Chances are there isn’t much, if any, California brandy stocked at your bar unless you’re in Wisconsin (more about that later). If wine and spirits giant Gallo has anything to do with it, that’s going to change someday soon.
It’s about time. For years the California brandy sub-category has been dominated by three big brands: Gallo’s E&J, Constellation’s Paul Masson, and Heaven Hill’s Christian Brothers. Add in Korbel, an old brand that is found in nearly every bar in Wisconsin where the Old Fashioned is always made with brandy, and you’ve got 95% of the sub-category. The three top brands specifically are dense, dark and very sweet, and (generally speaking) not on-premise brands. Brandy is often perceived as a type of spirit that gets most of its support from an aging, mostly white, mostly male group. To tell the truth, it’s made virtually zero contribution to the ongoing Cocktail Renaissance.
Not that there aren’t great California brandies being made currently. For the introduction of their new Argonaut brandy line, Gallo invited some of the best producers (Ansley Coale from Germain-Robin, 13th generation distiller Milo Karakasevic from Charbay, Dan Farber from Osocalis, and Korbel’s Paul Ahvenainen) to discuss the issues facing producers of a true American style of spirit that has been subsumed by trends. Lighter, fresher, fruitier and leaner than the monoliths that dominate everyone’s view of the spirit, these artisanal brandies, at least partially crafted from pot still distillate, also haven’t been able to penetrate into cocktail awareness, although one or more of Germain-Robin’s widely respected brandies can often be found in craft cocktail bars. Mixing with them, mostly due to price, is another matter.
That’s something Gallo wants to alter with Argonaut, named for those who flooded the state at the onset of the Gold Rush. Argonaut, initially launched only in the San Francisco market, arrives in three iterations (four if you count the planned annual one-off). A blend of alembic and Coffey still spirits, with some of the single-varietal aged brandy stocks having sat idle for decades, this could be a great leap forward for the category.
First off the mark will be Saloon Strength, created for bartenders. This offering comes in at 45.5% ABV, and it's a blend of French Colombard, Chardonnay, Sultana, Muscat, and other grape spirits aged two to 21 years. Then there’s Fat Thumb, described as a sipping brandy at 43% ABV, which is mostly alembic Grenache, Colombard, Muscat, and blended spirits aged two to 16 years. The third in the lineup is The Speculator, a blend of similar grapes, mostly Coffey still, which is aged three to 19 years and bottled at 43% ABV. Finally, there’s the one off: The Claim. Selected by 2017 California Brandy Summit industry attendees, The Claim is a one-off of Coffey still Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Colombard and Zinfandel, aged 14 to 25 years.
“At Argonaut, we believe California brandy is ready to restore its perception as ranking alongside the world’s most acclaimed spirits,” Gallo ambitiously notes. In the process of developing the brand, they intend to fire up 20 copper pot stills at the McCall Distillery in the Fresno area which landed in the hands of Suntory in 1990. Those twenty 660-gallon alembic pot stills were made by Robert Prulho of Cognac, France, and enabled McCall's distillers to craft double-distilled brandies unlike what was then being produced in the state. St. Émilion and Colombard grapes are harvested at the ripeness needed for fine brandy, with aging proceeding in French oak.
But the Suntory project stalled and McCall was sold in late 2002, and is currently undergoing Gallo’s renovation, with plans to produce brandy there later this year. Other large producers will be watching the project, as yet another old style product tries to makes its way back into the American drink pantry, and it’s not only still fabricators who are hoping for the best.