California’s brandy history dates to the Spanish missions and their vineyards, which would one day pave the way for winegrowing in regions like the Napa Valley.
Now, E. & J. Gallo’s California Brandy House, which opened in November in Napa’s First Street Complex, offers tastings and bottle purchases of premium California brandies, Argonaut and Germain-Robin.
“California brandy is California’s native spirit made from California grapes, and we could think of no better locale than this premiere grape-growing region,” said Britt West, vice president and general manager of Gallo Spirits. “Napa Valley receives 3.85 million visitors per year and there’s a real renaissance in downtown Napa, with a thriving hub of restaurants, hotels and shopping, especially along First Street. We are excited to offer visitors something new to explore.”
California Brandy House has three tasting flights of two brands: Argonaut ($15), Germain-Robin ($20), or a combination of both ($15).
For those new to brandy, the latter gives one an overview of the two brands’ varied brandy styles, production methods, and grape varieties. It includes three Argonaut and two Germain-Robin brandies.
West said, “We consider Argonaut and Germain-Robin to be a geographically differentiated subset of American Brandy, incorporating old-world brandy making practices while employing innovations like varietal selection, still type, and aging vessels to optimize for quality. A key differentiator is the use of California’s world-renown wine grapes as its base ingredients.”
Launched in 2017, the Argonaut brand has its origins in the 1970s.
“Julio Gallo realized there was an opportunity for California wine grapes to be used for brandy making. We have been laying down these precious stocks in barrel for over 40 years,” said West.
Names like Fat Thumb, Saloon Strength, Speculator and The Claim recall California’s gold rush history, as brandy was “the spirit of choice” for gold prospectors.
It is in this spirit (pun intended) that E. & J. Gallo created this brand. Argonaut showcases a wide variety of California grapes like Barbera, Carignan, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Grenache, Merlot, Monbadon, Muscat, Pinot Grigio, Sémillon, St. Émilion, Sultana, and Tokay that are distilled in either a continuous column or an alembic pot still, then aged in a blend of French and American oak barrels.
While these brandies are lovely on their own, they are quintessential cocktail brandies. “Argonaut offers the additional versatility of cocktail usage and mixability – it shows really well in classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Gold Rush,” West said.
A favorite of the Argonaut tasting is the Fat Thumb ($50), with its dessert-like, cooked fruit and caramel flavors reminiscent of bananas foster, apple pie, and pear tarte Tatin, accompanied by fragrant baking spices like clove and nutmeg.
Germain-Robin is a line of brandies founded in 1982 in Mendocino County by professor Ansley J. Coale, Jr. and Cognac distiller Hubert Germain-Robin.
After a chance meeting, they united to create Californian brandies with Mendocino County grapes like Colombard, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sémillon, and Viognier, but incorporating traditional Prulho Charentais alembic pot stills and a Limousin oak barrel aging regime.
“With Germain-Robin specifically, we have a great sipping brandy that honors the experience developed through the generations of distillers in Cognac, but also with the fruit expressiveness that you can only find in California,” said West.
The Germain-Robin ($75) is a more traditional expression of brandy made primarily with older-vintage Colombard (1997-2001), plus Viognier (2001-2007) and Riesling (1998).
It reveals fresh tree fruit aromatics combined with sweet and spicy stone fruits on the palate. Germain-Robin XO ($125) is Californian through and through, crafted in the traditional method of distillation and aging but with older vintage Pinot Noir (1994-1998 and 2005-2009) and Sémillon (1995).
This is an exquisite example of brandy with Sémillon’s stone and tree fruit aromas giving way to the Pinot Noir’s sweet black cherry flavor profile and ample, luscious mouthfeel – imagine Black Cherry Clafoutis in a glass.
In partnership with other downtown businesses, one may enjoy both Argonaut and Germain-Robin at several hotels and restaurants. The Archer Hotel, Celadon, Cole’s Chop House, and La Toque offer both. Argonaut is also available at Bounty Hunter and Morimoto, and Germain-Robin at the Andaz Hotel, AVOW, and Carpe Diem.
California Brandy House sells brandies by the bottle, including in-house, personalized bottle engraving for $10 per bottle, just in time for the holidays and other celebratory moments.
Regarding brandy food pairings, Michael Williams, executive chef at AVOW recommends Germain-Robin with the restaurant’s cheese and charcuterie plates. “The salty, fatty nature of both would lend themselves to the mouthfeel of the brandy,” he said.
West said, “When pairing with brandy, we strive to highlight the elegance of the liquid and complement the savory or sweet elements in the food. The savory character of washed-rind cheeses such as Époisses and Muenster, as well as hard cheeses like Comté and Manchego, are wonderful accompaniments to brandy. Smoked ham, salami, and walnuts also work well. On the sweet side, dried fruits, dark chocolate, or nut-based desserts are a good match.” California Brandy House’s California Old Fashioned
2 oz. of Argonaut Fat Thumb
¼ oz. of simple syrup
2-3 dashes of aromatic bitters
Stir to serve
Garnish: expressed orange peel with a brandied cherry
Serve in a rocks glass. For more cocktail recipes, visit argonautbrandy.com/cocktails.
For reservations, visit www.cellarpass.com/profile/california-brandy-house.
FEAST MAGAZINE’S ‘IN THE SPIRIT’
CHECK OUT NAPA VALLEY’S NEW WELCOME CENTER
Elizabeth Smith is a freelance contributing writer for the Napa Valley Register and Napa Valley Life Magazine as well as a communications and social media specialist. Reach her at email@example.com or visit her website at elizabethsmithconsulting.com.