it.
Desparada, a name suggested by friends who own a marketing company, formed the niche for Vailia and her dreams. Vailia knew it was the right brand, the moment the word “Desparada” was spoken. It reflects the history of the area, the Wild West, filled with heroes and villains. The name, not found in the dictionary, also reflects her independence, allowing Vailia to express her creativity as a winemaker, an artist, and a woman in a unique industry. One might say that she and the brand are fused together.
When asked about what is her favorite part of winemaking, she replies, “I think my favorite part is all of the differences – the learning that happens every year and throughout the year. Each wine block, grape, and vineyard is unique and different. Every aspect of winemaking is always new. It’s never boring.”
The current production is around 3,000 cases with over 15 varietals including various red blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, and several Italian varieties. Whites include Chardonnay, Falanghina and multiple vintages of Sauvignon Blanc. Vailia and her staff bottle twice each year. She is well-known for her Sauvignon Blanc wines which are “perennial top scorers”, according to Wine Spectator.
The winery is run by a team of five people. Vailia hired Janie Willheim to run the tasting room and the general management of the winery. She has also supported Janie’s passion for making her own wine under her own label at Desparada.
Reaching back 8,000 Years for Inspiration
Vailia purchased her first amphora in 2012. A year earlier she read a magazine article about the use of “clay pots” in winemaking. She had started to research ancient winemaking techniques which can be traced to one of the oldest wine regions in the world – Georgia, located in the fertile valleys and mountains of Transcaucasia. Both grape cultivation and winemaking traditions are documented back to 6,000 B.C. but the traditions were established thousands of years earlier.
Later that year Vailia attended a Hospice du Rhone event at the Blackberry Farm in Tennessee where she met winemaker Jordan Fiorentini from Epoch Wine located in Templeton, and her husband Manu, founder of ITEK WINES in Paso Robles. Jordan and Vailia’s husband, winemaker Russell From, were two of the four featured winemakers at the Blackberry Farm event, hosted by legendary winemaker and founder of Hospice du Rhone, John Alban.
One evening Jordan discussed her interest in experimenting with winemaking in amphora. Manu shared his plans to visit Italian artists in the Tuscany region, known for centuries as the center for handcrafting anfore, garden fountains and containers for lemon trees and flowering plants. Vailia told him that if he imported any amphora to the United States, she was interested in buying one. And so the “Italian Amphora Adventure” was launched. Manu researched the vessels and ordered them to be shipped to Paso Robles. The process took over six months.
Vailia has photos of the arrival of her first amphora delivered on a trailer to her winery. She describes it as “beautiful.” It was a fragile vessel and was carefully moved to the correct location. It was the first of many to grace her cellar. Vailia was fascinated by the process of the natural fermentation in the clay vessel without the intervention of the winemaker, transforming her role to be the person who shepherds the wine safely to become a delicious and healthy beverage to enjoy.
Vailia decided that an amphora would be the perfect vessel to pair with a new grape variety she was working with – Sauvignon Blanc. She describes the basis of her production as Sauvignon Blanc, along with Bordeaux and Italian varietals including Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. Each year the grape varieties keep accruing.
Vailia is so excited by the wines she is producing that she has purchased a new amphora almost every year and added a new grape variety to her production with each new vintage.
Elisabetta Foradori – Vailia’s Winemaker Crush
I enjoy asking winemakers who they regard as mentors or sources of inspiration. Vailia is inspired by the Italian winemaker, Elisabetta Foradori, who is considered one of Italy’s finest producers. She comes from a family with generations of history as growers and winemakers. Elisabetta is known for the deep and complex red wines made from one of the country’s oldest grape varieties – Teroldego – which is genetically related to Syrah. Elisabetta’s winery and vineyards are located in the Alps in the Trento area. The soils are rich in limestone and magnesium and her vineyards have been farmed biodynamically since 2002. In 2008 she was searching for the best vessel for long skin contact with her grapes. She had been introduced to the power of clay and noted its characteristics of diversity, connection of the soil and the cosmos influence. Elisabetta was introduced to Mr. Juan Padilla, who crafts the Spanish tinaja, which is a clay vessel developed in Spain with a history of production dating back to the Roman period of occupation in Spain. The artisan signs each vessel confirming beauty and unique shape.
Elisabetta states: “After the first vinification in one of them my perception and vision of winemaking changed completely.” Her view of life and nature expanded greatly. She describes the four elements – Earth, Water, Fire and Air – as part of life and are related to the different parts of the grapevine. Each part of the vine is attended to daily. Roots are surrounded by earth, the leaves sprout with water, fruit grows with fire (sun), flowers need light and air. The same four elements relate to the tinaja. The winemaking vessel is made by mixing earth and water, dries surrounded by light and air and is fired within a kiln. Filling the vessel with grapes, stems and leaves to ferment and age over many months combines both terroir and the cosmos, which are expressed in the wine. Elisabetta is known for establishing trust with her vines and believes her relationship with her plants and her daily care results in the production of better fruit. She describes the wine she produces as “alive” and farms her sixty acres with biodynamic agricultural methods. She says, “These living wines really do have personality. You must trust them and give them space to express themselves.”
Vailia visited the farm and winery of Elisabetta in Trento. The tinaja were located above ground and filled her cellar. Vailia was deeply touched by the ancient winemaking style used by Elisabetta – using the whole berries and letting the wine develop with aging on the skin for approximately eight months in contrast to traditional wine methods Vailia had been using. She learned that the ancient techniques were not successful for all grape varieties – but experimentation has helped each winemaker select the grape varieties from designated vineyards that produce the desired quality of wine.
The Impact of the Vessel on Vailia’s Winemaking
Vailia describes her relationship with each amphora she has purchased – the excitement of the first arrival and moving it into the cellar. Although she does not name her amphorae as many winemakers do, the first amphora to arrive at Desparada is still referred to as M4A1.
Sauvignon Blanc was the first vintage fermented and aged in this vessel. The challenge of removing the wine by hand and then cleaning the clay vessel without breaking it involved dragging a mattress down to the cellar. It took three people to remove the wine and tip the amphora carefully onto the mattress. Vailia then crawled inside to remove the skins and lees and give it a good scrubbing.
After the second vintage fermented and aged in amphorae, Vailia realized she was just the right height and skinny enough to climb into the vessel while it stood upright and do the cleaning with her head rising through the opening at the top. She knows each of her vessels intimately. There are some great photos of these moments.
As she continues to add an amphora to her cellar each year, she has sourced them from at least four Italian and one Spanish craftsmen selecting various sizes and shapes. She owns three 800-liter and two 500-liter vessels. Each vessel has a different porosity based on the clay material and the length of time it was fired in the kiln. She has used some for fermentation and others for aging.
Vailia continues to use a variety of other vessels – stainless steel tanks, acacia barrels, French oak cigars and concrete tulips. Each wine has its own story to tell as it rests in the specific vessel.
The Explorer Series
She has focused on the Italian varieties including Barbera, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. The search for new varieties continues each year. However, Sauvignon Blanc is her most famous wine.
Vailia loves everything about Sauvignon Blanc. It is her favorite wine to drink. However she feels that the grape has not been fully appreciated over the years. She loves the acidity and developing the fruit expression of the grape. Vailia enjoys working with a variety of growers in San Luis Obispo County to source Sauvignon Blanc. Desparada’s vintages express a full range of diversity.
In 2014 she produced the Explorer series to highlight the range of diversity in Sauvignon Blanc, using the exact same grapes picked on the same day from the same block in the vineyard. She fermented and aged the Sauvignon Blanc in different vessels including French Oak Cigars, neutral and acacia barrels, amphorae, and stainless steel tanks. The first year she produced 40 to 50 cases of wines from each of four different vessels – marketing the wines as a four-pack. She wanted each customer to take the four bottles home and use them like a home chemistry kit to explore their senses. She hoped the four bottles of Sauvignon Blanc would be opened at the same time for tasting among friends to compare the aromatics, the color, minerality, texture and mouthfeel of the four wines. Each of the four vintages is unique. Comparing the four wines enlivens the sensory experience and defines each wine for the wine lover.
Vailia was inspired to create this series because visitors coming to the tasting room asked many questions about how each vessel impacted the wine she was producing. She toured them through her cellar to show each vessel as she answered their questions. She decided to bottle the wines made in each vessel separately to define the differences – hence, the Explorer series.
The winemaking process at Desparada is unusual and labor intensive. It should be noted that Vailia and her staff stir the lees and juice in every single vessel daily during fermentation. They use a metal wand in most cases. But occasionally, arms and hands are sterilized and used for the task in more dense liquids. One of her employees likened the experience to “stirring the caldron.” Vailia likes to keep the fermentation level high in the amphorae, leaving just a small air space at the top. Vailia and her staff gently mix the cap of lees into the wine each day to keep it moist not only in the amphora but in every vessel in the cellar. When the fermentation is complete and the cap is dry, she tops it off with wine from a neutral barrel – the same lot harvested in the same block of the vineyard. Very few winemakers use this time-consuming technique. When asked why she does not seal up the amphora and let it ferment and age on its own, undisturbed, she commented, “I am too chicken to do that. It would scare me.” Vailia is hands on with each wine in each vessel. She feels a direct connection to the grapes, the evolving wine and the vessel through her process.
How does the Vessel Influence the Wine?
There are many things that influence the wine. Vessels are just one aspect of influence. Each vessel has its own characteristics that may influence the wine. For example, stainless steel is neutral and does not impact the flavor or composition of the wine. However, Vailia has noted that when using the French oak cigars, which are lightly toasted and are known for their elongated shape, they offer a larger ratio of contact of the lees to the wine and juice. This creates more body to the wine. The cigars and barrels are porous and provide more exposure to oxygen as well. This may give a longer finish to the wine.
The amphora is used over and over and does not change in composition, so the personality of the wine is not changed by the vessel. However, the lees sink to the bottom of the vessel and there is a lower ratio of contact of lees to the wine. The wine also has less contact with oxygen flowing through the walls of the vessel. There is less evaporation and many of the wines are described as bright, fresh or crisp.
Recent Wines at Desparada
Desparada wines are natural wines made in small farmed batches with no chemicals and minimal sulfur additions. New wines are made each year with approximately 50% white wines and 50% red wines.
There are many variations based on the vineyard from which the grapes are sourced, the grape variety, the vessels used and the blends. The 2021 Sauvignon Blanc includes four wines: 2021 FRAGMENT, NYX, EPIONE and CHELLE. The 2019 Sauvignon Blanc includes AZHA, AVIOR, ATRIA and AZMIDI. The Chardonnay label is WAYFINDER.
Vailia has also been developing white wines with Italian grape varieties. Her 2020 Fortunata Falanghina is an Italian variety with an interesting history. It was much praised by the Roman writers such as Columella, Virgil and Pliny and made the favorite wine of Emperors Nero and Caligula. Excavations in the volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius which buried the city of Pompei include preserved grape seeds of Falanghina, Fiano, Greco, Piedirosso, and Aglianico.
The reds are equally important. The grape varieties and blends vary from vintage to vintage. Current favorites include Desparada Sackcloth and Ashes 2020, a red blend of Cabernet Franc, 34% Petit Verdot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. Compare this wine to the 2020 Borderlands, a blend of 33% Syrah, 31% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc and 14% Grenache.
The red Italian varietals include Sangiovese and Nebbiolo.
In June of 2022, the 4th iteration of Dress Maker – a Solera-style Cabernet Sauvignon – will be released. The wine was conceived in 2012, and contains one barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon integrated from each harvest since its inception – a balance of old vintage depth and new vintage vibrance.” The final iteration will be released in 2026 and will contain wine from 11 different vintages. The Cabernet grapes have been sourced from five vineyards on the Central Coast : D’Anbino, Star Lane, Chelle Mountain, TTT, and Coghlin.
A Joyful Work Ethic
Vailia says, “ I get up every morning and do what I love and never feel like I’m going to work. That’s even when it’s 4:00 A.M. I think that’s a pretty amazing thing that I feel blessed to do.
There is also a joyfulness and enthusiasm in her staff which you feel immediately upon entering the tasting room or the cellar. As an employer Vailia’s business model includes a focus on employee health and well-being. In the larger picture, Desparada provides a 401K plan for savings and retirement, and childcare. On a daily basis, lunch is provided and massages and relaxation techniques during the harvest season. Each Spring Desparada hosts a brunch for wine club members, which celebrates their latest release. The proceeds benefit Lumina Alliance, a local women’s shelter.
A Sustainable Future
Vailia and her husband own a small vineyard on York Mountain in Shadow Canyon. The vineyard was planted in 1990. Russell and Vailia From leased the vineyard in 2013 and were able to purchase it in 2017. The land they have leased and purchased has been converted to be sustainably farmed. When possible, the fruit Vailia purchases is sourced from organic and biodynamic vineyards along the Central Coast.
Desparada’s wines are, “made for a new world, rooted firmly in the wonder of the old” as Vailia states on her website. Tastings are by appointment on Thursday through Monday from 9:45 am to 4:00 pm. Desparada Wines is located at 3060 Limestone Way in Tin City (Paso Robles). The website is www.desparada.com.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.