Valor winery is a very unusual winery in the sense that what brought these men together in a chai and the vineyard was a shared experience in the Army or in other Corps on foreign theaters of operation, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. They built this project to help other veterans readjust to the civilian life, learn a job and feel support from their fellow service members.
I had visited a few years ago the vineyard managed by the French Foreign Legion in Puyloubier, Provence, a surprising institution where Legion veterans are housed and can work together with active-duty légionnaires, helping tend the vines from which the Foreign Legion wines are made. When I heard of a small, private winery in California with a similar focus on helping veterans to adapt and cope with the civil life I thought this was worth reporting on, and recent news reminded us of the urgent need to relieve the silent burden of those who want to readjust to normal life after fighting tough wars to remove bloody regimes and bring democracy in regions where people seem to prefer ethnic/sectarian infighting to the challenges of democratic tolerance and building prosperity.
Livermore is a quiet small town in the valley east of the Bay Area, it's definitely hotter here than in San Francisco and Berkeley where the breeze from the sea keeps you cool. The main street (pic on left) is an enjoyable walk with a few restaurants and terraces, and before visting Valor Winery we had lunch in an excellent Mexican Taqueria, Las Caporales, very good value and authentic, and right on main street.
The facility is located in a small business development just outside Livermore, and with the empty casks and the flags you can't miss it when you drive around the parking lot.
The winery was opened by Sgt Josh Laine, a young veteran from the US Marine Corps (pictured on top, right), first under the name of Lavish Laines, and then around 2009 he decided to turn his winery into a fully veteran ownership and staffing and named it Valor Winery. As the winery website says, veterans from all branches of the Armed Forces are employed in the winery, be it for bottling, corking, labelling, capping Valor wine bottles or tending the vineyard, even if much of the surface is rented or lent to them by charity groups or churches. Other veterans are also doing the sales and marketing work (I swear I'm not part of the plan for this story). Josh says that this all goes with assistance to the vets, first because the work brings financial independance and mental therapy through camaraderie and support from people having gone through the same hardships. There's a large board when you walk in with many pictures of veterans, some being killed in action, Josh says that this is a tribute to them and a way to honor them.
Since 2011, Josh Laine works also with an organization named the Vets & vines Foundation which is dedicated to help veterans readapt to civilian life and overcome PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe ailment invalidating many active military back from the war zones. This organization helps vets find work in viticulture, agriculture of even livestock farms, and this, even if they never worked in this field. I am amazed at this typically-American response to a problem like dealing with PTSD and and readjustment to civil life : the Vets Administration may do its part or not (some say it doesn't), but the private actors, individuals, winery owners, farm owners and other non-subsidized actors do a lot and go well beyond doing simple charity gesture.
There's another foundation they seem to work with at Valor, it's the Wounded Warrior Project which similarily helped military personnel maimed in combat or by roadside bombs.
Josh explains that the winery is 100 % veteran owned and operated. He started a winery in 2007 when he got out of the Marine Corps, his girlfriend was working at the time for another large winery in the valley and this got him into the wine industry because before that he had no experience in the trade. Beginning in 2007 he planted a vineyard, about 1500 vines on one acre, and with a Marine Corps buddy with whom he started this, they bought winemaking equipment plus grapes and grapejuice and started make wine for the first time. Very early it kicked off by people buying their wine in bulk for their parties and birthdays. At the beginning it was family and friends and it just got bigger and bigger and eventually in 2009 and 2010 they went commercial and established, and although the winery was known under the name of Lavish Laines at the time, it was already fully veteran operated and owned and Josh changed the name to Valor Winery in 2012.
they've been learning all the while of course and their winemaking skills are finetuned year after year.
Josh says that they're doing a pretty simple job here, they're not getting into the "crazy chemicals" and lab stuff that a lot of the other wineries use, they let the wine be wine. Asked about the acidity corrections in the wine, Josh says that they do it but only a couple of times a year, not as much as most wineries do. They mainly focus on viticulture and Josh says that as long as you grow the crop correctly you shouldn't have to adjust too much the wine. For the SO2 they add some in the must but very little after, and when they add some at the end it's rather 2 months before bottling, not at the bottling stage. The normal level elsewhere, he says, is around 35ppm and he prefers to stay at about 20ppm and keep it low. Lots of people who come buy have had headaches or allergy with sulfites so they want to keep the SO2 low.
Otherwise they have veterans from other wars hanging around and buying their wine, veterans from WW2, from the Korean war and from Vietnam of course. They help these older veterans see the VA (the US government administration dealing with veterans), see their doctor or find their military records. For the younger veterans they help them get an education if they need it by connecting them with the right school or administration service
As for the other vets who work here, Josh tells me that they work monday through friday and spend time in the vineyard
I taste a first wine at the counter in a corner of the facility, a very simple tasting room with view on the tools and vats.
The wine is a sauvignon blanc which Josh says is full bodied and with tropical aromas. They source the Sauvignon Blanc in Napa. They had their own vines in different properties that they managed, chardonnays, zinfandel and sangiovese and then they moved from these prperties and now they do vineyard contracting for other vineyards and they source wines as well from the Lodi and Napa AVAs.
They got the basket press in 2008 and it works well, they use it every year,it makes about a barrel and a half per load. What is good with this type of basket press, Josh says is that they can control the amount of tannin and of acid that will go into the wine, while bladder presses take everything out; they taste the juice and they test it too.
For the reds they usually do 50 % with the stems and 50 % without, and lately they've been trying to put the stems in the background for the wine, meaning that for example when the press begins to press the hard part in the bottom (the cake, the skins plus the stems) they can see the color change and they taste repeatedly and stop when the juice doesn't is too loaded with tannins or other unpleasant aromas.
Josh says that most of their cleaning agents are green products, so they can flush them back in the vineyard as compost, and same for skins and stems. I understand that water in the valley is scarce and that every move to spare water or recycle is important.
They've just started working with distributors, so Valor wines should be seen more in different places around America.
They also have a stock of new glass outside, particularly magnums for their zinfandel.
They use the staves in the foreground to make armchairs, I saw one in the facility, this is indeed very nice. Josh says that the models of these armchairs are on the Internet, that's pretty easy.
I ask again about the status of people who work at Valor, if all the people giving a hand in the vineyard, in the chai or elsewhere are paid, and Josh says that Valor is a for-profit company but that besides the employees there are also the volunteers who come to help in solidarity with other veterans.
I asked Josh if it was difficult to find available land when they wanted to plant vines, he said no, adding that they try to team up with local businesses or owners, for example one of their lots in on a church property, about an acre which Valor offered to take care of in order to help veterans, the broad idea here being having the community help them and in return they help the community and beautify the land at the same time.
Kevin says that he is new to brewing but he says it's so much fun, it's at the same time an Art and science. Josh helped him do his 3rd brew 4 months ago and they didn't stop since, there are lots of possibilities and you play with the parameters. And you see the turnaround pretty quickly compared to wine, only 4 weeks.
Sacramento News on the launch of Valor Winery
Wine Enthusiast on veterans turned winemakers
Yahoo News : wineries helping veterans
An Iraq War hero leads a ragtag group of veterans as they try to conquer the wine industry.
When Marine Sergeant Josh Laine returned from intense fighting in Iraq to his native Livermore, CA, he couldn't find a job anywhere. When a girlfriend got him into wine, he decided to take a crack at winemaking and with the help of the other Marines that he served with, Lavish Laines Winery was born. The winery has since become a place where returning veterans can find a job, camaraderie, and a sense of purpose. The film follows Josh and his fellow vets as they try to take the winery from a garage start-up to a fully-fledged operation and in the process explores the challenges vets face in transitioning back to civilian life.