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California Brandy Seeks to Head Off Sales Stagnation

California brandy producers met last month in Fresno, California, with bartenders, journalists and others for what they called a summit to focus on how to promote their product. Participating distilleries included Germain-Robin, Osocalis Distillery, Charbay Distillery & Winery, F. Korbel & Bros, and Gallo’s E & J Distillers.

“There’s been great stuff made here for decades, but it has languished in ignorance,” said Doug Frost, a wine consultant and one of the organizers of the event. “It’s a matter of invisibility.”

There’s a pressing need to raise the profile of California-made brandy: sales have been static the past couple of years, producers report, bucking the trend of France’s Cognac and other brandies, which continue to show healthy sales growth.

In 2016, U.S. sales of super-premium and high-end premium brandies surged 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Meanwhile, premium and value brandy categories each rose about 1 percent during the same period, DISCUS reported. Most American brandy falls into the latter two categories, DISCUS said.

Although sales of California brandy are not available in aggregate, producers privately acknowledge that sales have been sluggish over the past two to three years, with most reporting single-digit growth. Some, like Germain-Robin, have countered by bringing out more custom and limited-release special bottlings.

Grape-Based Brandy’s Identity Crisis

At the so-called California Brandy Summit, producers emphasized that the state’s grape-based brandy suffers from the perception that it is a commodity, and that California terroir should be highlighted, as it is with wine. Other suggestions included making more brandy at an affordable price point, potentially creating a designation that would emphasize higher-than-average quality standards, and recognizing estate and appellation brandy.

Producers lamented that in the craft cocktail world, “it’s all about the bourbons and the other craft spirits,” while brandy is always left on the shelf.

That said, “We think that future growth will come from millennials who have learned to drink brown spirits,” said Ansley Coale, co-founder and principal at Germain-Robin.

Another proposal came from David Warter, senior director of Spirits Distillation at E & J Distillers. He floated the idea of creating a “straight brandy” category, similar to straight bourbon, to help drive the idea of premiumization in the category.