Wednesday, September 20, 2017
If it weren’t for Wandering Dog Wine Bar in Solvang, it’s possible that a number of beloved Santa Barbara wineries — Dragonette, Kaena, Transcendence, and Blair Fox, to name a few — wouldn’t be the successful operations they are now.
That’s because husband-and-wife proprietors CT and Jody Williams poured their wines before most anyone else, giving emerging brands a platform to build fans and evolve to the next level. Many of those winemakers, including Mark Horvath of Crawford Family Wines, Joshua Klapper of Timbre, and Norm Yost of Flying Goat, continue to show their appreciation to the Williamses by producing a custom bottling each vintage, which they sell through the shop under the Wandering Dog brand.
Today, a decade since opening their wine bar in 2007, the Williamses are finally getting into the commercial production game themselves. But they’re not merely making wine — under the name of Broken Clock Vinegar Works, they’re making vinegar and an eclectic line of shrubs: the fruit-, sugar-, and vinegar-based elixirs of ancient history that give a complex, tangy bang to beverages both alcoholic and otherwise.
“I’ve spent 15 years telling everyone I didn’t want to be a winemaker, and now …” said CT with a laugh earlier this year, while he was pursuing the license to turn grape juice into vinegar, which is a few fermentations further than wine. “It really takes just as much work to make a really good vinegar as it does to make a good wine.”
The couple — CT and Jody were both raised in the Santa Ynez Valley, both got into the wine industry at age 22, and met at the Carina Cellars tasting room in 2004 (he hired her) — first tasted shrubs at the bar of The Landsby, across the street from Wandering Dog. “It was so good,” recalled Jody, who learned that shrubs were historically a means of preserving fruit prior to refrigeration. “It was the most refreshing and interesting drink.”
So on Christmas Day of 2015, they made their own lemon shrub, using equal parts juice, sugar, and vinegar. It was good, so they started experimenting with various fruits — pomegranate, strawberry, peach, blueberry, kiwi, etc. — mostly sourced from their garden, which is just a couple of blocks from the wine bar. “Our kitchen looked like a science laboratory for a while,” said CT, recalling the sugar trials they conducted. “We explored different flavors, like strawberry-ginger. That’s one of the ones that convinced us.”
In March 2016, they released their Broken Clock Vinegar Works shrubs and started mixing them into wine-based cocktails at their bar, where visitors can try a flight or enjoy a full drink. The menu changes seasonally, but you might find the mix of prickly pear, kaffir lime, and prosecco, which Jody calls a “shrubmosa,” and such core flavors as that original strawberry-ginger, peach–jalapeño–roussanne–club soda (much like a margarita), and blueberry-vanilla (think dark and stormy). Prepare for a history lesson, too, about how Hippocrates prescribed shrubs to treat everything, how Attila the Hun served shrubs to his soldiers, how Jesus Christ’s last sip was likely a shrub.
“People are curious,” said Jody. “Most have this life-changing ‘aha’ moment and are like, ‘I’ve never had anything like this!’” And sometimes, she admits, certain folks just can’t handle the tangy sip.
Setting itself apart from the growing number of shrub producers on the market — popular ones include Nostrum, which was founded originally in Santa Barbara by a former Independent intern, and Berkeley’s Shrub & Co. — Broken Clock recently opened its vinegar-making facility on the western outskirts of Solvang. “We’re not the first shrub producer out there, but we’re pretty sure we’re the first to make our own vinegar,” said CT, who’s bringing hands-on craftsmanship to a market dominated by
corporate interests, most of which mass-produce vinegar via industrial means. He’s become a student of Acetobacter, the fruit-fly-reliant genus of bacteria responsible for vinegar, and is also selling vinegar mothers, which people can use to make their own vinegar from leftover wine.
The Williamses continue to experiment with new fruits and flavors combinations — blackberry-lemongrass and tangerine-lavender are two recent creations — and are finding the seasonal opportunities boundless. “It’s like a nonstop harvest,” said Jody. Their 5-year-old daughter now wants to be a shrub maker when she grows up, which may not be too far-fetched. When asked if they feel they’ve stumbled upon an untapped market, CT quickly replied, “Absolutely.”
Try Broken Clock Vinegar Works at Wandering Dog Wine Bar (1539 Mission Dr., Solvang) or purchase them at Valley Brewers in Solvang, Los Olivos General Store, and the Montecito Village Grocery. Shrub cocktails are also being served at Bottlest Winery, Bar & Bistro in Buellton. See wanderingdogwinebar.com.