Germain-Robin: World Class Brandy

Germain-Robin: World Class Brandy

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson


Unlike a visit to wineries this time of the year, which are relatively quiet and chilly, at the Germain-Robin Alambic Distillery in Redwood Valley the first sensation is heat. “It’s warm in here from September through December and cold in January,” says Joe Corley who is responsible for distilling locally raised wine into cognac-style brandy.

            Germain-Robin brandy is produced in the same way as French cognac. Out of respect to French law, we don’t call it cognac in the U.S. because it isn’t made in Cognac. However Germain-Robin’s reputation is right up there with the finest. On the wall is a blow-up of a newspaper article with the headline “Is the world’s best cognac made in Ukiah?”    

            Corley stands in front of the copper still. The French copper kettle which distills 650 gallons of wine at a time is  insulated in a beautiful burnt red encasement. Swan-necked copper tubing carries the vapors from the heated wine and drops it into a matching burnt red condenser. “We heat the wine to the point where the alcohol vaporizes and rises into the copper tubing and water stays behind,” he explains. “You get one gallon for every nine you begin with.” The process takes about ten hours and as the vapors cool and turn back to liquid, which is known as “brouillis”.

            Then the brouillis is returned to the copper still and run through a second time to reach about 70 percent alcohol. The second distillation takes about eight hours using the same process and results in a clear “eau-de-vie,” no matter what color the wine was in the beginning. The characteristic caramel color comes from aging in oak barrels, which at Germain-Robin takes a minimum of four years.

            Germain-Robin’s hands-on distillation process is the same here as it is in France. Differences begin with the grapes and the wine that are used. In Cognac Ugni Blanc is the typical grape for the base wine. From the beginning in 1981 when Hubert Germain-Robin and Ansley Coale founded Germain-Robin at an old sheep ranch on Low Gap Road they were inspired by the palate of possibilities with so many locally available varieties.

            Hubert’s family had made cognac in Cognac, France, where he was raised, since 1782. He and his wife Carole came to California in the 1980s to find a place to continue the craft. When they met Coale he was a history professor commuting between his 2000 acre Mendocino County ranch and Berkeley. They became partners and located a beautiful copper still in Cognac which they had it shipped to the ranch. It would be four years before the first Germain-Robin brandy would be bottled and released. With no Ugni Blanc (also known at Trebbiano) around, Hubert tapped another Cognac classic, French Colombard. Over the years he selected vineyards and directed the winemaking from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Viognier, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel grapes.

             “This week we did Carignane, a new wine for us,” says Corley. He also distills hard apple cider to make Germain-Robin apple brandy that exudes ethereal apple aromas. And he is working on a pear liqueur. The base pear wine is made from Ukiah Valley Bartletts, which are called Williams Bon Chrétien in France and make the famed Poire William eau-de-vie. “Pear flavor is more elusive,” says Corley. “Distillation wants to drive off the pear essence.”

            Unlike his mentor Corley was not born into the cognac business. He was born in Memphis but moved all around the country. Corley’s dad worked in government service for the national cemeteries and was transferred frequently until they moved to Hawaii. “I lived there for 12 years through high school and some college,” says Corley.

            In 1976 he came to California looking for a job. He then moved on to Spokane, Washington where he enrolled in a two-year viticulture program at a community college and worked at Worden’s Winery doing bottling and labeling. He got a job at Arbor Crest winery where he did everything from crushing grapes to the bottling wine. Wanting to be where there was more going on he moved to Seattle and hired on at Columbia winery. “I had the opportunity to work and learn from David Lake, one of the first masters of wine in the United States.

            He decided to leave production and worked in retail for seven years at DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine shop in Seattle’s Pikes Place selling wine. “I got to know the world of wine,” he says. He also met Mendocino winemakers such as John Buechenstein and Greg Graziano. He had family in Mendocino County and spent vacations here. In 1993 he had volunteered at Mendocino Bounty, an annual event that was held at Valley Oaks ranch in Hopland. “I met Ansley and he invited me to come up and see the ranch,” says Corley, who also met Hubert at the ranch.

            “I came away thinking it would really be something if I could do that,” he recalls.

            Five years later, when a job opened up at a winery where Buechenstein was winemaker Corley moved to Mendocino. He worked for two years at the former Fife winery in Redwood Valley. Hubert mentioned he needed someone to housesit while he and his family went to France for vacation. When Hubert returned he offered Corley a job and Corley jumped at the opportunity.

            “My olfactory capabilities were honed to wine. This was a whole new game,” he shares. “I had a nose for it and am really excited about my work. I think Hubert saw that in me.”  They tasted together and Corley made his own notes and read Hubert’s notes and they talked about their tastings. “And the product that comes out is wonderful,” says the understated easy-going Corley.

            He spends long hours working alone, shepherding the brandies from new oak barrels—all French-made from Limousin—to older barrels and keeping each wine separate until the time for blending. “There is an incredible amount of detail work,” he says. Germain-Robin produces about 3000 cases at the distillery, which moved to Redwood Valley in 1999. In a cool storage room next to the still 1200 oak barrels are stored, each with its contents noted in chalk on the barrel end. “Even with humidity and temperature control, the barrels lose about three percent of the brandy each year,” says Corley. They have to be topped and that is only one of the many time-consuming hands-on activities it takes to make a fine cognac-style brandy, all of which contribute to the price. 

            Among the brandies Germain-Robin produces, the first released is the six to seven-year-old Craft Method Brandy, formerly known as Fine Alambic Brandy. They move up in price and aging to the Coast Road Reserve, Select Barrel XO, Single-Barrel and Anno Domini (which sells for $350). Germain-Robin also makes single varietal Grappa, a clear brandy made from Viognier, Syrah or Zinfandel. The Grappa has round smooth flavors and not the harsh bite some grappas are known for.

            Another product is their Crème de Poete, which is based on pear wine infused with nuts and dried fruits to give the liqueur a lovely aroma making it a sweet after-dinner nightcap. Each bottling is different and each has a poem on the label. The first one I tasted included a poem written by Ukiah’s poet laureate Theresa Whitehill. This year’s has a romantic poem by Robert Browning. Poete and Germain-Robin’s brandies are available at their tasting and sales room located at 3001 South State Street, Unit 35.

            At the distillery Corley’s office is open to keep an eye on the still. Next to his desk  a row of clear bottles filled with amber brandy sit next to tasting glasses. He keeps each varietal separate in the barrels and tastes them at various stages to determine which of the various levels of Germain-Robin brandies they will be included in. When he’s not at the distillery, he loves playing music. “I can sit down to play my guitar for ten minutes and still be strumming two hours later,” he says.

            Corley also makes sales trips and pours brandy at tastings. “My evolution has gone from making wine in the early days, to being a retailer, and now to taking wine it to its ultimate phase", he says and adds, “I like to tell people that I love wine and am taking it to its higher purpose.”


Tasting Notes: Germain-Robin brandy is a smooth after dinner drink and is increasingly popular for making cocktails by the new young “mixologists” inventing stylish drinks. My favorite holiday food with Germain-Robin’s Poete is persimmon pudding, a perfect duet under the mistletoe….


For more information on Germain-Robin contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at or


Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission.

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