Food Republic contributor Tom Acitelli is no stranger to spirits. His latest book, Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits, delves into the history and culture of spirit making in USA, including that of American Cognac. The book is scheduled to release on June 1. Check out an excerpt below.
Ansley Coale had had his doubts about hitchhikers ever since one pulled a gun on him. There was something, though, about the pair on the side of the road now, and he slowed his slate-gray 504 Peugeot to the shoulder of the southbound lanes of Highway 101, north of San Francisco. It was mid-August 1981, warm and breezy in that typical Northern California way.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Coale thought, as the hitchhikers, a man and a woman, climbed into the car and he rejoined the traffic.
Hubert and Carole Germain-Robin were a married couple from western France. They were picking their way down the West Coast from Canada, toward Mexico and, ultimately, South America. The journey was one of self-discovery for Hubert in particular, as he explained to Coale, a former professor of ancient history at the University of California in Berkeley. The tall, shaggy-haired, bearded Hubert’s family had produced Cognac, that great French spirit distilled from grapes, since 1782, making him the ninth generation in the family to learn the trade. The trade was changing, however, as he also explained. Jules Robin & Cie, the family firm, also based in western France, near the city of Cognac itself, had pioneered the bottling of Cognac, rather than the traditional way of selling it in or from casks. This had allowed Jules Robin to not only move its wares farther and wider, but to develop special labels, a practice that became ubiquitous among Cognac producers. Then World War II came. The shock of invasion and occupation crippled much of the French distilling and winemaking industries. Although it survived, Jules Robin was never the same following Germany’s defeat in 1945. When the firm lost access to the Chinese market later that decade, after the Communists took Beijing, the clock started ticking on its financial viability. Rapid industrial consolidation was the order of the post-war day, whatever the industry: beer, home goods, radio stations, soda-pop, even Cognac made for centuries in small batches using traditional methods and grapes grown nearby. In 1964, one of what would come to be called the Big Four of Cognac producers, Martell, bought Jules Robin from an adolescent Germain-Robin’s father.
The deal did not dissuade the son from staying in the trade, though at first that life path seemed unlikely. Born and raised near Cognac—and, from age ten onward, in the city itself—Germain-Robin spent his teenage years after the Martell deal toiling on the fringes of Cognac production and only just to earn some spending money. He painted hoops on the barrels used for aging, for instance, or worked on bottling lines. He had never understood the fuss surrounding the techniques and the culture of the russet-colored, slightly sweet drink that fell within the brandy family of spirits. Besides, he found it too strong to enjoy anyway. This indifference ended shortly after his twentieth birthday, when Germain-Robin enrolled in a distillation course at the Bureau Distillation de Cognac, a state school dedicated to just what its name implied. A particularly good teacher there kindled an interest within Germain-Robin—and, even better, landed him a post-school job at a distillery where the distiller had just died.
It was an auspicious time to be getting into Cognac. The consolidation into the Big Four—actually, into the Big Two first, just Martell and Hennessey, and then the others by the mid-1970s—spurred the biggest production boom in nearly a century as did government support. The late 1960s marked the start of a sort of golden age of Cognac.
Produced in the neighboring Charente and Charente-Maritime regions of France, which includes the city that gave the drink its name, Cognac had been popular in France, and with French governments, since at least the Middle Ages. The regions that would become the hub of the international Cognac trade were also a hub of the international salt trade before that. The export system, via the Atlantic Ocean-connected Charente River, was already in place when more and more people outside the country began to appreciate the quality of the brandies born in the chalky soil of that particular part of France. Like the wines of the Bordeaux region to the south, the brandies of Charente and Charente-Maritime were by the eighteenth century recognized as the world leader in their libationary niche: brandies made from grapes (some brandies, such as grappa, are made from grape byproducts such as stems and seeds). This recognition drove an important development over the next two hundred years, one vital to distilleries’ bottom lines: France’s Cognacs became protected foodstuffs akin to the sparkling wine from the nation’s Champagne region. In order for a brandy to call itself Cognac, it had to originate in Charente and Charente-Maritime; come primarily from the Ugni Blanc grape, known locally as Saint Emilion des Charentes and better known in the U.S. as Trebbiano, after the Italian name; be distilled twice in certain ways in pot stills; aged for specific amounts of time; and contain no more than two percent cane sugar syrup (if it’s added at all) and caramel only for coloring, not flavoring (again, if it’s added at all). Such labyrinth regulations might seem officious, but France did not pick them accidentally.
The mid-nineteenth century had been the previous golden age of Cognac. Relative peace in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars as well as reductions in British tariffs and the opening of markets such as Russia and much of freshly independent Latin America meant that Cognac producers “could hardly produce enough Cognac to satisfy the demand.” Then, in the 1870s, a vine-munching bug called phylloxera struck Charente and Charente-Maritime, and of most of France, devastating a vast amount of vineyards and grinding Cognac production to a near-halt. It was only after American vines were grafted on to French ones to strengthen them did grape-growing levels, around Cognac and elsewhere, start to tick upward. That took years, followed by more years for production and aging. In the interim, unscrupulous distillers, especially in Italy and Germany, started passing off poorly made brandies as Cognacs. Spanish distillers ginned up Coniac and Russian ones Koniak to confuse consumers into thinking they were merely buying some variation of the great French brandy from the great French brandy-making regions. Some of these counterfeit Cognacs were not even made from grapes. Other ingredients might, to say the least, be a little iffy: Fake Cognacs produced in South and Central America used shoe leather to darken the drink to make it look like the real deal. The shortcuts were hurting the brand—and the business in Charente and Charente-Maritime. Producers and traders there had depleted their stocks from that pre-phylloxera golden age, and they needed help.
The French government stepped in forcefully, much as the U.S. government had with bourbon and whiskey around the same time. In 1909, national legislation swept away a bulk of the counterfeits and the imitators by decreeing that to call itself Cognac, a brandy had to come from certain areas of Charente and Charente-Maritime. This added Cognac to France’s Appellation d’origine contrôlée, a legendary system created the previous century to rescue the nation’s premier winemakers and winemaking regions from their own set of counterfeiters that the phylloxera blight had emboldened. The AOC system basically guaranteed that the label matched the contents: If a bottle said it was Cognac from Charente, then it contained Cognac from Charente. A decade after the original legislation, the government made it a crime to pretend otherwise. Other laws of the period further strengthened Cognac’s protected status, including ones requiring producers to register their stills, called alembics, and to declare each year in advance the amount of Ugni Blanc grapes they planned to harvest.
The world wars, beginning with the first in August 1914, offset much of the gains from these hard-won protections, as did Prohibition in the United States from 1920 to 1933. The latter meant the loss of a market that accounted for some two and a half million bottles of Cognac annually. The wars also meant the loss of thousands of Cognac workers to Europe’s grimly efficient armies. Around one-quarter of the farmhands in Charente and Charente-Maritime were killed in the First World War, for instance. By the time the Germans swept into France in May 1940 during the Second World War, the Charente River Valley was still in recovery mode, shaking off the deleterious effects of the first conflict and trying to marshal its production to capitalize on the stronger protections. Most of those efforts, though, ended up satisfying German demands. The occupiers not only skimmed money from any Cognac trading still going on after early 1940, they also simply took millions of bottles for themselves—around twenty million bottles total during the war. At one point, the Germans laid claim to one-third of all Cognac production. It was only through the quiet efforts of a German officer named Gustav Klaebisch that there was a sufficient supply left to kick off that post-war golden age. Klaebisch, who had grown up in the region when his father ran a Cognac trading house before World War I and who later worked as a Cognac importer in pre-World War II Germany, capped how much Cognac various German military units could take. Individual distilleries and wholesalers did their bit by conveniently running out of supplies such as cork and labels when it came to filling German orders.
By the end of the second war in 1945, the table was set, then, and the Cognac industry was off to the races. The government allowed the planting of thousands more acres of Ugni Blanc and crucially backed the classification of Cognac as an industrial product, rather than an agricultural one, under the rules of what would become the European Union. This allowed Cognac producers to take advantage of looser regulations for industry within much of Europe, opening up more markets and faster. Shipments bounced from thirty million bottles in 1945 to one hundred, twenty million in the early 1970s. Nearly one hundred, twenty thousand more acres of Charente and Charente-Maritime were turned over to Cognac production during the same period, often with enthusiastic government support. The Middle-East oil embargo of the early 1970s, as well as trade tiffs with the United States through much of the decade, would do little to slow this growth. It truly was the new golden age, indeed the brightest one yet, for the world’s premier brandy.
Hubert Germain-Robin was right, then, to plunge in. Yet, what he found upon his immersion bothered him. The consolidation that spawned the Big Four meant that “cognac, already a globally known product, was thus well on its way to becoming a largely internationally owned one as well,” according to one analyst. Production might still pivot on Charente and Charente-Maritime—it had to, under French law—but conglomerates for which Cognac was often just another line in the spreadsheet set and managed this production. Size counted. Companies devoured companies. Martell, for instance, bought Jules Robin; Seagram bought Martell; and Pernod Ricard and Diageo eventually split up Seagram. Scaling up to slake demand became the order of the day in the 1970s, and that scaling-up meant the near-end of Cognac distilling as generations had understood it, including those generations in Germain-Robin’s family. For one thing, whereas alambics would be hand-operated in the olden days, they were now electrified. For another, those same French laws that ballasted the industry at the start of the twentieth century hamstrung most attempts at innovation toward the century’s end, in particular which grapes distillers could use. More than anything, though, it was that frenetic growth, and the focus on more of the same, that bothered Germain-Robin. He saw a way of doing things, an entire way of life, disappearing. So, just past thirty, he set out with Carole for the New World for some soul-searching, first across Canada and then down into the United States, by then the world’s biggest Cognac market outside of France itself. Only through pure chance did they run into Ansley Coale, himself nearing forty. It was not unusual, however, for Coale to be driving north on Highway 101.
Coale grew up in northern New Jersey the son of his namesake, a giant in the field of demographics. Ansley Sr. directed Princeton University’s Office of Population Research for seventeen years, a position that took him around the world as he advised various governments, as well as the United Nations, about population shifts and growth. Coale Jr. followed his father to college at Princeton and then on to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he studied ancient Greek and Roman history, earning his doctorate and then heading westward in 1971, to the University of California-Berkeley at the height of its countercultural cacophony. There he taught ancient history, but soon tired of the faculty politics. In 1973, he bought an old two thousand-acre sheep ranch about two hours’ drive north of Berkeley in Ukiah, a town of barely ten thousand residents in what was then a largely remote and rugged Mendocino County. The ranch was more than one thousand, one hundred feet above sea level and accessible only via a heavily forested, pothole-riddled, one-lane road. Coale, who wore wire-rimmed glasses, kept his hair closely cropped and sported a moustache shaped like an inverted V, paid two hundred thousand dollars for the acreage, although he was not sure what he would do with the place besides use it as a retreat from Berkeley. He left the university in 1975, and moved to Africa with his wife, who was working in public health for the UN aid organization UNESCO. When they returned to the Bay Area, Coale started buying and fixing up old houses in the region. This work clarified his plans for the Mendocino County land. For one thing, he made enough money to move there, which he and his wife did. They also had enough money banked, around thirty-five thousand dollars, to perhaps start planting wine grapes. The California wine industry was itself entering a golden age, and the prospects for success, even beyond the storied Napa Valley to the southeast, seemed solid. Coale sold what turned out to be his last renovated house in 1981, and set out on his wine-grape path.
Into that path stepped Germain-Robin. Coale offered to put the tired hitchhikers up for the night. As they drove to the old ranch in Ukiah, the distiller told the ex-academic of the changes back home in Cognac, of how giant conglomerates were hounding the craft of largely handmade, small-batch brandy distillation out of existence, of how French laws meant to boost the industry were instead now stifling innovation just as more and more people learned of the pleasures and joys of Cognac. Mostly—and this is what Coale heard more than what Germain-Robin actually told him—the younger man spoke of his own desire to perhaps turn back the clock on all of this, stand athwart the change, and save Cognac from its own success. The thought then struck Coale hard: “This will be six times more interesting than planting a vineyard.”
This story was adapted from Tom Acitelli’s new book, Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits.