It’s sometimes hard to figure out what Greg Bergersen and Rick Quesada enjoy more: being owners of an award-winning winery or talking about their days as correctional officers in some of the state’s toughest prisons.
Truth is, it’s both. As part of a law enforcement brotherhood, Bergersen and Quesada represent a tight-knit group of officers who are proud of the work they do.
They’ve taken that pride and used it in the marketing of their brand, Solitary Cellars Wine Company. They use the prison theme freely in their Madera tasting room, including a makeshift cell, complete with a prison toilet, ankle irons and a Bible that’s been hollowed out so it can hide contraband. Even its wine club is called the Chain Gang.
Bergersen worked as a correctional officer for 25 years before retiring in 2014. Quesada is still active and is working at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. Between the two of them, they have worked in Soledad, Corcoran and North Kern State Prison. Combined, they have 45 years of prison experience.
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Quesada, who is trained as a hostage negotiator, says the prison theme was a natural for their wine company.
“It’s who we are,” he says.
And if you are really into prison life, Bergersen and Quesada will even show you a collection of “shivs” or homemade knives made by prisoners.
“People are fascinated with prisons,” Bergersen said. “And it’s a good conversation starter. But once they taste our wine, they are surprised at how good it is.”
Oddly enough, Bergersen didn’t intend to become a winemaker. That is until he started dabbling in making his own wine at home. After several years, he got pretty good at it and eventually was encouraged to try and develop his own label.
With Quesada’s help, the two developed a business plan and launched Solitary Cellars Wine Company in 2014. Their focus is on crafting wines from some of the best grape-growing regions in the state, including the central San Joaquin Valley.
They’ve purchased cabernet sauvignon grapes from Lake County, pinot noir from Monterey County and syrah from vineyards near the San Joaquin River in Fresno County.
The winery is leasing space for its tasting room at ApCal in Madera, an event center and wine-tasting room. For now, they are making and bottling their wines in Lodi.
Darren Schmall, owner of ApCal, said he was more than happy to work with Solitary Cellars.
“These guys really pay attention to detail and really work at finding the best grapes to make the best wines,” Schmall said. “They have really learned their craft and have followed through with it. Whatever they put in that bottle is something people are going to like.”
Bergersen says his winemaking style is intended to be sophisticated yet subtle. He isn’t big on full-bodied reds that are high in tannins. His personal favorite is the barbera grape that makes fruity, food-friendly wine and is low in tannins.
“I want to make wine that people can appreciate,” he said. “And I think our customers like that.”
Wine critics have also noticed. Their 2013 barbera won a Double Gold in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Competition.
At the tasting room, located at 32749 Avenue 7 in Madera, you have a choice of eight wines to sip, including two of the most popular, Evasion, a mellow blend of syrah and viognier grapes, and Code 3, a red blend with a nice floral aroma.
Other wines include an albariño, tempranillo, barbera, old vine zinfandel and syrah. Prices average about $25 a bottle.