Week after week comes a story of another craft brewer or distiller being bought up by a larger multi-national drinks operator. Whilst many of the once startup businesses continue to work with their new owners, Matthew Gaughan believes the essence of their company, its brands, and their drinks, have gone once they team up with a bigger player and feels particularly sad to see California’s first brandy distiller, Germain-Robin, become part of the Gallo empire.
He admits he might be a purist, and a romantic at heart when it comes to supporting craft breweries and distillers. Which makes it particularly hard when another icon from the craft scene is taken over by a drinks giant, says Matthew Gaughan.
In 1981, Hubert Germain-Robin was hitchhiking through Mendocino County, still a remote area of California, where he met a UC Berkeley professor, Ansley Coale. Germain-Robin had escaped to the west coast because he was disillusioned after his family had sold their Cognac firm, which had been in operation since 1782, to Martell, one of the four Cognac giants. The two of them got talking about the domination of big companies that had seen the Frenchman’s family sell their business.
That conversation led the two of them to establish Germain-Robin, California’s first producer dedicated to premium brandy. A copper Cognac still was imported from France, as were barrels dating back to the nineteenth century, and the distillery was established in the middle of nowhere on land that Coale had bought for a relatively small amount of money in 1973.
The idea was to replicate the quality of the best French brandy, while being freed from the restrictions of local regulations that governed an area such as Cognac. Germain-Robin made their own rules. Brandy was made from locally-grown Pinot Noir and Zinfandel without the fear of the aromas of the grapes interfering with the taste of the brandy. The brandies were sophisticated but fruity, evocative of the grape variety in a way that Cognac is not. These were world-class brandies that tasted like California rather than from somewhere in France.
But what comes around goes around. Germain-Robin have recently announced they have sold the business to Gallo, which makes this article read like an obituary. The price has not yet been made public, but this news follows the regular stories of craft breweries being sold to multi-national corporations.
The civil war of sell outs
The controversy around such purchases is huge and unavoidable. It’s understandable that small producers can’t resist more monied companies, but there’s a sour taste to it all. Instead of admitting to selling out because of the lure of the money – rewarding the hard work put in, feeding the children, etc. – those producers who sell out defend their decision in unedifying terms.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, who have been the most aggressive in buying up craft breweries, recently released a remarkable video promoting “The High End,” a marketing term grouping the most highly-regarded breweries the company have acquired (see below). From a seemingly prepared script, the brewers repeat a mantra that being bought by Anheuser-Busch is not the same as selling out: they remain craft breweries and there should be no distinction between a small, independent producer and one owned by a multi-national.
Walt Dickinson of Wicked Weed puts it most dramatically: “We’re all doing the same thing. We’re beer. And we’re fighting this bigger battle, which is wine and spirits.”
The beer industry, he adds, is engaged “in civil war. Meanwhile, this armada of boats is coming from across the Atlantic to crush us” – seemingly ignoring the wine and spirits industries of the US itself. “We need to band together,” he continues, “and grow this market as a whole.” This conclusion is of course one that could be echoed by anyone in any industry, but there are many different ways of interpreting and growing the market for craft beer as well as spirits.
The full story?
Without resorting to hyperbolic war metaphors, the statement from Ansley Coale of Germain-Robin (Hubert Germain-Robin left in 2006) is equally disingenuous in its refusal to admit the financial gain from the deal:
“For decades, Germain-Robin has struggled to place brandy distilled from California wine where it belongs: a category, long overlooked, in fact worthy of inclusion at all levels among the world’s finest spirits. We hope – indeed intend – that our unique knowledge and capabilities, supported and augmented by, and carefully integrated into, Gallo’s deep experience and powerful resources in both production and marketing, will help bring brandy from California wine the recognition it so richly deserves.”
The only world-class brandies from California are those made by Germain-Robin. Coale is resorting to the same excuse as the brewers, justifying the sale for the greater good of the industry, albeit in the language of a university professor rather than a young brewer.
The realist might argue it’s a sign of the maturation of the drinks industry in the US that it’s now going through the same consolidation that Cognac endured decades ago. Maybe I’m just too much of a romantic, a sucker for the story, but the sale of Germain-Robin to a giant such as Gallo saddens me as much as it disappoints me.
Behind every great drink there should be a story that’s a selling point as well as part of the enjoyment in savouring it. As with the once-craft breweries, more people will now have access to Germain-Robin, but the story those brandies had no longer resonates. Now, it’s simply: “Owned by Gallo.”