Cognac is hot, but so far that cultural cachet has not transferred to California brandy.
If any company can change that, it's the world's largest winery, Gallo. Look out France, that's exactly what the world's largest wine company is aiming to do, with a plan that started more than 40 years ago.
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"[Spirits] is a funny little business within Gallo," said Britt West, vice president and GM of Gallo's Spirits Business Unit. "People think of the E. & J. Gallo Winery but nobody ever thinks of spirits. We're actually the seventh-largest spirits supplier in the country. By next year we will probably have moved into the number six position."
And its new line of high-quality California brandy, called Argonaut, is part of that push.
Gallo has been making brandy since just after the end of Prohibition. Up to now, what they have brought to market has been low-end. But company co-founder Julio Gallo always had greater brandy ambitions, just as he had greater wine ambitions when the company was known for jug wine. And it turns out that, very quietly, he began distilling varietal brandies in 1979 – long before his brother Ernest had any plans to market them.
Moreover, in 2017, Gallo bought the artisanal brandy producer Germain-Robin, which made the best brandies in North America. It seemed an odd purchase at the time: Germain-Robin made a quirky line of small-production brandies, many of them single-variety spirits from grapes like Pinot Noir and Semillon that are never used in Cognac or Armagnac. There was nothing mass-production about Germain-Robin; it didn't seem scalable.
Now it all makes sense. Gallo is going to take over brandy, and frankly, you should probably root for them, because what they're doing sets new standards not only for price performance, but also for label information. Even other brandy makers might benefit because, if you don't like brandy yet, one of the world's best companies at marketing and distributing alcohol thinks you should give it a try.
Gallo's new lineup of Argonaut brandies is impressive. There are three main brandies and a limited-production high-end one. Each of the main Argonaut brandies compares favorably to Cognac VS or VSOP, and they're cheaper.
I particularly like Argonaut Saloon Strength, which wasn't even supposed to be released to consumers – it's currently only available in a bar-friendly 1-liter package. The idea, pre-pandemic, was to create a quality brandy for bartenders to use in cocktails. There's a need because even entry-level Cognac is fairly expensive for cocktails, but most domestic brandies (and let's be honest, most entry-level Cognacs) are uninspiring. Argonaut Saloon Strength, which you can buy for less than $40 a liter, has a terrific character with notes of raisins, figs and toffee. It's very smooth on the palate, and even though it's meant for cocktails I'd drink it straight.
If you want to go high-end, and you have good medical insurance, I really enjoyed Argonaut The Claim. Its youngest component is 14 years old and 55 percent of it is at least 20 years old. It's a very smooth, elegant brandy with nice notes of citrus (inexplicable because it's 84 percent single-variety barrels made from red grapes: Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera and Zinfandel). The current package, though – it took my wife and I 20 minutes and three minor hand injuries to scrape off the plastic capsule (a Gallo spokesperson saw my tweets about it and said they're changing the package.) All of the other brandies open easily.
On the back label of each of the Argonaut brandies is a remarkable list showing each component that makes up the blend. For Argonaut Saloon Strength, 45 percent of the blend is two-year-old brandy from a blend of grapes: your basic cheapish brandy base. But the other 55 percent comes from brandies that are 10 years old or more. For example, 6 percent comes from 21-year-old brandy made from French Colombard grapes. The type of still used for each component is also listed. Each of Saloon Strength's components was made in a column still, but 53 percent of Fat Thumb was made in an alembic pot still.
Grape varieties are one of the big differences between California brandy and others. Cognac and Armagnac are made of Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and (French) Colombard, the most flavorful of the three but also usually a minor part of the blend. All three are high-acid grapes that aren't known for having a lot of character, which is why you don't see many varietal wines made from them (though Mendocino's McNab Ridge winery makes a nice French Colombard). When people say good Cognac tastes like expensive oak, that's why: you get age flavors, but not much grape flavor.
There's a fair amount of French Colombard in the Argonaut brandies, but they also use Chardonnay, Grenache and Muscat. It's interesting to learn from a label that Gallo began making brandy from Chardonnay at least 19 years ago. Also, it turns out Gallo has quietly been making brandy from Cabernet Sauvignon for more than 40 years.
"Gallo started its own distillation in 1973," said Gallo master distiller David Warter, who said that beforehand the company purchased spirit for its brandies. "A few years into the distillations they started doing a lot of blends of red varieties and white varieties. In 1979, Julio [Gallo] said, we're really making something great here. Let's start making varietal brandies. In 1979, it was a rainy year and the Cabernet crop was badly damaged. Julio was in Sonoma County flying by helicopter from vineyard to vineyard saying, if you're having a hard time with your Cabernet, sell it to us to make brandy."
Julio Gallo put a lot of his varietal distillation experiments into the company's popular low-end brandies, but just like a Cognac house, he also laid down the best barrels for future use.
"We'd ask: 'What are you laying it down for, Julio?' " Warter told Wine-Searcher. "He said: 'Because it's great brandy. One day there will be a market for it.'
"I still think California wines are the best in the world," Warter said. "I love fruit-forward nature in wine. I love the way it translates into brandy. We have wine, really flavorful wine, and we get to distill that and try to figure out how to craft mouthfeel with that fruit. You're doing this with 10, 15, 20 years of foresight."
It's not all more flavorful grapes: Saloon Strength is 23 percent Thompson Seedless (aka Sultana), a grape usually used for raisins and rarely for wines. But the spirit made from those grapes is 19 years old.
West said an advantage of Gallo being a family-owned business is that it doesn't have to worry about quarterly reports. If Julio Gallo wanted to build up a warehouse of barrels of varietal brandies for no current reason, he could do it. And now that's not the only warehouse Gallo has, as it acquired all of Germain-Robin's stock of brandies in the 2017 purchase. Some of those barrels were more than 30 years old.
The two lines of brandy are separate, and they taste different. Gallo has simplified Germain-Robin's portfolio in distribution to just two bottlings: Germain-Robin XO, and Germain-Robin aged 7 years. The latter is light and pretty with some floral notes; it's based on white grapes. Germain-Robin XO is based on Hubert Germain-Robin's favorite grape to distil, Pinot Noir, and it's my overall favorite brandy in Gallo's current lineup: rich, smooth and complex. I like XO Cognac and this compares favorably to the best of those.
The big difference between the lineups going forward is the stills. Argonaut brandies use both column and alembic pot stills. Germain-Robin was always made in a French Charentais alembic pot still, which uses direct fire and is controlled by hand. Gallo has more money than Germain-Robin did. When Gallo took over the brand, they built a room in Sanger, near Fresno, with 20 Charentais stills. Told you Gallo was planning to take over brandy.
Plus, don't forget Gallo has the best access to grape sources of any company in California, between its own vineyards, its grape contracts and its market clout.
"Last year 0.1 percent of the grapes that we bought were laid down for premium brandy," Warter said. "We have to predict what the market is going to be in 20 years. If we had been making the brandy for this year's market, it wouldn't have been 0.1 percent."
West said Gallo thinks brandy is ripe for the kind of boom with consumers that Bourbon and Tequila have experienced in the last decade.
"If you look at the way brown spirits are growing, it's a natural part of the exploration," West said. "For that consumer of Blanton's. Or Fortaleza Anejo Tequila. Within brandy, people were looking for premium expressions. Just as Kentucky is to Bourbon, we think California will be for quality brandy."
Gallo also has a plan – Julio would have been happy to hear it – for introducing these brandies to people. In October, it opened the California Brandy House in downtown Napa, offering tasting flights. If you want to buy a single-variety Germain-Robin brandy, this is the place to do it: those are now tasting-room only specials.
"Twenty million people a year visit California for what I used to call wine-based tourism. Now I like to call it grape-based tourism," West said. "If we were going to introduce people to California's original spirit, we need to have a home for it. The numbers of reservations for the Brandy House have been incredible. Even during Covid, people really have this craving for something unique to do other than just doing wine tastings all weekend long. One of our flights is the Germain-Robin flight where we show them, 'This is what Viognier brandy tastes like. This is Pinot Noir.' We've heard from consumers that they're very excited about it and seeing how it all comes together."
Warter said that when he first talked to Hubert Germain-Robin when Gallo was in talks to buy the brand, Germain-Robin asked him what Gallo wanted to do with it.
"We said, 'Make the best brandy in the world'," Warter said.
They may not be there quite yet, but they're making some great brandies already. Don't forget that 25 years ago most Gallo wines were pretty much bottom shelf. Now they're buying up vineyards and brands in Napa and their premium wine portfolio is impressive. If Gallo says they wants to make the best brandy in the world, don't bet against them.