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Brandy's Best

American Brandy Distilled in the Traditional Methods of Cognac Is Starting To Come of Age
Jean T. Barrett
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

As the door closes behind you, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the comparative darkness after the brilliant sunshine outside. Immediately, your nostrils prickle at the scent that hangs over the cavernous room, a blend of wood, earth and spice aromas imbued with pungent, palpable alcohol. Stretching off into the dusky distance are endless rows of oaken barrels, stacked three high. The haunting sounds of Gregorian chant resonate from speakers high above your head and waft off into space. Otherwise, the barrel room at Carneros Alambic Distillery in the southern Napa Valley is as still as a cathedral at dawn.

After the hubbub of winemaking and the hellfire of distillation, this is how first-rate Cognac-style brandy is produced: by waiting. For years.

It takes patience to produce good alambic brandy--"alambic" referring to the uniquely configured pot still used in the production of French Cognac. For the tiny handful of distilleries that is crafting this little-known style of brandy in the United States, the long wait is starting to pay off in complex, aromatic bottlings.

Carneros Alambic, owned by Rémy-Cointreau SA of France, is producing a line of well-made alambic brandies ranging from Special Reserve at $29 to a deluxe XO-level brandy called QE (for "Quality Extraordinaire"), which sells for $92. QE, a mellow, rich and nutty spirit, is blended from brandies from 1982 and 1983, the operation's first two years of distilling.

Another highly regarded producer of alambic brandies, Germain-Robin, Inc., of Ukiah, California, has also released a top-of-the-line brandy that edges over the $100-per-bottle mark. Germain-Robin's XO, made by distiller Hubert Germain-Robin, contains brandies averaging 10 to 12 years in age and retails for about $105. Hubert Germain-Robin's partner, Ansley Coale, says the XO is "what we set out to do" when they established their distilling operation on Coale's sheep ranch near Ukiah in 1982.

Jepson Vineyards in Mendocino County, which produces small amounts of alambic brandy from the grapes of 40-year-old French Colombard vines across Highway 101 from its winery, will release a reserve bottling within a couple of years, according to winemaker and distiller Kurt Lorenzi. The Jepson reserve will include its oldest brandies, dating back to 1982, when the winery was named Estate William Baccala and when Miles Karakasevic, who now has his own distillery called Domaine Charbay, was the distiller.

Hundred-dollar brandies may seem pretty ambitious for Germain-Robin and Carneros Alambic, two operations that didn't exist 15 years ago. After all, the most venerable of French Cognac firms have been around for almost three centuries, and Cognac itself, the model for American alambic brandy, is a creation of age. Cognac begins life as a thin, neutral white wine. After distillation, it is only prolonged aging in Limousin and Tronçais oak casks that gives the best Cognac its dazzling complexity.

But the California producers have impressive pedigrees. Carneros Alambic was founded as a joint venture between Rémy-Martin Cognac and Napa Valley sparkling wine producer Schramsberg Vineyards. (Schramsberg exited the partnership in 1986, and the French firm is now the sole owner.) And Rémy did not stint on the investment in its Carneros outpost, which operates eight 25-hectoliter alambic stills. In contrast, Germain-Robin and Jepson Vineyards have one 13-hectoliter still, and one 25-hectoliter still, respectively.

Germain-Robin is also a French-American partnership, albeit on a more modest scale. Frenchman Hubert Germain-Robin, who comes from the family that produced Jules Robin Cognac, met Ansley Coale, then a classics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981. Germain-Robin was hitchhiking in Weott in Northern California's Humboldt County; Coale says he picked him up because he knew the area was so remote that the poor guy never would have gotten a lift. The two began talking about making a Cognac-style brandy at Coale's ranch. Within a year, Hubert Germain-Robin had found an antique Cognac still in France and arranged to have it shipped to Ukiah, and in 1983 he made his first barrels of distillate.

That these California producers have no stocks of decades-old brandies, such as those in the chais (barrel warehouses) of venerable Cognac firms, doesn't worry them. "We're not trying to produce Cognac," contends Bernard La Borie, director of Carneros Alambic, who despite his French surname was born in New York City. "Cognac is Cognac, and California alambic brandy is California alambic brandy, and yes, there is some sort of relativity, but they are separate and very, very distinct."

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