Multitaskmaster: Tony Saballa blends his skills to make beer and wine in Ste. Gen

For most guys the choices are pretty clear.

You’re either a Cards fan or a Cubs fan. On a desert island, you’d choose either Ginger or Mary Ann. You’re either a wine guy or a beer guy. Unless, you’re a guy named Tony Saballa, then you’re both.

Both a wine guy and a beer guy, that is.

Saballa, the winemaker and brewmaster at Charleville Vineyard & Microbrewery in Ste. Genevieve, has managed to stake a claim in both worlds, as diverse as they may seem.

“I have primarily a beer background,” he said recently, sitting outside on the deck at the Charleville complex, drinking in neither the wine nor the beer but instead what is perhaps one of the most gorgeous views in all of Missouri. Saballa hails originally from California’s Central Valley, and even though that region produces a lot of wine, he worked primarily in the brewing industry.

So in order to get himself up to speed, he took advantage of continuing education classes in winemaking offered by the University of California at Davis and soon found himself intrigued by the process. He began working in the laboratory at Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley and later at Charles Krug Winery, performing quality-control analysis at night and then heading to Sudwerk Brewery in Davis to work the day shift. “I wasn’t sleeping a lot,” he laughed.

He was, however, ramping up his experience level in the wine world. In the lab, Saballa constantly checked the sugar and acidity levels of the wine and performed a variety of other scientific analyses as well. “Working in the lab, you can see how it’s broken down and put back together. … I got the opportunity to talk to winemakers, that’s where I learned a lot.”

He continued his work as a brewer, increased his skills and subsequently moved to the Midwest in 2004. Never the slacker, Saballa initially – and until fairly recently – split his time among Charleville, Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, and the St. Louis Wine & Beermaking store in Chesterfield.

Although Saballa had left the life of a professional brewer in California, he’d managed to keep his foot in the door as a hobbyist and convinced Charleville co-owner Jack Russell that beer could be a draw. “It didn’t take long to figure out,” Saballa said, noting that they started small, using his homebrewing supplies and equipment. “We started brewing 10 gallons at a time. … The beer was never intended to be a big deal. The wine was always going to be the star. But by the end of 2004, we started to look at [beer] more seriously.”

Five years later, the brewery puts out more than 200 gallons at a time and takes up more of Saballa’s time than the winery does. He feels he draws from skills in both worlds to create superior products, and he enjoys different aspects of both businesses.

To Saballa, the best part of the winemaking process comes during the harvest in late summer. He likes the careful planning, the amassing of knowledge regarding the perfect weather conditions, marshaling the labor force that is needed to pick the grapes at the perfect time. All season he works to nurture and groom the grapes, then when they’re at their peak, “it’s man versus nature,” he said. “Harvest is a high time – the physical nature, the mechanical, the crowd’s energy. There’s a lot of excitement to it.”

It’s not the communal aspect of the brewing that continues to intrigue him so much as the innovation. “Doing something new is the best part of brewing,” he said. Saballa appreciates the experimental nature that brewing affords him, and he likes to have beers on hand in Charleville’s tasting room that aren’t available in stores: “I like to have stuff here that’s a treat. … It’s a treat for coming all the way out here. It’s a reward.”

Both the wines and the beers have made their way into the St. Louis market. “People have a nice time out there in Ste. Genevieve,” said Tom Nicholson, store manager at The Wine Merchant in Clayton. “Then they come in looking for the wine.”

So for Saballa, it’s not that much of a stretch to live in both the wine and beer worlds. As he put it, “I make wines through the eyes of a brewer.”