UKIAH, Calif. — A few miles up a winding dirt road, the rugged coastal hills that split Mendocino County from north to south suddenly plateau at a grassy expanse known as Eagle Rock Ranch.
Wire-and-post fencing encloses a collection of plain wooden structures--among them a barn, an adjacent shed and a two-story residence. Tending a flock of sheep, grazing in the distance, seems to entail the day's only work.
Yet, inside a box-like building, a once-abandoned still is working overtime to produce a high-powered, clear alcohol from fermented grape juice.
Despite the mystery and romance of a hidden hillside location, this is not modern-day moonshine.
Instead, the bulbous copper kettle, sweating above a gas fire, is at the core of a fledgling effort that portends California's best and most sophisticated brandy venture.
And what, at first, looked to be a barn is actually an old cellar, only a portion of which is above ground. Inside, several hundred oak casks, filled with the carefully made golden liquor, are stacked floor to ceiling.
The principals in the 6-year-old Alambic Inc., claim their product, released for the first time earlier this year, rivals the better French Cognacs on the market.
Idle boasts? Not quite.
The distiller and cellar master is Hubert Germain-Robin, a Frenchman whose family has been in the Cognac business for two centuries. His partner, Ansley J. Coale Jr., is a former UC Berkeley professor with a doctorate in Greek and Roman history. The product these two fellows are making is as legitimate and serious as they.
In fact, this smooth, elegant drink, labeled Germain-Robin, marks the next step in the California wine industry's evolution: the debut of super-premium alambic brandies. The activity here follows, by 19 months, Remy Martin's first brandy release from its Napa Valley facility. And even one of the state's giant producers, Christian Brothers, is about to reintroduce an XO, or special reserve, a high-end counterpart to its more popular, regular brand.
The debut comes at a time when sales of domestic brandies are increasing--or at least maintaining--their share of the market. Brandy's current fortunes are considered significant, especially since most of the dark-colored spirits--whiskey, bourbon, Scotch--are suffering declines, according to industry analysts and trade groups alike.
Though dwarfed in size by other California distillers, Alambic Inc. can afford the extra care and special blending that would be lost in most other companies.
"I would compare this brandy with anybody's Cognac," said Germain-Robin. "I'm not embarrassed even to compare it with the finest made in France."
Coale, 44, and Germain-Robin, 37, are forbidden by federal law from using the French appellation Cognac on their bottles. The omission, though, does not slight the quality apparent in the alambic brandy made at this remote ranch.
The term alambic indicates that the spirit originates in the same type of pot-bellied copper stills as those found in the Cognac region of Southwestern France. The one puffing away here was, in fact, last operational in the French village of Montboyer until the early 1950s when it was abandoned because of its small size.
Shipped to California, reassembled and laminated in lavender paint in 1982, the old equipment is working just fine. Coale estimates that his company is producing about 4,000 cases a year--a virtual afterthought in the combined domestic brandy and imported Cognac trade. But his bottles are selling briskly at $28 each, three or more times what a similar size, popular California brandy would bring at retail.
The seeds for this mountaintop distillery were planted in 1973, when Coale bought the 2,000-acre ranch after he and his wife became disenchanted with academic life in Berkeley. They were looking for something more rural than what the San Francisco Bay Area had to offer. After relocating to the hills above Ukiah on a full-time basis, Coale had a chance encounter.
Returning from a trip to Eureka, he picked up a hitchhiker who happened to be Germain-Robin, on vacation from France.
Discussion eventually turned to Cognac, in particular Jules Robin & Co., Germain-Robin's family operation. And then, the rest came rather quickly.
"When I was touring around the United States, I had in the back of my mind the idea to start a Cognac-style distillery here," said Germain-Robin. "I realized that in Mendocino County people were trying to create a culinary tradition that, in addition to good food, included good sparkling and still wines. So, I wanted to bring our methods and tradition over here in order to make the best possible brandy in the United States.
"We're lucky. It's turned out better than we had any reason to expect . . . and it looks like we can even make some money," Germain-Robin said.
As for Coale, he was unsettled careerwise at the time, but became enchanted with the idea of distilling wine into something more robust.