California Pioneers

After hitchhiking across the country in the novel On The Road, Kerouac's Sal Paradise exclaims:

Suddenly I realized I was in California. Warm, palmy air—air you can kiss—and palms. Along the storied Sacramento River on a superhighway; into the hills again; up, down; and suddenly the vast expanse of the bay with the sleepy lights of Frisco festooned across.

That was in the early-1950s, when a post-WWII generation yearned for the West and the possibilities of California. While Kerouac died in 1969, the inspiration left in his wake continued on. In 1981, Ansley Coale picked up a pair of French hitchhikers along Highway 101 just north of San Francisco; a man named Hubert Germain-Robin, and a woman he was travelling with. Hubert was looking for new possibilities in the West. He hailed from a Cognac-producing family in France that was tragically moving away from hands-on, small distillation practices and more towards "high-volume methods," that favored mass-production. Ansley drove, Hubert talked. Hubert and the woman who would later become his wife were eventually invited by Ansley to spend that night at his ranch in Mendocino. There they talked about the possibilities for a new Western style of brandy, and the chance to pioneer a new kind of American spirit.

Ansley Coale on the left with Hubert Germain-Robin

Hubert would return to France, track down an old, abandoned alembic still (which they purchased for scrap copper pricing), and have it shipped to Ansley's ranch in Mendocino County. In the summer of 1982, the two men installed the heavy, hand-hammered copper pot into a small shed built from redwood (the same year that Jorg Rupf brought his copper still over to Alameda to found St. George Distillery). They began to purchase local grape varietals and Hubert experimented with the new local faire. Cognac grapes, typically ugni blanc, are high in acidity and—due the region's incredibly chalky soil—result in mouth-puckering wines that are usually thin and rather course. In Mendocino at that time, however, premium California varietals could be had for pennies on the dollar. They began to invest in fruit. Applying traditional Cognac methodology to the riper grapes from Northern California's best vineyards, they began to distill. At that time, there was no one in the United States making brandy on a pot still; especially from the noble varietals. Of course, you had Gallo and the Christian Brothers running Central Valley leftovers through a column still, but nothing serious; nothing even close to the level of fine Cognac. Ansley and Hubert were making it up as they went along.

I headed over the Golden Gate on an extremely warm Sunday morning. Despite the heat and the burning rays of the intense October sun, the bridge was still shrouded in fog; disappearing right before my eyes as I made my way to the on-ramp. This wasn't anything new. I'd brought friends from Germany to see the Golden Gate numerous times, only to arrive and find there wasn't much to see. You could walk over it, touch it, and say you were there, but there was nothing for you to actually see except for wet, endless grey. As I drove to the center, however, the fog evaporated and suddenly, half way across, the sun came back out and the giant red towers emerged over the haze. I looked back and saw a sparkling vision of Alcatraz, hundreds of sail boats, and the last bit of Coit Tower before I turned to focus on the road once again. This was a classic Bay Area day; the microclimates working in full gear, turning hot to cold and back to hot again in just a matter of seconds.

I pulled into Ukiah around 3:30 PM and pulled off the freeway near the distillery, just north of town on the West side of 101. The sun was already setting over the hills, and the birds were jumping from branch to branch, chirping away while lizards darted around my feet. I hiked a bit into the wilderness until I could no longer hear the sounds of the motorway. Ansley and Hubert originally established the distillery in an old shack on Ansley's ranch, but in 1998 they moved to Fetzer's old warehouse after Brown-Foreman purchased the winery and relocated it to fancier grounds. I had the rest of the evening to get a sense of the areatwo hours north of the bridge; through Marin, then Sonoma. While Healdsburg (where I stopped for lunch) is the epitome of hoity-toity wine country, Ukiah is more working-class. There was a hitchhiker standing next to the off-ramp as I exited towards my rental cottage. A fitting sight considering the story of Germain Robin.

This morning I met Ansley at his office in downtown Ukiah. We talked briefly about a few business issues before jumping in his car and heading north to the distillery. It wasn't just a long-overdue visit that lead me on the road north this October; Germain Robin is planning to release some of the oldest American spirits in history this Fall: 25-30+ year old brandies that are not only the oldest California spirits I know of, they're also the oldest spirits of any kind from America today. Find me a 30+ year old Kentucky Bourbon right now. Find me a 30 year old rye whiskey. Find me anything with 30+ years of age. Please, I need some! We're approaching a historic moment; not only for California distillation, but also for American micro-distillation. We're at the point where the little guys are starting to put out more mature expressions than the big guys. That's crazy.

More than thirty years ago Ansley and Hubert put their first brandies into Limousin oak. Very soon, they'll be ready to release a new portfolio of ultra-mature expressions that offers both single barrel brandies of superb provenance, as well as tremendous blends that utilize brandies from experimental batches; things like 1984 California-grown Gamay, and early dry-farmed Palomino. If you're a spirits geek, the entire line-up is like a dream come true. Small-batches of high-quality, pot-distilled brandies from the early days of California micro-distillation?! From the two men who pioneered serious brandy distillation in the United States?! It's an incredible, overwhelming experience. But if you're a wine geek, it's almost more incredible. There are some old Fetzer riesling distillates from the early 90s, for God's sake!!

I'll break down the whole list tomorrow. I spent the entire morning with Ansley and Joe; working through the brandies, before heading back down 101 towards the city, back over the Golden Gate bridge, and down 19th Avenue towards the Peninsula. There was something in the air the entire drive home; a new energy and a new excitement in my bones that wasn't there last week. We're on the verge of something big right now; something that began more than thirty years ago, but is finally ready to be unleashed. Ansley is ready. The public is ready. California is ready. I don't know if anyone would have appreciated this event two years ago; even six months ago. This is a big deal, man. This is California gold.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll