Cherokee winemaker turned hobby into business

Cherokee Nation citizen Darin Winton, 55, makes award-winning wine in Livermore, Calif. His company is called Cellar 13 Winery.

LIVERMORE, Calif. – Over the past five years, a Cherokee Nation citizen from California has turned a winemaking hobby into a successful and award-winning venture.

Winemaker Darin Winton, 55, is the owner of Cellar 13 Winery based in the city of Livermore, which lies an hour east of San Francisco.

“This is not a business that you go into to make money,” he said. “It’s kind of an eight to 10 year endeavor to turn the corner. The way I look at it is I can maybe make money at it, but what I keep on doing is reinvesting and making more and more wine. I’m trying to grow it.”

Born and raised in California, Winton’s passion for wine dates back only 15 years, he said.

“It’s one of those crazy things that I don’t want to say I fell into, but I fell in love with something and started pursuing it,” he said. “At the time I didn’t drink wine at all. I was with somebody who was having a dinner party, and I tried a fairly decent wine and realized, you know, this wine stuff is pretty good. Then I started pursuing it a little more and more.”

Winton retired in 2017 from a career in the wastewater and water department fields.

“With a wastewater and water background, I understand chemistry and biology, which rolled into the winemaking side,” he said. “The similarities are pretty amazing.”

Late in his career, he dabbled in the wine arena, volunteering at harvest time and even assisting and learning at 3 Steves Winery in Livermore.

“I just wanted to get into a little more detail with somebody that was already doing it instead of reading it in a book,” Winton said.

Eventually, Winton crafted two barrels of wine he “thought were for my own personal consumption.”

“I didn’t realize this was going to turn into a big career change,” he added.

Following retirement at age 50, Winton immediately immersed himself in the winemaking craft. Ultimately he created his own label called Cellar 13 Winery.

“In 2017, I made kind of my first official vintages that I was going to go public with,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to win a pretty large award for the very first chardonnay I made. It was a competition that takes care of all of North America from Canada down to Mexico.”

After the first win, “it just kind of snowballed,” he said.

“It went from a hobby I thought I was just going to play around with to kind of blossoming,” Winton said. “So we’re just slowly building our clientele and our wine.”

Another of Winton’s award-winning wines, a 2017 vintage called Tsogadu, or 13, is a nod to his Cherokee heritage.

“The name of my brand is Cellar 13 Winery and 13 has been my lucky number growing up as a kid,” he said.

Artwork by his uncle, Cherokee artist John Balloue, is featured on the Cellar 13 Tsogadu label.

Winton, who crafts his wine at Cuda Ridge Wines in Livermore, sells online at cellar13winery.com and wholesale at restaurants and bars. Fruits used in his wines are Livermore-based.

“What makes it unique in winemaking in California versus Europe is in Europe you have to own the crop in which you make wine from,” he said. “In California, you can go out and buy all the fruit you want. Currently, I’m at about 500 cases for each vintage I’m doing right now.”

His goal is around 2,000 cases a year.

“The brains” behind “keeping that all going,” Winton said, is his fiancée, Gail Henderson, a real estate broker.

“It’s just myself and her doing everything,” he said. “But we would get groups of people together, family and friends, to sit down and get everything done in a day or whatever.”