The distillery in 1982
In the summer of 1981, Ansley Coale picked up a hitch-hiker along Highway 101, north of San Francisco. Hubert Germain-Robin came from the Jules Robin family, cognac producers since 1782. Hubert told a sad tale: ancient hand-methods of distillation were disappearing as huge firms applied “improved” high-volume methods. Hubert wanted to go back to craft-method distillation, techniques handed down for centuries from master to apprentice.
Hubert found an antique still in an abandoned distillery near Cognac and shipped it to Coale’s ranch (left) in Mendocino County. The two men built a redwood shed and installed the 13HL cognac pot in the summer of 1982. It was a beautiful piece of equipment, hand-hammered out of heavy copper, probably around 1937, unused since 1951. We spent a lot of time looking for storage tanks, valves, fittings, hoses, and other equipment that could stand up to high percentage alcohols. They were hard to find: our distillery and St George Spirits (Jorg Rupf brought over his small Holstein still the same year) were the first small distilleries started in the USA since before Prohibition.
The next summer, we bought our first grapes. At the time, wine grapes were available in Mendocino County for amazingly low prices. Consequently, instead of using the rather neutral distillation grapes that are mandated in Cognac (where soil plays a larger role), Hubert began to experiment with local premium wine varietals. The very first time that brandy distilled from pinot noir flowed from the still, Hubert took a long sniff from the sampling glass, turned to Coale, and said: “this is the finest I have ever experienced.” We made some 12 barrels of brandy, laid out the aging cellar, and began to look for capital.
Starting a brandy business is capital-intensive. Building a cellar of aging brandies takes decades. By the summer of 1984, we had found our initial investors and had built a modest aging cellar. That fall, we carried out our first full season of distillation, distilling mostly pinot noir and French Colombard, along with gamay, chenin blanc, and sauvignon blanc.
We released our first brandy, a VSOP, in 1987. The Select Barrel XO, reviewed by Robb Report Magazine as the best distilled spirit in the world, was released in 1996.