October 2009

Old Brand, New Brandy

By: Daedalus Howell
Photos by: Ryan Lely

The Korbel story begins in Bohemia, when young, charismatic freedom fighter Francis Korbel was imprisoned for participating in the Revolution of 1848. He later escaped in perhaps the most casual getaway in penal history—by strolling through an open gate while smoking a cigar.

Later, Korbel and two of his brothers emigrated to the United States and seemed to devote themselves to creating eclectic resumés; highlights included cigar-making (and, more improbably, “cigar box repair”), a stint as lumber barons and, finally, winemaking and distilling.

Korbel has a long tradition of fine brandies. Today, the portfolio consists of Korbel V.S.O.P, Korbel XS and Korbel “Classic.”
By century’s end, Francis Korbel had produced an award-winning brandy, and Korbel’s present-day Master Distiller, Paul Ahvenainen, continues to do so today.

“We are still true California brandy,” says Ahvenainen. “All of the grapes and wine are sourced, 100 percent, from California. That’s not true of everybody; there’s a lot of excess wine around the world, and some of it ends up in compulsory distillation programs, which might end up in your gas tank or your brandy bottle. That’s not our modus operandi.”

Ahvenainen is passionate about his work, which, he reminds us, is no mere byproduct of the winemaking process. He begins with Korbel wines made predominately from white grapes such as French Colombard and Chenin Blanc, as well as red varieties such as Barbera and Zinfandel. The result is Korbel’s current triumvirate of handcrafted of brandies:  Korbel Brandy (usually referred to as “the Classic”), the V.S.O.P Gold Reserve and the XS.

“That’s the key to this whole thing—if you put garbage in you get garbage out. You take good raw materials, you take grapes and make wine and follow quality protocols and you can make a good brandy. There are no shortcuts,” admonishes Ahvenainen with a smile. “We take grapes, make wine; we distill that wine in our own still at our own distillery, put that in our own oak barrels and bottle it. It’s all done by us, in our facilities.”

In fact, Korbel is the only major maker of brandy at which the entire process is conducted as a single business. The distillation is conducted in DiGiorgio, California, a small rural town near Bakersfield that boasts whimsical street names like Weedpatch and Sheepdip Avenue. From there, the brandy is shipped up to Korbel’s wine country location in Guerneville, Sonoma County, for blending and bottling.

Though Ahvenainen’s brandies share common DNA, each has a distinct flavor profile. The Classic lives up to its name with an array of butterscotch and vanilla flavors underscored by dried cherry, hints of cranberry and whiff of what Ahvenainen is fond of calling cigar box.

“It’s about the smoothness and bringing forward the natural fruit in the wine,” says Ahvenainen, who contrasts the smokier character of the V.S.O.P. (Very Special Old Pale), as well its more dominant cigar notes, to illustrate his point.
Master Distiller Paul Ahvenainen inspects a glass of Korbel V.S.O.P. in front of the historic tower that once housed the distillery.

Hints of Bosch pear and distinctive oak characteristics also serve to distinguish the V.S.O.P. from its siblings. “There’s really more of a boldness to the V.S.O.P.,” says Ahvenainen. “Most of these products are consumed mixed, so we wanted to make something that would stand out more.”

Indeed, whereas many brandies will disappear in cola, for example, more discerning brandy drinkers may prefer to taste the mixer in addition to—not instead of—their brandy. On this point, however, Ahvenainen is circumspect. “I prefer people to enjoy it however they choose to,” he concedes. “Personally, at home, I’ll drink it straight. I’m very simple guy. I’ll put a splash of it in a cup of coffee or some tea or something. There are a lot of younger people getting into the whole mixability thing.”

Not one to shirk an emerging market, Ahvenainen created Korbel’s XS (Extra Smooth), enhanced with premium vanilla, natural orange essence, spices and pure cane sugar and intended to be mixed or enjoyed on its own merits. “Traditionalism is a good thing, but you shouldn’t be a slave to it,” explains Ahvenainen, who nonetheless remains conscious of the fact that he helms a program that has existed within three of the seven centuries since brandy was first popularized in the 1400s.

  When Paul Young, Heck Estates’ Director of Marketing and Sales, tested Korbel XS with consumers, he was pleased with the results. “It surprises people, because they think of the Captain Morgans of the world as being a mixable drink but not a true spirit. When they try the XS, their eyes kind of pop out because it’s brandy, but with these other things. It’s more of a serious drink,” says Young, who also oversaw Korbel’s new packaging efforts, which echo the classic design of the company’s popular sparkling wines, creating better brand synergy between the products.

“If you stand still, you get run over. You always have to be working on things,” opines Ahvenainen, who remains one of a handful of distillers working in Sonoma wine country—a fact not lost on him.

“Brandy is the essence of wine,” observes Ahvenainen, who adds with a smile, “I don’t understand why wine people wouldn’t be comfortable with brandy.”

Korbel is part of the Heck Estates portfolio.


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