Don Worthington

New winery in York Co. inspired by contented cat

By all accounts, Joey is a contented cat.

He is not saddled with a distinguished pedigree. He is a simple, orange barn cat from a long line of barn cats.

He can be found relaxing on the main floor of his owners’ home on Fayrene Road in rural York County, waiting for someone to open the front door, giving him a chance to bolt outside.

Until recently Joey had access to the basement, but his owners walled that off.

But don’t fret, Joey’s likeness is found throughout the basement. It’s painted on the walls, etched into glasses and printed on labels.

And if Joey hears the cry of “float the cat,” or “drown the cat,” he need not worry. Those are cries of contented customers at the Cat’s Paw Winery, York County’s first winery.

Joey’s likeness is the logo for the business. Customers can even drink a bottle of “Joey’s Reserve Merlot,” a wine with black cherry and currant berry aromas and a “kiss of oak flavor.”

Cat’s Paw Winery is the creation of Joey’s owner John Burks.

Burks describes himself as a corporate raider who took floundering companies, made them profitable and then sold them. His work took him all over the world, allowing him to sample the local cuisine and wines.

Whether it was in the wine-rich cultures of France or Italy, or in the Far East, Burks had the same experience. The wine would create a dry sensation in his throat and after two glasses he had a terrible headache.

A little research taught Burks that his problem came from tannins.

Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds and stems. Whether a wine has strong or weak tannins depends on how long the juice sits with the skins, seeds and stems after it has been pressed.

Burks made it his mission to make a wine that is near tannin-free, one that didn’t have a harsh aftertaste.

After years of experimenting, Burks believes he has found the right combination of juice, yeast and flavoring agents. Retired from the corporate world – he sold his last company in December – Burks set out to open his own winery. As the paperwork for the company’s sale was being drawn up, Burks filed for the permits for his winery.

As a corporate seller, Burks was well versed in all the needed paperwork and the necessity of crossing all the t’s, dotting the all the i’s.

Still, getting federal and state permits was a long and frustrating process, he said.

The federal permit asked a series of questions to determine the environmental impact of the winery, especially on the water and air. The state permit largely mirrored the federal one but included several visits from State Law Enforcement Division agents. It took Burks six months to get the permits.

With permits in hand – and an inventory of 10 varieties of wine – Burks opened his basement winery on Feb. 4.

Burks’ wines are hand-crafted. He gets juices from suppliers in North Carolina and South Carolina. The wines get some of their flavor from oak chips or oak sawdust. The water comes from a well sunk deep into York County bedrock. There are no preservatives. Burks’ wines are meant to be purchased and consumed. They have a limited shelf life.

The basics of making wine are simple. Mix the juice and flavoring agents with yeast and “let the yeast eat the sugar,” Burks said. The fermentation process can take between seven and 10 days.

“You have to watch the temperature closely,” Burks said. “If it is too cold the wine won’t ferment and if it’s too hot the yeast dies.” Burks tries to keep his basement between 73 and 74 degrees when he is fermenting wine.

After that the wine rests in five-gallon glass “carboys” between 20 and 25 days.

When the wine is “right” – the only way you know that is by tasting it, Burks said – it is bottled, one bottle a time. The Cat’s Paw label is then applied, and bottles are stored in a rack. Bottles he has paid the tax on are “in bond” and available for sale or tasting.

Since January, Burks has bottled more than 100 gallons of wine.

Burks’ interest in wine is not limited to production. He also wants to change the way people sample and buy wine.

His first piece of advice is to “drink what you want with what you want,” in an effort to silence the debate about whether white or red wines go with only certain types of food.

His second piece of advice is to take your time. Tasting or drinking a bottle of wine is a social experience. Since he has been open he has had several groups of people come and sample a bottle or two over four hours of conversation, which is OK with him.

“We don’t want to get in a hurry,” he said.

And if you don’t know what you like, come and taste the offerings. For $7 you can sample five different varieties: a Chardonnay reserve, a “purr-fect” Chilean Merlot, a black raspberry Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a black cherry Pinot Noir.

The tasting includes a glass etched with Joey’s likeness.

And if you find a wine you like, you can “float the cat” or “drown the cat.” The expression describes the volume of the poor.

“Float the cat” is about 6 ounces of wine that comes to the base of the logo for $5.

“Drown the cat” is about 9 ounces of wine that comes to Joey’s ears for $9.

Bon cat-petit.

Want to know more?

For information on Cat’s Paw Winnery go to The winery is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. The winery’s address is 1567 Fayrene Road. Turn at the mailbox and proceed down a gravel path.