Arthur Hartunian, the owner of Napa Valley Distillery, producers of fruit-based vodkas and gin, barrel-aged cocktails, and small-batch fruit brandies, virtually all using Napa Valley wines, used hand sanitizer long before COVID-19 hit.

He’s not a germaphobe, he just likes to stay clean. When the shutdown hit, he couldn’t get it anywhere, and neither could anybody else.

Then it occurred to him, “I have all the ingredients you need for this — alcohol, glycerin, and hydrogen peroxide. I can make my own hand sanitizer.”

Thus he began making “Napa Strong,” and gave it away.

“Because it’s a grape-based product, it has the natural oils of the fruit and doesn’t dry out your skin like other hand sanitizers do.”

People loved it. Hartunian started getting calls from people who wanted to buy it.

“It was in every branch of Bank of America in the State,” he said.

A vice president of B of A California called Hartunian, and told him, “You saved us.”

Napa Strong was also in offices of the USDA, Tesla, and the U.S. Post Office.

“We developed a cult following,” said Hartunian. It also saved his business and allowed him to keep his staff on board. Napa Valley Distillery has some left in stock, but when it’s gone, it’s gone. “Now we are focused on our real business.”

His “real business” is producing spirits — 40 different labels — and begins with vodka.

“Vodka was probably born in either Poland or Russia,” said Hartunian. “It’s normally made using either potatoes or wheat, and the result is a flavorless, odorless, characterless vodka.”

Most vodka brands get their flavor from added ingredients.

“If vodka has less than 2% additives, they don’t have to be listed on the label. One of the best-selling vodkas in the country gets its flavor from lavender. That’s not what I want.”

Instead, Hartunian started using Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, quality wine that could otherwise be bottled and sold.

“We don’t add any flavoring. The essence of the grapes is all we need. Plus, grapes have more oil than wheat or potatoes, so the vodka has a nice mouth feature.”

What Hartunian produces are real spirits. “Vodka has to be 35 to 100 proof, with the vast majority being 80 proof. That’s what ours are.”

Napa Valley Distillery first opened in the Oxbow Public Market, where they still do sales and tastings, in 2013.

Because of complicated ABC laws, they can only offer their fruit-based spirits and brandies for tastings there.

At their location at 2485 Stockton St., which opened in 2016, guests can taste from among all 40 labels. “We also have tours, so you can see how it’s made.”

The 30 to 40-minute tour and tasting includes a one-quarter ounce taste of six spirits in their Grand Tasting Salon.

“It’s a full taste, touch, and smell experience, the three senses a distiller uses and the three senses we all use when we eat or drink.”

After the tour, guests can go to the Hollywood room which “has a Hollywood/Tiki bar vibe.”

Guests can purchase from among thirty cocktails on the menu, everything from traditional to those created by Hartunian and his staff. They can also enjoy flatbread pizzas, hot dogs and salsa.

Hartunian’s foray into spirits began years ago at an every-Thursday-night poker game he enjoyed with friends in the Italian restaurant one of them owned.

It was as much about eating good food, drinking wine, and enjoying each others’ company as it was about playing cards.

One night, the restaurateur treated them to a glass of Limoncello he really liked. Hartunian tasted it, and said, “I can do better than this.”

Of course, the guys bet him he couldn’t. With the gauntlet thrown down, Hartunian went home to his kitchen and began toying with recipes. He used grape spirits and Meyers lemons, instead of the traditional Sorrento lemons.

After making numerous blends, he was ready to try it out on his buddies.

They loved it.

The restaurant owner actually treated his customers to tastes of it, and it became a standard item for the Thursday poker games. or Hartunian, it was great fun, but the restaurant owner took it more seriously. “You should bottle this,” he said. “It’s that good.”

Hartunian grew up in the Central Valley. A dedicated family man, he’s always done whatever it took to put food on the table and take care of his family.

That’s included stints as an actor, limo driver, and a craps dealer in Las Vega. When his wife Lulu and his three children began to arrive, he knew he needed a solid career, and started selling life insurance door-to-door.

Hartunian puts all his energy in everything he does, and his life insurance business grew into a successful agency. Life was good for the Hartunians.

Unfortunately, Hartunian began to like selling insurance less and less. “It felt great to help people, but I was just selling paper. Still, it was a good living for my family, and if things hadn’t changed, I’d probably still be doing it.”

What changed was the economy, which tanked in 2008. The company Hartunian represented, AIG, went down hard with it.

Hartunian lost everything. His immediate response was how to put his agency back together, but he couldn’t shake the words of his friend, the restaurant owner, about his homemade spirits. “You should bottle this.”

So, faced with financial ruin, Hartunian packed up his family and moved to the Napa Valley.

“Talk about a gamble, that was the biggest,” he said. In 2009, he took out the appropriate ABC licenses and began bottling vodka. The fruit-based vodka business was new, and Hartunian was on his own, without mentors.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said, laughing. He banded with other like-minded spirits enthusiasts and became president of the 31 member California Artisanal Distillers Guild.

The response to his vodka and the other spirits he distills has been amazing.

In 2019, Napa Valley Spirits was available in Costco and Safeways, but COVID killed all that. Business was down 90%.

“Like a lot of businesses, PPP loans saved us. We’ll focus on our two retail outlets in 2021 and go from there.”

These days, business is definitely growing, a great deal of it from word-of-mouth. “It a truly unique experience and locals love it.”

Visit Napa Valley Distillery at their Oxbow Public Market location anytime. To set up a tour at the Stockton Street location, visit napadistillery.com, call 707-265-6272 or just stop in. 

You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or jhuffman@napanews.com