My introduction to Hemingway was through his novel A Farewell to Arms. Required reading in my senior year, we spent countless hours discussing the themes and motifs in the work, and in learning about Hemingway’s involvement in the first world war. But struggle as I might with these important themes, my mind kept wandering to the peculiar choice of drink Hemingway chose for his protagonist, Frederick Henry. What did Frederick Henry, or Hemingway for that matter, see in vermouth? Clearly, the vermouth in Hemingway’s day must have been a better wine than what sits on the lower shelves of my grocery store.

I gave vermouth little thought after that, until one day, while eating lunch with a local historian, I was asked if I had ever read Ian Fleming’s Diamonds are Forever. Read it, he suggested, and tell me what you discover.

There, in chapter five, CIA agent Felix Leiter made James Bond his favorite martini,

“There was a medium dry Martini with a piece of lemon peel waiting for him. Bond smiled at Leiter’s memory and tasted it. It was excellent, but he didn’t recognize the Vermouth. ‘Made with Cresta Blanca,’ explained Leiter. ‘New domestic brand from California. Like it?’ ‘Best Vermouth I ever tasted.’”

IAN FLEMING, Diamonds are Forever

 Why did Ian Fleming choose Cresta Blanca Vermouth? We probably will never know, but I have a theory. Aided by what historian Simon Schama calls the “serendipity of adjacency,” I accidently stumbled upon Lowell Edmunds’ book, Martini, Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail, where he relates the story of the Lower Montgomery Olive or Onion Society’s search for the perfect Martini. After a nationwide search and winnowing of the field, the winner was crowned at Rickey’s Townhouse in San Francisco on September 29, 1953. The winning recipe – 3 parts London Dry Gin, 1 part Cresta Blanca Triple-Dry White Vermouth, stirred, with a twist of lemon. The recipe was widely publicized, and even appeared in the New York Times. Cresta Blanca, for their part, used the award in advertising copy that appeared in the New Yorker. It was probably through this publicity that Cresta Blanca vermouth caught Ian Fleming’s attention during one of his frequent trips to New York.

Considering it is a key ingredient in the world’s most famous martini, surprisingly little is known about the composition of Cresta Blanca vermouth. By the mid-fifties when Fleming was writing, Cresta Blanca had moved vermouth production to its distilling plant near Fresno. And by the time Cresta Blanca was sold to Guild Winery, the formula had vanished along with the vermouth, a ghost of another era.

We don’t know much about the original Cresta Blanca vermouth. We can guess that it was not a true vermouth, at least in the European sense, because it could not have contained wormwood as an ingredient. Wormwood was reintroduced only in 2007 after a 95 year ban. Also, Cresta would not have used its finest wines or brandies, as the standard formulation in the 1950s used neutral wine and spirit. Finally, the flavors from the spices were most likely extracted at high temperature in ethanol, and then back blended into the base wine. The bottom line? We can do better.

Thus began my quest to recreate a Livermore vermouth, perhaps not as famous, but definitely better. We would bring the entire production of our vermouth back to Livermore Valley. We would use the finest wines from our cellar and use Livermore brandy distilled from our own fruit. We would reintroduce wormwood, and scour the world for the finest sustainably harvested roots, herbs, and spices. And, most important – we would craft a wine that appeals to our modern tastes for authenticity and provenence, a wine for those who appreciate craft cocktails, slow foods, single-batch bourbons….

From our artist’s palette of roots, herbs, and spices we have formulated the first Livermore dry vermouth in over half a century.

As the railroad industry began to take flight, the latter part of the nineteenth century led to the widespread popularity and use of pocket watches. In fact, the pocket watches produced by companies like Waltham and Elgin were so precise, they made the conductors on-board systems look rudimentary. Some trains even used the pocket watches and soon these timepieces became a standard for the industry. They were so popular amongst conductors, that the term “railroad” and “conductor” watches were coined.

Most pocket watches, especially vintage ones have a lineage and history to them that makes them rare in my opinion. For these watches have been the flies on the wall of many generations of men and are built with such precision and craftsmanship that they continue to work flawlessly centuries later.

We opened the doors to Occasio Winery in 2008, driven to recapture the winemaking traditions that made the early wines from Livermore legendary. This has been no simple task, as these winemaking traditions have been lost for generations, victims of a rush to quantity over quality, and of a diaspora of talent that occurred here more than half a century ago.

Through hard work and careful research, however, the past is giving up its secrets. We continue to discover the preserved records from our pioneering winemakers, documents that survive only because the wines of Livermore Valley were so special. Now, putting our discoveries to work, we are beginning to recreate these early wines, and with Sidewinder Spirits, the inspiration for our distillation.

Rediscovering what has been lost, and making it new again, requires ownership of our craft. No step, no matter how insignificant, can be entrusted to others. It is essential we control both the provenance and the quality of all that goes into the crafting of our wines and spirits.

It is this need for ownership, provenance and control that gives birth to Sidewinder Spirits. The idea for Sidewinder arose from our need to gain ownership over the manufacture of the brandy used in our port wine. Although most pay no heed to the provenance of the brandy used in port wine production, we know two things:

1) prior to prohibition, Livermore was prized for its brandy, and
2) only this prized brandy was used in Livermore port wines.


Occasio Winery Port – California’s Highest Rated Port – 94 Points, Wine Enthusiast

“Made in the style of a classic Port, this powerhouse of a sweet wine combines opulent fruit flavors with richness and body, balanced by bracing acidity and a generous shot of fine tannins. With a little time, violet, dark chocolate, raspberry and fig nuances roll across the palate, blending with the boysenberry fruit for a complex and layered finish.”

Jim Gordon, Wine Enthusiast Magazine


Put simply, authenticity requires our own brandy distilled from our finest Livermore fruit. We will again claim ownership of the components used in our fortified and aperitif collections, with each component crafted specifically for the final product.

And what of our name, Sidewinder Spirits?

Most think of a Sidewinder as a type of snake – something that might bite if you’re not careful. Indeed, there is a hint of this danger in distilling spirits. But a sidewinder is also a type of pocket watch, where the winding post is at three instead of twelve. This watch, though slightly askew, is our bond with the spirit of Occasio Winery, where provenance and quality drive the production of our crafted spirits as they do with our wines. Now, we can create a Livermore brandy in the historic style that, against all odds, won the gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1889.

The story of Sidewinder, however, goes beyond brandy and port wine. The Livermore family planted wheat, not grapes. A special red wheat grew here that was highly prized for its aromas and its suitability for fine grain spirits. This is the story, another side to Livermore’s past, to be explored by Sidewinder Spirits. It is a story of Livermore Valley that went underground during prohibition, a story lost when the great stills of Livermore were taken apart and moved to the sanctuaries of our nearby canyons. It is a story waiting to be rediscovered.

We opened the doors to Occasio Winery in 2008, driven to recapture the winemaking traditions that made the early wines from Livermore legendary. This has been no simple task, as these winemaking traditions have been lost for generations, victims of a rush to quantity over quality, and of a diaspora of talent that occurred here more than half a century ago. (more…)