California winemakers are branching out into apéritifs, which can be sipped on their own or mixed into refreshing spritzes and cocktails.

Kristin Scharkey  – September 21, 2021

You know what’s better than a glass of wine? A cocktail beforehand. Luckily, there are myriad California makers producing beverages to sip before and after a meal.

Samantha Sheehan, for one, created Mommenpop citrus-flavored apéritifs because she wanted a dye-free spritz without the sugar. The Napa Valley winemaker desired a “punchier” beverage that was “more exuberant and less sweet,” she recalls.

So Sheehan started experimenting, first adding Seville orange peels to two barrels of Chardonnay along with pepper and other types of hard spices. Initially she called it a sparkling vermouth and put it in a Champagne half-bottle with a crown cap. But she kept exploring, later adding grapefruit and cardamom to extra rosé. The following year, a Pinot Noir vineyard wouldn’t ripen, so Sheehan says she coupled it with blood orange.

Ultimately, the winemaker put together what’s now a line of apéritifs featuring mouthwatering combinations of California fruits. You can sip them straight—just add ice—or use them to add a twist to cocktails like a mezcal Paloma, Sheehan suggests.

It’s a pivot for the California winemaker known for single-vineyard, single-varietal wines, who’s behind such labels as Poe Wines and Ultraviolet Wines. “I don’t even use new oak,” Sheehan quipped. “Everything is about being as hands-off as possible.”

But aperitifs offered a chance to “do something fancy,” Sheehan says. “There’s just so many culinary applications.”

Massican Dry Vermouth on the Rocks

Courtesy of Massican

Other winemakers are also producing apéritifs worth adding to your bar cart—perhaps the most well-known is vermouth. Napa winemakers Steve and Jill Klein Matthiasson, for example, create their sweet vermouth using Flora, “a cross between Sémillon and Gewürztraminer,” according to the Matthiasson website.

Also in Napa Valley, Massican‘s Dan Petroski makes a dry white vermouth. “Herbs and spices are steeped in brandy made from Massican white wine,” Petroski says of the process. “That brandy is then used to fortify and aromatize the white wine.” Sip the vermouth chilled over ice with a lemon peel, or as part of martini, and your favorite ratio of gin to vermouth, Petroski adds.

Then there’s Ortolan Rosolio. About 30 varieties of California heirloom garden roses go into this apéritif from Appanage Brands, co-founded by Robert Collier and Amy Navor. Compared to the more well-known Italian liqueur amaro, this rosolio is far from bitter and lighter on the palate. We like to sip it neat, but Collier says it’s a true modifier that can be added to any spirit. Just don’t mix it with peaty scotch.

“If you try to do beautiful things, then good things are going to come of it,” Collier adds.

Ready to raise a glass? Start with these three apéritifs from California wine country:


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