Ansley Coale's directions were deceptively simple: Take U.S. 101 north from San Francisco two hours, then drive west four miles on Low Gap Road.
What Coale didn't say was that most of those last four miles are over a dirt road made soft and pothole-y by winter rains, a twisting trail--at times barely one lane--through the steeply sloped hills of Mendocino County.
But the drive to Coale's brandy distillery is beautiful, with the noses of new wildflowers barely visible in the soft earth. And when you finally arrive, you are at the distillery that makes arguably the best brandy in the United States and one of the best in the world--Cognac included.
You wouldn't know this from looking around; the distillery is modest. All it holds is a table and a large copper pot still sitting atop a brick oven. The building can be traversed in three giant steps.
This time of year--lambing time--the air is filled with the aroma of sheep. Some 250, including spindly legged newborn lambs, gambol everywhere. But once you're inside the small distillery, the aroma is of finely crafted brandy, with character that would make a top Cognac house proud.
Coale, co-owner of Alambic Inc., was the visionary who began this venture, but it is really the craftsmanship of his partner, Hubert Germain-Robin, that makes the project a success.
The two met in 1981, when Coale spotted a bearded Germain-Robin hitchhiking along U.S. 101 at Weott, near here. Coale, then a professor of ancient history at the University of California, gave a lift to the young Frenchman with the peace-sign tattoo on the back of his right hand, and the two began chatting. Germain-Robin was exhausted from his trip, so Coale invited him to spend three days on his sheep ranch.
During the next few days, Coale learned that Germain-Robin had been a Cognac maker. His father had owned the Cognac house Jules Robin but had sold out to a conglomerate, leaving the son without work. German-Robin was touring California trying to determine if there was a chance to make great brandy here.
Though he knew little of fine spirits, Coale had a 2,000-acre sheep ranch and was in the process of planting grapes. "I was tired of teaching, and I was ready for a change," Coale says. Soon a partnership was formed.
Germain-Robin is the name on their brandy, and today, celebrating 10 harvests and a decade of searching for ways to improve their brandy, the two unlikely souls are finally able to say they are getting a handle on the making of fine spirits.
In the United States, the making of fine brandy is a tiny industry in part because it takes so long--literally decades--to make a brandy equivalent to Cognac.
Two other small distilleries that also make excellent brandies using small copper pot stills are Jepson, just down the road from here, and Carneros Alambic, which was founded by the French house of Remy Martin.
Jepson's fine brandy ($28) and Carneros Alambic's RMS Reserve ($29) are both quite complex. Made in tiny amounts in a time-consuming manner, they are deeper and richer than the column-still-distilled brandies that are widely sold in the United States from such producers as Christian Brothers and E&J; Gallo.
But in my view, the best on the market is Germain-Robin's, whose Reserve Alambic Brandy, Coupe 2, released last year, is priced at $80 a bottle. It has received high praise from spirits experts, and rightfully so. It has the richness and depth of the oldest Cognac, yet offers an intriguing wine-y character I have never tasted in Cognac.
A non-Reserve bottling, Germain-Robin Lot 8, is, to brandy lovers, a bargain at $32. But since great brandy--even at this price--is not a mass-market item, sales are not as high as one might suspect. You can usually find a bottle or two in almost any fine wine store.
Still, demand is greater today than it was in 1985, when Coale first sold brandy. It was clear then that this project was going to take incredible patience and forethought. You simply can't hurry the process of making fine brandy. The best are aged in barrels for decades.
When Coale and Germain-Robin started, most of the brandy made in the United States was made from poor-quality, warm-climate wine, distilled quickly in a large column still. Then the raw, fiery liquid--known as eau-de-vie at this stage--would be aged in barrels of American oak and usually dosed with caramel and sugar to make it smooth.
However, the finest brandies--including all Cognacs--are made from cool-climate wine, distilled in small copper-pot stills. The producer separates and discards part of the first and last fractions of the distillate and ages the rest--the better-flavored part of the run--in expensive French oak barrels for years. It was this technique that Germain-Robin sought to use.
The results are amazing. For example, one major problem I have had with so many Cognacs from the major producers is a soapiness in the aroma. I have never experienced that in a single Germain-Robin release. Germain-Robin says that many Cognacs have that soapy smell because shortcuts are used.
"It is the saponification that happens when you add the water too fast," he says.
The raw brandy, as it comes from the still, is very high in alcohol, near 80%, and must be brought down to 40% before bottling. Germain-Robin slowly adds rainwater (captured off the distillery roof and filtered). But he adds the water very slowly, bringing the alcohol down by fractions of a percentage point at a time. This prevents the brandy from acquiring a soapy smell.
Moreover, Germain-Robin is using fine wine grapes for his brandy, including red wine grapes, giving it a distinct character. Pinot Noir grapes, for instance, play a major role in the spectacular Reserve. In Cognac, France, however, virtually all of the base wine that is distilled into Cognac is from neutral white wine grapes of modest quality.
Today Coale, retired from teaching, still reads ancient history texts (in Latin) while he travels the country selling his elixir. And Germain-Robin continues to improve a product so intricate that only a handful of people in the world understand its subtleties.
"It was really crazy to begin this project," Coale says. "I can't believe we've been doing this for 10 years. And yet it's only in the last two or three years that we really understand what has to be done to make great brandy."