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Brandy vision goes real time.

Cognac sales in the U.S. are on the upswing and from high atop a mountain in Mendocino County, Calif., in a warehouse bulging with aging brandy barrels, that surely makes Hubert Germain-Robin smile. Germain-Robin runs the now famous distillery of the same name on a former sheep ranch: a modest facility, now world famous, that must be reached by a one-lane dirt road that snakes up a mountainside best navigated by an army assault vehicle.

Despite its humble roots, the Germain-Robin Distillery has been producing critically-acclaimed brandies for just over a decade. Germain-Robin has proven what many thought impossible--that world-class brandy can be made in the U.S. as a force to be reckoned with, even to the most prestigious cognac distilleries in France.

Based in Ukiah, Calif., in the heart of Mendocino wine country, Germain-Robin has combined traditional distillation techniques with quality Mendocino grapes to produce brandy that is characterized by a rich, structured elegance due in large part to the Pinot noir and other varietals from which it is made.

It Began With A Dream

Hubert came to the states in the late 1970s, sometime after his family sold their two-century old cognac business to brandy giant Martell. After several years of working for the new entity, Hubert decided he was not meant for a corporate environment. He had something else in mind: to carry on the tradition of distilling and cellaring "alambic" brandies with intensive, traditional distillation techniques that were rapidly fading in the corporate brandy industry.

And he yearned for flexibility to experiment with grape varieties outside the rigid codification of his native Cognac.

Hubert hit the road in 1981, armed with vision, a backpack, the company of his wife, and no financial backing. His quest took him through Canada, South America, and even South Africa and Australia.

But the Germain-Robin story really began by accident, the result of a chance encounter between Hubert and his current partner Ansely Coale, a college professor with a passion for cognac, on a deserted highway outside of Eureka, Calif. in 1981. In no time Hubert and Coale crafted a blueprint to launch a distillery on Coale's Mendocino ranch. In 1982, Germain-Robin returned from France with an antique alambic cognac still, setting up shop in relative isolation.

Since then, "boutique" brandies from California (and elsewhere) distilled from high-quality wines have become hot items. Germain-Robin brandy now turns up at international embassies, the White House, and the world's finest restaurants, earning Hubert a reputation as a pioneer who has proved that American brandy can hold its own against the finest cognacs of the old world.

I met with Germain-Robin at his Mendocino distillery and got a glimpse of a passionate winemaker with an eye on the future.

Q: Tell me about your background--when did you begin making brandy?

My family has been making cognac for over two centuries. Then, Seagram bought the family business in the early '80s. But I quickly learned I wasn't interested in working for a big corporation.

Q: Why did you come to the U.S. with the express purpose of making brandy?

I came to California because the climate is famous and because you have the freedom here to use any type of grape. It's exciting because you can't do that in Cognac. I knew that what was true in Cognac was not true everywhere. People say for cognac the grapes require low alcohol, but that's not a universal truth. Here in the U.S. you can use Semilion Pinot noir and Muscat with good results.

Q: Did you have financial backing before you came over?

Some, but it was just a dream, really. After we decided to go ahead, my partner approached his family and friends, and we found some interested financial backers on Wall Street. We had financial input from a lot of people. But we did not have a lot of money in the early days. The first five years were definitely hard years.

Q: Why did you choose to make brandy on top of a mountain in Mendocino?

I saw that Mendocino grapes were perfect for brandy. Due to our northern location the grapes had good balance and acidity. They were also cheaper. The community is nice, too. We also didn't want the competition of Napa.

Q: You had a hunch twenty years ago that you could experiment with cognac. Why do you think so few people have caught on to that idea?

They realize it takes a lot of time and money. I spoke with a lot of people in the beginning about my plans to begin a distillery. Everybody thought it was a good idea, but the problem is that you have to wait several years before you turn a profit. We began our operation in 1982, but our first real release was in 1988. In those years we had to buy grapes and equipment, all of which is very expensive and challenging when you have zero cash flow. I wasn't getting paid in the beginning and went back to Cognac a few times a year to do distillation to support myself.

Q: What do you say to purists that hold that the best brandy can only come from France?

Of course, there will always be people who believe that France is the only place to make great brandy. But many people, especially the younger generation, are more open-minded. I brought samples of our product to some guys from Courvosier, and they were amazed by the amount of fruit, the acidity, and the nose. They realized that my brandies were very different than those from Cognac. Where cognac is spicier and stronger, we focus on the fruit. I don't say that my brandy is better than cognac, just different. The terroir is very different here, including the weather and type of grapes available. It's a different product. I feel there is room for both to coexist and still maintain the same high standards of quality. I use the best grapes, the best Limousin oak barrels. I let my product speak for itself.

Q: What is the market for your brandy internationally?

Mostly in the U.S., where we are in 45 states, and American consulates. We export a small quantity to Northern European countries, including Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden. We also export to a handful of international embassies. And some in Japan.

Q: Is it easy for you to get the kind of fruit you need?

All of the grapes come from Mendocino. Our least expensive brandy begins at about $30 and up to $350 at the high end. Our XO is becoming the flagship of the company, but our single barrel Pinot noir brandies are becoming very popular. They are the essence of Pinot noir. We are experimenting with other single-variety brandies. When we have an exceptional barrel, I put it on the market after 10 or more years of aging.

Q: In the next ten years, what do you see with the American brandy scene?

The difficulty is always the money situation. And training is also a factor, there are thousands of winemakers in the states but very few brandy makers. It would be nice to have some competition and to have more colleagues to talk to. It's a lonely market in the states, that's why I go back to Cognac every couple of years to see my family, and to meet with other brandy distillers.

Q: Are you open to just about anything, as long as it produces a good brandy?

Yes. I am very excited, for example, about our up and coming Viognier brandies which, if you like that varietal, are fantastic. We are experimenting with apples, and there are some good ones here in the Anderson Valley.

Q: Any visions for the future?

More single barrel cognacs, from five or so varietals. I might try some whiskey, which would be interesting. Definitely more experimentation. I'd like to make a blend from grand champagne and Pinot noir. I'd love to make a French-American blend--the old world meets the new world.

(Steven Van Yoder is based in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Wines & Vines.)
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Title Annotation:German-Robin Distillery produces acclaimed brandy
Author:Yoder, Steven Van
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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