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Eight generations of the Germain-Robin family produced spirits in France's Cognac region. That tradition ended when the cognac-producing conglomerate Martell bought out the family's firm over 20 years ago. Soon after, Hubert Germain-Robin left his homeland for Mendocino County in California's wine country. Since then he has overseen the resurrection of his family legacy as the co-founder of Alambic Inc. Alambic's most popular product is its world-renowned cognac-style brandy. It is cognac-style because only brandy produced in the Cognac region of France may be called cognac. As the saying goes, "all cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is cognac."

Quality

Despite this nominal distinction, Germain-Robin creates a product that is--by most accounts--superior to the cognac produced in his native France. He emphasizes that "quality is always the first thing." In keeping with that philosophy, Alambic maintains its focus on its products over its profits. The operation is small. Alambic has less than 10 employees who produce 7000 cases of spirits a year. They cater to a discriminating international clientele that includes American ambassadors and their foreign guests. Their hard work has resulted in the highest praise from a bevy of wine connoisseurs. Their Anno Domini was named spirit of the year in 2001 by the Robb Report. Germain-Robin's success comes from combining age-old family tradition with his innovative spirit to create a critically celebrated, quality brandy.

Innovation

Although the circumstances necessitating his arrival were not ideal, Germain-Robin embraces the California wine country as one of the "world's best regions" for growing fine-wine quality grapes. The climate, more favorable than that of Cognac, allows harvesters to pick the grapes at their peak ripeness and grants Germain-Robin the freedom to use "any grapes we like, from anywhere."

In Cognac, the conditions are best suited to growing white grapes, most notably the ugni blanc. Whereas red grapes are rarely used for cognac-style brandies, Germain-Robin is fond of using the red grape, the pinot noir. It is one of his "main components" because it is "complex, delicate, fine," and has "good aging potential."

Fermentation Revisited

Fermentation transforms the sugar, naturally present in the grapes, into alcohol. Just in case you may have forgotten the specifics of fermentation from your introduction to biology class, the most common form of fermentation is glycolysis. Don't worry; there won't be a test this time and the 10-step process has been simplified. Each glucose molecule in the grapes is converted to two molecules of carbon dioxide and two ethanol molecules--the alcohol in wine. For those with fond memories of balancing red-ox equations, the chemical reaction is: C6H12O6 => 2(CH3CH2OH) + 2(CO2).

When blending grapes, Germain-Robin creates "assemblies" of different vintages (a vineyard's yield for a given season) for various, "complex" tastes. While Cognac contains a "library" of cognac vintages available to be blended, no one was doing that in Mendocino County. So, Germain-Robin and his partner, Ansley Coale, seized the wide-open opportunity and created this "library" with its two distilleries and two cellars.

Tradition

Although these freedoms have enabled Germain-Robin to improve upon the original product, he has not forgotten the lessons his family taught him. He jokes, "I don't have any blood in my veins; it's just cognac." He uses Cognac's signature two-cycle distillation process for making his brandy, just as his ancestors did for more than 2 centuries. The distilled brandy is cellared in air-dried Limousin oak casks where it is aged. Aging develops the characteristic taste, look, and aroma of the brandy. It also reduces its alcohol content through evaporation. The maturation of the brandy depends on the blend and the taste that the producer has in mind. Although brandy reaches legal maturity in 2 years, some blends take up to 70 or 80 years to achieve the desired taste. (Aging ends once the wine is placed in glass bottles.)

Brandy in Depth

To learn more about the distillation, blending, and aging processes for cognac-style brandy, why not visit Cognac-World or the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

Such a long-term commitment to the product requires "passion and patience" according to Germain-Robin. Although working hours are usually fairly standard, the distillation season is the harshest. The day begins at 4:00 a.m., when new distillate is started, and ends at 5:00 p.m., after the 12-hour cycle is finished. More relaxed are a couple of months when Germain-Robin spends tasting the wine to compare what he calls the "evolution of the brandy" as the vintages age.

The Craft

It is an industry where machines and technology lack the discriminating palate of a true master. Alambic uses an antique still as its primary technology and the grapes are distilled by hand. Decisions are based on human senses and experience, what Germain-Robin refers to as "working with your nose." He uses his highly trained sense of smell to decide what to separate, blend, or when to stop the aging process. Although he attended a School of Distillation in his native France, he mainly learned on the job. He says that it took him 5 years to become a distiller and 15 years to become a blender. "Do it if you don't want to be rich," he jokes, but like the eight generations of brandymakers before him, he is making something for his family to build on.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at cparks@aaas.org.