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Wine Report from the Fort
A tale of two spirits: Why was the hitchhiker angry and the professor happy?
By Fred McMillin

The hitchhiker
Hubert Germain-Robin was furious. His family in France had owned and operated the Jules Robin Cognac house for over 200 years when the giant, Martell & Co., abruptly gobbled it up. So, Hubert packed up his shining copper Cognac still, and set out to set it down in California’s wine country.

The professor
Driving back to his Mendocino ranch, Dr. Ansley Coale screeched to a halt. The former University of California classics professor opened the door for a hitchhiker who would completely change his life. In less than 10 years, they would be making what is arguably the best brandy in the Western Hemisphere. Here’s what happened.

This brandy is dandy
Six years after Ansley and Hubert met, believe it or not, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan would be sipping Germain-Robin Alambic Brandy at a summit dinner in the White House. Noted critic Dan Berger wrote that the world’s best Cognac is being made in Mendocino.

Hubert’s secret
There’s a sound reason for the press saying that the two men had “shifted the center of the brandy universe.” All Cognacs are made chiefly from a very bland grape, the Ugni Blanc. Instead, Hubert has added new aromas and flavors by abandoning Ugni Blanc in favor of much more intense grapes like Pinot Noir. Led in a tasting by my partner Edgar Vogt, my picky panel gave a Germain-Robin Shareholder’s Blend a rousing 92 (excellent).

Name: Germain-Robin Alambic Inc.
Location: Eagle Rock Ranch, Mendocino County (Ukiah)
Start of the partnership: 1981
The bottle: Germain-Robin Shareholder’s Blend, $72

What is an alambic, as in Germain-Robin alambic? First let’s see how brandy originated. In 1825, the exalted French gastronomist Brillant-Savarin wrote:

Wine was drunk for centuries before it was suspected that the spirit in it could be extracted; but the Arabs taught us the art of distilling, which they had invented to concentrate the odor of flowers. Then, we began to think it would be possible to uncover the cause of the special excitement in wine. One hesitant trial [after] another led to the development of brandy.

As to the alambic, it is a copper pot still. The name comes from al-anbig in Arabic.
However, it has its problems. William Massee in Wine and Spirits wrote, “The copper pot still or ‘alembic’ of the Middle Ages, is temperamental, demanding kicks and curses to keep it running.” Nevertheless, it has made the great spirits of Europe, and now California’s best brandy.

Report from two forts
Fort Mason – Named in 1882 in memory of Gen. Richard B. Mason, who had been military governor of California.
Edgar Vogt and I teach wine classes for S.F. City College each month, Saturdays 1 p.m.:
• May 9: Basics for Beginners – Learn the five basic types of wines and how they are made.
• May 16: Taste the Terms – Taste wines that illustrate the 100-plus terms used to describe wine.
Many people take Taste the Terms over again because the wines and terms are different each time. To enroll or wait-list, phone San Francisco City College at 415-561-1840, or visit education.

Presidio – established in 1776, “presidio” means “fort” in Spanish. Last month, we reported on the extensive wine and food experience of Michael Perry. Here is his schedule at the Presidio Café on Wednesdays:
• May 20: Wine Seminar on Great Value Wines
• June 3: Winemakers’ Dinner pairing a four-course menu with wines of Uvaggio Winery.
Contact 415-561-4661 x209 or for information and reservations.
Both Edgar and Michael have given us three wines for super sipping.

Vogt’s votes
1. Fortress Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2007
2. EOS Estate Winery Reserve Petite Sirah 2005
3. Deaver Vineyards Dessert Port

Perry’s picks
1. Domaine Schlumberger, Alsace Les Princes Abbes Riesling 2005
2. L’Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Recess Red Meritage 2006
3. Sbragia Family Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Gino’s Vineyard Zinfandel 2005

A final wine smile
Presidio Café, home of Michael’s wine program, actually overlooks an Arnold Palmer-managed golf course, which reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon showing a handsomely dressed bride and groom walking down the aisle toward the minister. The groom has a loaded golf bag slung over his shoulder and he’s whispering to his bride, “This isn’t going to take all morning, is it?”

Fred McMillin was voted one of the best wine writers in the United States by the Academy of Wine Communications. Phone him with questions at 415-563-5712 or fax him at 415-567-4468.

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