Bottoms Up — July 13, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Solitary Cellars Goes Behind Bars to Make Outstanding Wine

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solitary_cellars

Wine and jail. Not normally two things that go together. Unless you’re Greg Bergersen and Rick Quesada. These two entrepreneurs are both former corrections officers at California’s Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, and now they run a wine business! Back in 2014, the pair started up Solitary Cellars Wine Company (get it?) and since then it has achieved much success. Bergersen actually has a background of winemaking, starting off making wine at home and then joining a local winery’s wine club where he began a label under the company. Once they started outselling the winery’s actual product, he decided to go into business on his own with the help of Quesada.

Now the winery is located in Lodi, California, while their North Block Tasting Room is situated in Madera, CA. The unique tasting room is modeled after the duo’s experience in corrections, complete with mug shots, a jail cell, shivs and plenty of behind-the-scenes stories. They have quite a few varietals to offer — 2014 Code Red (red wine blend), 2012 and 2013 Liberty Oak Tempranillo, 2014 Solitary Cellars Albariño, 2013 Evasion Syrah Rosé, 2012 and 2013 Solitary Cellars “East Block” Old Vine Zinfandel, 2013 Santa Lucia Highlands Syrah, 2013 Shenandoah Valley Barbera and 2013 Monterey Pinot Noir. They can be purchased right in the tasting room, in select restaurants and wine bars, and online. We chatted with the men behind this bold wine company, showcasing “wines without restraints” to learn all about this fun brand!

solitary_cellars1Wine making and working in corrections are two very different things. What similarities in your jobs, if any, do you have?

The only real similarities between prison work and our winery can be found in the tasting room. Working in a prison, communication is the key. How you communicate with inmates will save you if things go sideways. You learn the power of respect and honesty first hand when you and your partner oversee 200 high security inmates. You learn very quickly that communication is a person to person endeavor. The same is true in the North Block Tasting Room. We treat all of our customers with respect and we engage with them on a person to person level. Those individual relationships provide for a memorable wine tasting experience. Making a strong connection and being respectful leads to mutual respect.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the wine business?

A challenge for any winery or business is competition. The wine industry is highly competitive and often muddled. Trying to find your place on a crowded shelf can be difficult. We believe our relationship with our growers and their premium products allow us the opportunity to compete directly with larger, more established producers. Hey, everyone has to sing for their supper.

Your tasting room sounds so interesting! How has the customer response been to it and how did you decide what to include/not include in there?

Our customers seem to really enjoy the experience. We get asked a lot of questions pertaining to the jail cell. We are happy to answer them and elaborate should our customers ask. In our local area there are approximately 6 prisons within an hour of our tasting room, so many of our customers are familiar with the theme either by family members or friends. Most of the objects in the cell are actual items seen in an inmate’s cell. We have our prison weapons under the counter in a box. We bring them out only when asked. Staring at shank can be a bit intimidating. Our mug shot board allows our customers to be creative. Some of the names on the mug shot placards are quite funny and the mug shots are priceless. When our customers post their mug shots on their social media sites, they get instant feedback.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about prisons or what is one thing you wish more people knew?

The most important element of prison life is respect and honesty. The inmates have been judged by society, it doesn’t really matter to use what they did to get into a prison, it is how they interact while incarcerated. People really cannot wrap their head around that. The inmate is looking for consistency. If you are a hard ass every day, and you are strictly by the book, the inmates might not like you, but if you are consistent in your work habits, and you treat everyone the same, the inmates will respect you and that is how you get a man with three life sentence to work. Prisons are people person industries. Also, you never know when things will erupt. You have to be keenly aware of everything from emotional attitudes to the way inmates are walking and standing. It is quite something to be on a level 4 yard and you can sense tension. And last, not all inmates are uneducated and dumb. Each penitentiary contains masterminds, real smart folks who are not only intelligent, but cunning as well.

Do you have a favorite wine from your portfolio?

Our wines are like children, you really don’t have a favorite, but some get better grades than others. However the Ball and Chain blend was made for Greg’s daughter’s wedding. The wine made its world debut at her wedding dinner, so I guess that one has some sentimental value above the others. Our customers have gravitated to our Barbera program and the Code Three red wine blend. However, we will introduce our Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon later this year and there seems to be some buzz developing for that.

What’s next for Solitary Cellars?

We will continue to build on our strong relationships with our grower partners and we will continue our quest to make the best wines we can. We would like to introduce our portfolio to new markets and we want to continue to have fun. We have a firm belief if we work hard, provide an outstanding product and a memorable experience the rest will just do what it does.

Twisted Talk: What are some of your favorite local wineries? What’s your wine of choice? Discuss below!

2 Comments

  1. The North Block Tasting Room is such a blast! These two make an amazing duo and a great time is had by all. Not only are their wines amazing, Code Red and Barbera are amazing though they are all great, but the atmosphere and fun they ensure all visitors receive are top notch. Don’t miss your chance to experience this place and these two down to earth, “regular guys”, with some amazing stories and experiences that will have you entertained for hours. This place is one of a kind, we love it!

    • Love it!! So glad to hear how people are enjoying the tasting room. I’d love to go there and check it out!

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