Northern California has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s great wine producers, but its spirits have lacked the same profile. Where a patriotic drinker might ask, is the fine American brandy to compete with the Cognacs and Armagnacs of France?
The answer, it turns out, is on First Street in downtown Napa, where the California Brandy House opened last November.
The new storefront offers the chance to taste premium brandies from two Gallo Spirits labels, Argonaut and Germain-Robin. Both diverge in interesting ways from their French counterparts, which must adhere to strict production rules.
“The whole creation of Cognac is very tightly regulated by French law”, says Argonaut lead blender and distiller Rita Hansen. “American brandy faces none of those constraints. We have more freedom to innovate. For example, we use a combination of alembic pot-distilled brandy and Coffey-distilled brandy. We are able to combine brandies with the best features of both. And we use both red and white grapes, which is not a common practice in Old World brandy making.”
Both of California Brandy House’s labels use a wide range of California-grown grapes, from colobard and Chenin blanc to grenache and pinot noir. “Each grape variety lends unique aromas, flavors, and textures, giving us the ability to craft a truly complex spirit,” Hansen says.
Argonaut, which launched in 2017, blends Gallo brandy stocks that date back as far 1979. They produce three prospector-themed brandies (Speculator, Fat Thumb, and the limited-edition The Claim), plus a higher-proof Saloon Strength version for bars and restaurants.
Germain-Robin, meanwhile, was born in 1982, when a former college professor named Ansley. J. Coale Jr. was driving along Highway 101 and picked up a hitchhiker. Hubert Germain-Robin, who happened to be a 10th-generation Cognac maker.
They started a distillery in Mendocino County. Gallo then bought the label in 2017 and moved production to the Central Valley town of Sanger, where Argonaut Robin continues to consult on his namesake brandies.
The two expressions now available are both made entirely from Mendocino-grown grapes. They are a seven-year-aged brandy, as well as an XO that is aged at least 12 years and is an unheard-of-in-Europe 75 percent pinot noir.
“Because we have such a fruit-forward wine in California”, says current Germain-Robin lead blender and distiller David Warter, “Hubert really tried to figure out how to emphasize that fruit-forward nature of the wine and the grapes we grow”.
If you find yourself as enamored of the local juice as Germain-Robin was, California Brandy House’s retail offerings include bottles that can be custom-engraved on-site. Plus, cocktail kits for mixing Prohibition-era drinks.
What better way to live it up when the 2020s finally start roaring?