The palate-pleasing marriage of meat and wine is so natural, so obvious and actually so common, it’s astonishing that more companies are not involved in both kinds of production. Yet Vance Sharp III is perhaps the singular exception.
He owns and manages both Sonoma Sausage Co. and Sharp Cellars in California. "If you talk to me about sausage, you’re going to hear about wine, and if you talk to me about wine, you’re going to hear about sausage," he told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Wine is fun and sausage is fun."
Sharp brings a fascinating background to both the meat and wine industries. A native of Baltimore, Md., he was stationed in Germany following enlistment in the Air Force. While overseas he graduated from the University of Maryland’s exchange campus, became fluent in German, and opened a car dealership to sell American-made and European autos to U.S. soldiers and diplomats billeted to Germany. He wound up staying in Europe 20 years, marrying and traveling the continent with his wife to learn about history, art, food and wine. Back in the states, he bought property in Sonoma County, Calif., and broke ground for his first vineyard in 1998, becoming one of the first of a still very few African-American wine growers. (With Mac Macdonald of Vision Cellars, Sharp co-founded the Association of African-American Vintners.) Then in 2002, he bought a controlling interest in Sonoma Sausage, a once-famed small sausage processor that had fallen on difficult times but was trying to make a go of it again.
"It was only supposed to be an investment. I’ve got to tell you, I did not know the meat business was so tough!" he laughs. "I came out of the car business, remember. There’s no time limit on a car – if you don’t sell it today, you wash it and hope to sell it tomorrow. Now I’m dealing with shelf-life, with the quality of raw materials, and then it’s so hard to get shelf-space at retail."
The Sonoma Sausage line-up has been trimmed down somewhat from what the company offered in its 1980s heyday, now featuring only cooked product: Italian, Polish, kielbasa, chorizo, andouille, "Sonoma Spicy" frankfurters, "Santa Fe Style" chicken sausage, and, among others, a trademarked Hawaiian-Portuguese sausage that Sharp matches, amazingly, with dark chocolate.
"That combination was actually discovered by a caterer. I’d love to claim it for myself but I can’t," said the vintner-wurstmacher. "He served it at an event and said he had people lined up all day. He used milk chocolate but I like dark chocolate, which I set up like a fondue. I butterfly the sausage and grill it, then cut it into small pieces for dipping and serve it with my zinfandel. Boy oh boy, that’s a treat you’d never believe."
He’s partial to big, rich wines, and the Sharp Cellars zinfandels, which come from a vineyard named for Sharp’s granddaughter Hailey, are good examples of the style: they’re dense with aromas of coffee, tea and blackberry, and they taste of berries, oak, chocolate and even citrus fruit. He also makes cabernet sauvignon and merlot from grapes from a vineyard owned by the actor Danny Glover, pinot noir and a white wine, pinot gris. The Sharp Cellars 2003 pinot blanc was served at a White House dinner in 2005.
"People have a fear of wine, but people need to know, it’s not so tough" to understand, he said, "not when it’s made well. It’s like sausage in that way."
Under Sharp, Sonoma Sausage has become the inheritor of a wine-country sausage legacy. His company was founded in 1980 by German-trained wurstmacher Klaus Benz, then changed hands before closing in 1994. But the name was still available and the company was resurrected under new ownership. After Sharp’s investment and after a small retail location in the town of Sonoma proved to be more trouble than it was worth, Sharp moved the company into a processing plant in Napa, Calif., that had been occupied by Gerhardt’s Napa Valley Sausage, the inventor of chicken-apple breakfast sausage. Gerhardt had moved into a much larger facility across the street, but eventually that plant, too, became available when Napa Valley Sausage was sold to a Midwestern company. Sharp moved his winemaking activities into the bigger building.
Like his wines, he likes his sausage to "bring the thunder," to quote one of Sharp’s many fans, the energetic and loquacious Internet wine entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuck of Wine Library TV fame. "If sausage is made properly with the right ingredients and spices, it’ll just burst with flavor," Sharp commented as he waited for an assistant to bring him a luncheon platter of grilled links. "It’s nice to love the product you have. We only want to give the best."