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Former Chowchilla prison guard becomes award-winning winemaker

After a quarter of a century of guarding prisoners in California, one resident of Madera County hung up his uniform for the last time to pursue a new passion — making wine.

Two years later, his prison-themed brand of wine continues to grow and continues to win awards. Located at the ApCal Winery on 3274 Avenue 7, Greg Bergersen co-founded his label, Solitary Cellars, with friend and fellow prison guard Lt. Rick Quesada. Still a guard at Valley State Prison, Quesada is an equal partner with Bergersen in the label.

Solitary Cellars capitalizes on Bergersen’s and Quesada’s careers in corrections, setting up a prison theme to their label. Their tasting room, for example, is modeled after a jail cell, complete with iron bars, makeshift knives and hollowed-out Bibles for smuggling phones.

Solitary Cellars Wine Co. founder Bergersen started his career in corrections in 1989. Fresh out of the academy, he was hired on as a guard in California State Prison, Corcoran, where he guarded such inmates as cult leader and convicted killer Charles Manson.

“That was probably one of the most violent prisons in the whole country,” Bergersen said of Corcoran. “So I cut my teeth on a pretty high level and really aggressive prison.”

To kill stress in law enforcement, Bergersen began making wine at home, joining a winemaking club.

“I used to make wine at home, kind of as a hobby,” said Bergerson. “And so that’s where my love of winemaking comes from.”

Those first, experimental wines that Bergersen had made went under the name of Bergindi Cellars — a combination of his nickname, “Bergie,” and Syndi, the name of his wife.

After honing his skill as a winemaker, Bergersen was offered his own brand. He started in 2013, going through the process of licensing, fees, and permits, until he was ready for market, now under the name of Solitary Cellars.

It was at this point, after working in four different prisons throughout his career, Bergersen retired in 2014. By then, he was at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, where he was the public information officer.

“After 25 years, I completed my career in corrections, and decided to be a businessman,” Bergersen said. “I actually retired early, because the wine business had started to take off.”

Currently, Solitary Cellars offers six different wines, both red and white, for sale. Their grapes are brought in from across the state, coming from Sonoma County, Lodi, the Santa Lucia Highland, Lake County, Santa Barbara County, and the Central Valley.

Their sales continue to grow, and so does their reputation. So far, they’ve won two gold medals with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Competition for their 2013 Shenandoah Valley Barbera Amador, and their Tempranillo and Albarino wines are made using grapes from the Markush Bokisch Vineyards, one of the 20 most admired wine grape growers in North America according to Wines and Vines Magazine.

“When people come in, they’re shocked at the quality of the wines,” Bergersen said to Chatterbox Public Relations. “We attribute that to great growers in great growing regions.”

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