Time in a bottle
Jan./Feb. 2008 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Ansley Coale describes the chain of events that brought about Germain-Robin, a distiller that just may make the finest brandy on the planet.
Mendocino brandy maker stays true to old world techniques
Fate is a funny thing. For Ansley Coale, it stepped in a quarter-century ago, when he picked up a hitchhiking couple along Highway 101 north of San Francisco.
A chance meeting in 1981 between Hubert Germain-Robin, left, and Ansley Coale set into motion a chain of events that brought about Germain-Robin, a distiller that makes some of the finest brandy in the world.
What started as a simple act of kindness set into motion a chain of events that brought about Germain-Robin, a distiller that just may make the finest brandy on the planet.
One summer day in 1981, Coale, a retired professor of ancient history from the University of California, Berkeley, picked up Hubert Germain-Robin and his girlfriend, Carole. Germain-Robin, a Frenchman whose family had been producing cognac since 1782, was touring America, seeking inspiration after a large corporation had just bought out their distillery.
Coale and Germain-Robin struck a friendship and charted their course to make premium brandy, thus preserving a disappearing part of Old World history.
They brought a 1937 handmade copper still from an abandoned distillery in France to a nondescript brown barn on Coale's sprawling sheep ranch near Ukiah. They put up buildings, laid the flooring and built barrel racks to support their fledgling project.
"The real act of creation was not bringing the old still or constructing buildings," Coale said. "It was taking grapes that no one has ever distilled before and learning how to make them into brandy. There was absolutely no one you could talk to about this, because it hadn't been done before."
To ensure an unparalleled product, Coale and Germain-Robin made a commitment to work with wine solely from premium grape varieties. The partners found a perfect selection of grapes right in their backyard. The Anderson Valley has an ideal climate for producing superior-quality grapes, including pinot noir, which makes exquisite brandy.
"The pinot noir grape is a little bit like a racehorse," said Arnaud Weyrich, winemaker for Roederer Estate, a sparkling wine producer that has sold wine to Germain-Robin for more than a decade. "It's very hard to train, but once you know how to do it, you can achieve greatness."
Hubert Germain-Robin, a Frenchman whose family had been producing cognac since 1782, began the company with partner Ansley Coale by bringing a 1937 handmade copper still from an abandoned distillery in France to a barn on Coale's sheep ranch near Ukiah.
Although Germain-Robin makes exceptional spirits in the traditional European method, it's referred to as brandy and not cognac, because the latter can carry that name only if it is made in Cognac, France, and its six surrounding viticulture areas.
So if you make a world-class beverage in relative obscurity, will people buy it? Not necessarily.
It took the small firm a decade of marketing to put Germain-Robin brandy on the map, although it has had a successful journey ever since.
Germain-Robin brandy has generated widespread accolades--including "The Best in the World" by the Dallas Morning News and "Best on the Planet" by Spirit and Cocktail magazine--and has been served at the White House for nearly 20 years.
"We got a call from the White House saying, 'Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is coming, and we understand you have a brandy that's as good as cognac. Can you make some up and send it to us?'" Coale said. "We blended a barrel for five cases and put this label on it that says 'The White House.' And apparently, President Reagan would wave the drink around and say, 'I was governor of this state,' and he would make French President François Mitterand drink it."
Today, their old still has given way to a bigger, though no less authentic, still operating nearby in Redwood Valley. They produce about 3,000 cases of brandy a year, with annual sales totaling some $1.2 million. As with other high-quality spirits, winter is a prime sales time, accounting for about 70 percent of yearly sales.
Germain-Robin is the only distiller in the world where this quality of brandy is made in the traditional style that dates back centuries. It starts when wine is gently heated until the alcohol begins to rise as steam. The vapors rise through the pipes and slowly pass through the still, condensing into liquid as it cools and forms what will eventually become brandy. Everything is meticulously checked along the way, before the beverage is put into barrels to age, proving great things come to those who wait. However, because no one else in the world is handcrafting brandy like this, there will always be mysteries along the way.
One uncertain factor is the aging process, as Germain-Robin's best brandy may be aged and not enjoyed until decades down the road, potentially outliving their founding fathers.
"I tell people this brandy here is going to be here when I'm dead, and I have no idea what it's going to be like then," Coale said.
Germain-Robin brandy, made from superior-quality grapes from the Anderson Valley, has generated widespread accolades and has been served at the White House for nearly 20 years. Co-founder Ansley Coale, left, and distiller Joe Corley sample the meticulously handcrafted beverage.
"We built something special here," Germain-Robin said. "We have an inventory of about 50,000 cases, and there are some treasures here."
Those who know good brandy know about this product from rural Mendocino County. Germain-Robin is available at finer spirits retailers nationwide and sells for $40 to $350 per bottle, depending on quality and age.
"It's this elegant, complex, long-lasting, very flavorful thing that has this sort of contemplative aspect to it," Coale said. "When you have a sip of brandy, it slows things down."
Germain-Robin has been a popular choice at the Albion River Inn restaurant along the Mendocino County coast, which Wine Spectator magazine describes as "the best combination of wine, food and view on California's North Coast."
This is where visitors delight in five-star dining from the creative mind of Executive Chef Stephen Smith, who has been serving gourmet dishes there since 1993. Diners can indulge in such treats as an heirloom tomato stuffed with fresh Dungeness crab, grilled filet mignon with a Yukon Gold potato fennel gratin or pan-seared sea scallops, served with a spicy chili sauce, fresh mango-red onion relish, creamy polenta and a tossed arugula-cherry tomato salad.
"To complement the dining experience, you want something like Germain-Robin to finalize the dinner itself," said inn co-owner Flurry Healy. "It's a wonderful experience, and we've had a relationship with them for over 17 years now. It's been very successful for our customers and us. I personally enjoy the complexity of the brandy itself. It's very smooth and it's a wonderful local product that we're proud of in the county of Mendocino."
A growing appreciation of this brandy has not stopped changes from occurring at the top of the company.
While Coale continues at the helm of Germain-Robin, the man whose name is on every label has departed. Hubert Germain-Robin still lives in the area, having married the sweetheart who ventured with him to California half a lifetime ago and raised two sons. Germain-Robin decided to leave the company about a year ago and now serves as a consultant for similar ventures, though his passion to create something unique and wonderful persists.
"I feel very proud about doing that here--lucky and proud at the same time," he said. "It was special and I'm very happy for the development of the industry here, bringing brandy to another level. California is one of the best places to grow grapes in the world, and I'm very happy I had a chance to be part of the process."
Coale continues his quest to get wider interest for this special beverage that went from a chance encounter to a regal success. Rewards came slow and are far from assured, but remain a key motivator for the man in charge.
"The pleasure really comes from creating something that makes people feel good when they drink it," he said. "That's what it's all about."
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at email@example.com.