California Pioneers – Part III: Hubert Germain-Robin
When I trekked up to visit Germain-Robin distillery this past October, hoping to get more insight into their extended archive of incredible aged brandies, I set up my appointment with the man I've come to know well over the years: Ansley Coale, pictured above to the left. Ansley continues to operate the company today and expand on the original foundation he created with his partner, the man sitting to the right, Hubert Germain-Robin. While Hubert's name is on the bottle, he's been retired from the distillery since my partnership with the company began, so I've never had much of a relationship with him. I met him once at a small gathering in Sonoma, but it was so informal we never had much time to chat. Therefore, my recent visit to the hallowed Ukiah grounds involved a meeting with the current staff members, and not with the man who actually broke the ground himself.
Then, a few weeks ago, an email showed up in my inbox from Hubert. He wanted to know why I had written an article about him (calling him a "pioneer") without ever bothering to actually talk to him about it. "That's a very good question," I wrote back to him. "I wanted to talk to you, but I didn't know how to get a hold of you!" It did seem silly to talk about the incredible legacy of Germain-Robin without ever speaking with Hubert Germain-Robin himself, but ultimately I didn't know the man. Hubert still owns part of the company he helped to build, but is no longer a part of the production team; more involved now with education and consulting than distilling. However, with Hubert now reaching out, I made sure to carve a chunk out of my hectic holiday schedule and rectify this gaping hole in my reporting. When a man like this sends you an email and says, "Let's talk booze," you don't fool around. So without further ado, I give you part three of the California Pioneers trilogy: a conversation with one of the great founding fathers of American craft distillation.
David: You obviously knew how to distill before setting up Germain-Robin in California. What was your background in France and where exactly are you from?
Hubert: I was born a few kilometers from Cognac on my family property and I lived there for first ten years of my life. Eventually we moved to Cognac proper. My family has been distilling in the region for centuries and we have properties in the area. I started working when I was a teenager—on the bottling line and painting the hoops around the barrel, just to make some money—but I was not interested in the product itself back then. It was strong and I didn’t understand it at the time. When I was in my early twenties, however, I did a distillation course at the Bureau Distillation de Cognac where you learn how to distill on two small alembics; one heated with propane and one heated with coal. The teacher was able to spark something in me, an interest that hadn't been there before, and when I left school he found me a place where the distiller had just passed away. It was for Martell style distillation. In the following years I worked at different distilleries as I wanted to learn from the different areas in the region and provide distillates for different companies; to learn the different techniques. I also did courses that involved tasting twice a week, to help learn about the different regional characters and to be able to taste the defects in distillation and the wine-making processes.
David: Did that give you a better appreciation of Cognac; when you were able to taste distillates that were poorly made in comparison?
Hubert: Oh yes, I could understand more about what was going on and what it took to make a successful product. After that I went on to agriculture to learn about growing grapes, in order to get the full spectrum. I actually started working with the finished product before going back to the vineyards. I eventually went back to learn about other types of distillation as well; whisky and so forth. I had the bug for distillation at that point.
David: So how did you end up in the United States?
Hubert: Distillation starts in November and goes until March, which was good because you work hard, you make good money, and then it allows you the rest of the time to travel. That’s how I came to Canada with my wife. We traveled across the country to British Columbia and then went down the west coast. That’s where, as you know, I met my partner Ansley, and we spent a few days on his ranch with his wife, and talked about things. I was looking for a place to start a distillery and he had the place. The location was great—in Mendocino—and it was a good start. There was a diversity of grapes in the region and they had good acidity. The people were nice and helpful, and it didn’t have the snobby atmosphere of Napa. We enjoyed the community. That was in 1981.
David: What were the immediate differences you noticed using the grapes from Mendocino, as compared to ugni blanc in Cognac?
Hubert: It was so different. In Cognac you’ve got only the one grape—the differences all come from microclimate and terroir. Here I had to relearn how to distill almost because you have to adapt to each vineyard and each varietal. You have to try new things—malolactic (fermentation) or no malolactic, different yeasts—and that was unbelievable. The first year we distilled some pinot noir from Redwood Valley, and that surprised me very much. I was very excited about the flavors; everything about the pinot noir—like in the wine: the nobility, the complexity, it’s racy and feminine at the same time. You concentrate those flavors when you distill the wine. And colombard, I knew more about it because I had distilled some in Cognac, but I checked around and found some different types. We had some growing at the top of a hill that I called my yellow colombard, and the one growing down the river I called my green colombard—it never got completely ripe and ended up with intense flavors of hay and honeysuckle after aging. I really liked that—the differences that each location played.
David: And then you had to learn how to blend those different brandies, which must have been an entirely different experience as well.
Hubert: The way you build a brandy in California, it’s quite different. You have to revise the proportions of the body, the structure, and the aromatic compounds. It was very different for me, but it was great. Each year I would go back to France and bring samples with me that I would taste with the people at Martell and Courvoisier, for example, as well as restaurateurs, sommeliers, all types of people. Their feedback and impressions surprised me because they did not at all agree on what they liked. When I brought them the samples they didn’t know exactly what this spirit was. The different varietals—palomino, chenin blanc, colombard—it threw them off because their minds are always thinking Cognac.
David: It’s always ugni blanc for them.
Hubert: Yes. All the aspects of the Cognac. Here in California you had to relearn everything. Even the aging process. Whereas in Cognac it’s always limousin oak, here I tried using gaja, eastern european, and oak from all the different forests in the U.S., so it was a challenge. I was working for future generations to help give them a basis of understanding; hopefully they would learn from some of the barrels I had made to know which types they should and should not use, so it’s kind of a treasure. I’ve been lucky enough to distill with no restrictions on my grapes, location, and which wood to use. To have the opportunity to build an inventory like this, it’s exceptional. I’m so thankful for all the people who helped me.
David: It’s an incredible portfolio now. With the new small blends that are being released and the variety of the single barrels—getting to taste those varietals separately—it’s one of the most incredible inventories of American distillates ever; if not the most.
Hubert: Absolutely. It’s exciting, but you have so many parameters and possibilities today with the origin of the oak, the number of yeasts on the market, the decisions in the distillery. It never ends, really. It’s unbelievable. After a certain point, with the revolution in craft distillation, I got to the point where I explored everything I could do over there, so I wanted to take what I had learned and help others start their own distilleries. I had been lucky enough with my opportunities, so maybe I could give back a little bit.
David: Is that what you spend most of your time doing now? Consulting?
Hubert: Yes, I sell alembics, advise people, and teach classes. I work with the American Distilling Institute and UC Davis, so I’m always educating. I just taught a class in Portland a few weeks ago and there were people from Puerto Rico , Texas, and Vermont there. It’s very exciting to see people from all those places getting involved in distilling. Some start in their garage with no money and just a few tanks, and some are very rich and they buy the very best equipment. It’s quite interesting, all the diversity. Some people who come to my class don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about (laughs). And you have other people who have fifteen years of experience, but want to learn more and take their distilling in a new direction. It’s a great experience and I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of it.
David: You’ve done so many different things in the industry at this point. What are you most proud of from all your various accomplishments?
Hubert: To be able to bring the old methods of distillation to the forefront and to have worked with more specialized grapes and fruits. What I like to teach people is that you can use an alembic still for any type of spirit, and quality-wise it’s the best way to distill. It’s slower and it’s more expensive, but it’s the best way in terms of quality. I like to bring back old recipes and common sense. Too many people in the craft industry—after only two or three years of distillation—consider themselves a master distiller and it’s very scary.
Hubert: I have seen and tasted so many products—from judging on various panels—and they are making progress. From ten years ago to now, it’s constantly continued to get better and it’s exciting. But people still make stupid mistakes, like aging in small barrels where the extraction of the oak is very fast and the quality of the wood isn’t very good. They also tend to keep these barrels in the wrong place; near a draft or by their pot still, so I try to bring a little common sense when I am teaching. I try to keep people on the right track and not spend money stupidly. It’s more important to put money into better ingredients, a good still, and high-quality oak. The rest you can manage. I try to focus on the essentials. If you start by doing things right, you can understand why it’s right later on down the line. You can’t go back ten years down the road to clean up early mistakes.
David: And that’s become apparent on the craft market today. There are people who have maybe made mistakes, yet can’t afford not to sell what they’ve produced.
Hubert: Well….(laughs). You can’t be shy in presenting your products. It’s a good way to learn.
David: From the resulting criticism, you mean?
Hubert: Oh yeah. I have one dog who sometimes doesn’t want to smell what’s in the glass. He runs out of the distillery. Then I have another dog who is drinking it out of his bowl at seventy percent alcohol. They both have great noses, but they don’t always agree on what they like (laughs).
David: How do you feel about the fact that some of your own early distillates are on the market right now in these new old and rare releases?
Hubert: The difficult part is that they are like my babies. It’s like a separation from your children. I worry sometimes that they are not quite ready, but that’s part of the process. You have to taste samples from year to year and decide if you are going to keep them for ten years, or as part of a single barrel expression, or blend into an XO. You have to have a passion for the spirit.
David: Are you worried about how they’re being used now that you’re no longer doing the blending?
Hubert: No, no. Not at all. Joe Corley (who does the blending now) was a great assistant for me. He was there every day, he was honest, and I really like him as a person. I think it’s tough to give up control when you’re as passionate as I am about distilling. Again, like when you're talking about your own child, I don't think that anyone—even Ansley and Joe—will ever understand how to nurture these brandies the way I once did. It's something that still makes me uneasy to this day. But, of course, that's what every parent will say. Every little decision can jeopardize the quality, the complexity, and the value of the inventory, which is one of the most unique in America.
David: Which Germain Robin release do you think best speaks to your vision as a distiller?
Hubert: I like the Havana cigar blend very much. I really enjoyed working on that. I smoke cigars sometimes, so to build a blend that goes with them, it takes a long time. I did a special blend for Ashton Cigars, so I did a special VSOP and a barrel to pair with their cigars—at that time there was a craze for them. They wanted something unique and I came up with the Havana blend, which was an incredible learning experience for me. For single barrels, I like the semillon very much. I like the fleshiness and the fatness on the palate. It has a beautiful structure, and it takes time to come around. The first time I distilled it I made three barrels and I used two of them in a blend. The one barrel I had left completely changed after eight years. It was incredible. Of course, I love the pinot noir, too.
David: Do you think the pinot noir is ultimately what defines Germain Robin brandy? Is that what ultimately separates it from Cognac?
Hubert: Cognac isn’t about the grapes, ultimately. It’s more about the soil and the terroir. Here, it’s all about the grapes.
David: Are you still inspired by the differences in California grapes after all these years?
Hubert: There are still more varietals I would love to distill, but never got the chance to. I am going to Peru soon, however, to distill pisco, so it will be another situation to learn about new grapes. It’s always going to interest me, I think. Ultimately, what inspires me is inspiration itself. People change sometimes and they forget what the essence of life is. For me, life was becoming a choice between money and integrity, and I wanted to make sure I was on the right side.