Germain-Robin, forty-four, is a tall, rangy, bearded man with a big peace symbol tattooed on the back of his right hand. It isn't hard to picture him hitchhiking along Highway 101, which is where Ansley Coale picked him and his wife up fifteen years ago. Seeing that his passengers were tired, Coale offered them lodging at the sheep farm he and his wife had bought as a ticket out of academe. Born on the East Coast, Coale had taught classics at Berkeley, grown tired of it, and bought 2,000 steep and barely accessible acres in Mendocino for the price of a house in San Francisco. As for Germain-Robin, there was no place for him in what had been his family's cognac business after a big company bought it, but he was interested in Coale's suggestion that he try to distill local wines.
Germain-Robin went home to Cognac to look for an old copper still, which he bought for $1,000 and had restored. The shape of Germain-Robin's still makes it an "alambic," a word taken from the Arabs, who originated the process. It is splendid, with an onion dome and a long serpentine "swan's neck" pipe leading from the boiler to the barrel-shaped "pot." (A "pot" or "batch" still works one load at a time, whereas a "column" still, which big brandy makers use, operates continuously.) The neck is particularly long to help lengthen the rectification, a process in which harsh flavors, which have a high specific gravity, rise, condense, and are heated again, after which they recondense in lighter, smoother form.
Yet more beautiful than the still is the small one-room wooden cabin that serves as distillery. The still is mounted in red brick against one wall, with a big old hammered-copper pail set under the spigot. The window behind Germain-Robin's desk overlooks the parched Mendocino hills of Coale's sheep farm; along its sill old bottles that Coale collected and half-filled with water in various jewel tones shine in the clear Mendocino light, casting colored shadows against the neat rows of sample brandy bottles on wooden shelves.
Working with only one assistant, Germain-Robin distills day and night for about four months. All the wine is distilled twice: once to produce a rough alcohol, and then again with more care, in order to smooth the flavor and remove impurities, or "congeners"--but not remove all of them, because that would render the spirit tasteless. During both distillations only the "heart," or middle portion, of what comes out of the still is used. Germain-Robin uses his decorative copper pail to remove the "heads," which are too high in alcohol, and the "tails," which are too harsh to drink. As is standard practice, the heads and tails are redistilled in later batches.
The heart, a clear eau de vie, flows from the pot's spigot straight into new French oak barrels, which will be placed on racks in a wooden barn nearby. The new wood gives vanilla flavors and many tannins to the brandy, and also starts to color the liquid. After a year Germain-Robin transfers the brandy to seasoned old barrels from Cognac, which continue to mature the liquid but add no more tannins. Up to this point he has strictly separated barrels by grape variety and vineyard. Now he starts to blend.
ANY brandy house prides itself on its blender, who usually assembles dozens and sometimes hundreds of brandies to form a house style. Producers boast of the extent and age of their stocks. Each of the four biggest names in cognac--Hennessy, Remy Martin, Martell, and Courvoisier--say that they put cognac that is a hundred years old or even older into some of their blends. The higher the average age of the blend, the more it costs, not because older cognacs (or whiskeys or wines, for that matter) invariably taste better but because tied-up storage space is expensive. The advantages of wood aging are not, in any event, infinite. Cognacs more than sixty-five years old are taken out of wood and retired into glass demijohns, to prevent further evaporation and stop the aging process.