1983 James F. Guymon Lecture: California Brandy — Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Elie C. Skofis

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Here is another lost text on distillation from the very important figure in the California agriculture, Elie Skofis. The paper was stealthily contained in the first appendix to Ruth Teiser’s 1987 interview with Skofis for the Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series. The PDF had some problems so I extracted the lecture and touched it up so it would be better indexed by google and hopefully reach some new audiences. I did not find the time to copy over the figures and charts, those interested enough can look at the PDF and find them themselves.

Skofis tells an incredible 20th century history of California brandy making and even drops a little science. One idea in particular is not well known but easily would be worth thousands of dollars to any of the new commercial distilleries. I will let people find the gem for themselves.

The Teiser interview mentions that Skofis was trying to write a brandy product text in his retirement to guide California producers. In his lecture, Skofis mentions that James Guymon was trying to do the same but died untimely. He makes mention of Guymons seven published articles on brandy making as well as numerous unpublished and even makes a plea for help edit Guymons papers and publish them. I don’t think any of this work got done though it would likely benefit the new craft spirits movement.

Robert Léauté from Remy Martin mentioned Elie Skofis’ 1983 lecture in his 1989 James Guymon lecture.

“slight changes can be made: recommendation (4), no SO2 or no more than 20ppm to avoid having high quantities of acetaldehyde in brandy and recommendation (5), fermentation temperature between 68°F to 77°F. This is mainly done to reduce acetaldehyde and ethyl acetate by evaporation.”


Given at 1983 – American Society of Enologists
Annual Meeting – June 20, 1983


Elie C. Skofis – Lecturer

Fellow enologists — or should I address all of you today as fellow brandy makers. It is, indeed, a great honor to have been selected by the A.S.E. and U.C. Davis Enology Department as the 1983 James F. Guymon Memorial Lecturer. There is no one in my 37 years in the California wine industry who influenced me more on the importance of using science and artful skills in brandy production than Dr. Jim Guymon. Those of us here today who were fortunate enough not only to have been able to work with him but also to have been taught by him are richer in each of our careers.

His impact on the California brandy industry has been brought out by many in our industry over the years, and I have seen how his dedication and untiring research has helped us in upgrading California brandy making. Later in this talk, I shall bring forth various developments which have been influenced by Dr. Guymon and their benefits to us.

First, I wish to cover a period of California brandy history which predates all of us; that is, the period from early California to Prohibition in the United States –- Prohibition — the big “experiment” from 1919 to December 1, 1933. As a youngster in Sacramento, I remember Prohibition with all its mystique when I would hear about the Wright Act and about neighbors who had been arrested because they were selling so-called “bootleg” wine or spirits.

Many articles have been written about the earliest date on brandy making in California but, unfortunately, we don’t have very good historical records as to when it began and who started it. References are made to General Portola’s first expedition in 1769 into what is now California, and that brandy was included in the supplies. In the same year (1769) the Mission San Diego was founded, and the Mission fathers planted vineyards for wine. They planted an unidentified grape variety which became known as “Mission.” Distillation techniques and equipment used were crude, but a product called “aguardiente” (brandy) was produced. As other missions were formed and more and more vines planted, greater amounts of brandy were made; and one mission, the Mission San Fernando, was said to have produced 2,000 barrels in the 1830’s. Father Duran, the brandy maker at this mission, was said to have made brandy that was “doubly distilled and as strong as the reverend father’s faith. (1) ” This was, undoubtedly, a strong brandy. In general, the missions made, used, and sold wine and brandy without any government controls; but the brandy was primarily used to fortify the altar wines. (2)

By the late 1830’s, the missions, as a result of the secularization acts by the Mexican government, were in disrepair and brandy stills and activity abandoned.(2)

In the early 1830’s, a French vintner named Jean Louis Vignes(who had arrived in California from Bordeaux and settled in the Los Angeles area) bought some 104 acres of land (where the Los Angeles Union Station now stands) and planted grapes. Jean Louis Vignes, who was also known as Don Luis del Aliso by his neighbors, is credited with being the first person to bring European vine cuttings to California, and his first vintage appeared around 1837. Vignes made both wine and brandy — called by its Spanish name, aguardiente. He was an experienced distiller as well as a cooper. By 1840, his brandy was being shipped to many other settlements in California and was selling for $4.00/gallon – a very good profit. Many consider Vignes the father of California commercial brandy, He believed in aging in oak casks for up to six, eight, or ten years. A nephew, Jean Louis Sansevaine, bought out his uncle’s vineyards and facilities in 1857 and continued to carry on the wine and brandy business.(3)

According to H. C. Peterson, Curator of the Sutter’s Fort Historical Museum, in an article he wrote in the SACRAMENTO BEE on September 1, 1934 he reported that Captain Sutter probably established the first commercial distillery at Sutter’s Fort in California in 1841. Apparently, Mr. Peterson was not aware of Vignes. Captain Sutter used wild grapes from that area and Indian labor to harvest, crush, and make the wine for brandy. He had constructed a still which was heated by a fire built underneath it. Water for the condensing of vapors was brought up in buckets from the surrounding ponds outside the fort. As the story goes, in time the Indians discovered the secret entrance to the oak cask aging room and thereby managed to remove and consume the brandy stored there. Seeing the fighting, bloodshed and murders which resulted from the consumption of his brandy, Captain Sutter decided to close down his operation after three years rather than allow all the problems created from the drinking of his brandy to continue. His brandy had, apparently, been well received in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. Captain Sutter’s wine cellar and distillery room have been preserved and can be seen today at Sutter ‘s Fort.

It appears to me that Jean Louis Vignes was probably the first commercial brandy producer in California.

From that period on — and particularly after 1865 with the increase in vineyards and wineries in California and especially in the San Joaquin Valley, brandy making was on its own. No production figures are available prior to 1865. In that year, 20,415 gallons of brandy were officially distilled in California — and by 1866 this quadrupled. By 1882 production had reached half a million gallons; by 1890, one million

gallons, and 1.5 million gallons by 1891. This increase was greatly due to the phylloxera vineyard damage in France which gave California brandy producers an opportunity to supply the brandy shortage. This came at a time in California when there was, as there is today, an oversupply of grapes. Even Congress recognized the need to assist the California brandy industry by passing the Bonded Warehouse Act which permitted wineries to distill surplus wines into brandy, store it, but not pay the large spirits tax until it was sold. This helped the industry and resulted in a five-fold increase in brandy exports of 500,000 gallons in 1891. Also, California brandy began receiving international recognition.

In Slide 1 (which is a Table I dug out of the Wine Institute Historical Brandy Files) we see that better statistics were being kept; and in this table, the data was secured from the source indicated the Giannini Foundation, U.C. Berkeley, on both brandy and fortifying brandy production.

Most of the brandy from the 1830’s to 1870’s was made in small pot stills until the introduction of continuous stills made by copper smiths like Sanders & Co. and Ludwig Wagner of San Francisco. Some of these Sanders stills were resurrected and used in the years following the repeal of Prohibition.

There is an interesting story about early brandymakers. Leland Stanford, the wealthy railroad builder, founder of Stanford University, and even governor of the state of California, had, by the year 1888, planted over 3,000 acres of grapes in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley – mostly in Tehama and Butte counties. The vines were of French origin, and his purpose was to make good French-style wines. A winery was built in Tehama which he called “Vina.” The story is that the first crop was not suitable for wines and was used instead to make brandy. Within four years, Stanford was producing over 20% of all California brandy. After his death in 1893, the winery and vineyards were bequeathed to Stanford University. The winery and distillery continued to be operated until 1916 when the Prohibition movement; the onset of World War I; and other problems caused the Stanford University trustees to close down the winery and destroy the vines. Today, the winery is a monastery for an order of Trappist monks.(5)

You might also be interested to know that originally in California brandy was made mostly from the Mission grape and some other V. Vinifera such as from the Stanford vineyard. Leon Adams, in his book THE WINES OF AMERICA (12) said that a man named William Thompson brought to the Sacramento Valley around 1872 a grape which no one really knew where he got it, and which Thompson called, “Lady de Coverly.” The grape, later called Thompson Seedless, gained popularity and was planted extensively in the 1890’s and 1900’s in the valleys — San Joaquin and Sacramento — because of its yield and multi-uses, but had limited use in brandy making until after Repeal. This was partly due to the valleys’ growers being conservative and sensitive to criticism, and they preferred being considered growers of raisin and table grapes. Also, around the turn of the century, the Tokay grape was planted in the Lodi area and shortly after was also being used to make brandy.

With the advent of Prohibition, there was very limited brandy production. The Federal Government did issue a few permits for limited brandy production for “medicinal” purposes. It was possible during Prohibition for a person to obtain a physician’s prescription to purchase spirits– whiskey or brandy, and many such prescriptions were issued.

In 1929 an organization was established by many wineries of that period and formed along the lines of the old California Wine Association. It was called Fruit Industries. (5) A.R. Morrow was one of the key figures in this new organization. One of my early teachers and supervisors , a man who worked with A.R. Morrow and Fruit Industries, was Elbert M. Brown. E.M. Brown, I have been told, was also the first enologist to graduate just prior to World War I, from U.C. Berkeley where he studied under Professor Bioletti and the then up and coming young instructor, W. Cruess. Elbert Brown was also the first recipient of the A.S.E. Merit Award. Throughout my association with him and during my early years at Italian Swiss Colony, he used to relate many stories about the shenanigans which occurred in the brandy distillery operations during Prohibition.

In anticipation of repeal, the Federal Government issued a special permit for Fruit Industries and others to distill, store and age over 1,000,000 P.G.’s of beverage brandy. At the time of repeal (on December 1, 1933) therefore there were stocks of brandy, even though less age of which were available for sale. This was also true of the wine made ready for sale on Repeal Day. As of June 30, 1933, there were approximately 1,200,000 P.G.’s in Federally-bonded warehouses in Califomia. (6)

With the repeal of Prohibition by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, there was a new beginning for California brandy. In 1933 some 2,400,000 P.G.’s of beverage brandy were made – some of which was even distilled from concentrate; and in subsequent years, this production increased.

In those early years after repeal, California grape brandy was identified as three types: cognac, muscat, and grappa. I bring this out, as the term “cognac” was then being used; but a few years later, as a result of French protests. U.S. government regulations prohibited its use.

Our statistics for production of beverage brandy (or commercial brandy as it was mostly called then) during the post-repeal years and up to around 1938 are unclear since there was no real break out of the production figures for fortifying brandy, as it was then called, and commercial brandy. It has been estimated that during the five years after repeal up to 1938 around 1.5 to 2.0 million P.G.’s of brandy a year were produced.

Due to the oversupply of grapes in 1938, as we have today a program instigated by the State of California was established that year whereby a large portion of the grapes were converted to commercial brandy and high proof. Approximately 45% of the tons were thus diverted to help stabilize the grape market and wine industry. The Growers Grape Products Association (GGPA) was formed to handle the brandy pool. In the January, 1968 issue of WINES & VINES, Jim Riddell, a noted brandy maker, wrote that even though a quality board was established to pass on the quality of the Prorate brandy lots, the general quality was poor, and this haunted the post-war California brandy industry. There had been a large surge in the sale of California brandy during World War II; this was particularly due to lower inventories of whiskies and restricted use of grains for whiskey production during the war. This whiskey shortage was offset by the development, and the public’s acceptance, of the blended whiskies which had less of heavy whiskey and oak flavor. Even this extension of blended whiskey — 25% straight whiskey and 75% neutral grain spirits — did not furnish sufficient quantities of alcoholic spirits to satisfy public demand — particularly with the increase in consumption by the military and the general public with more money to spend. (See Slide 2)

Brandy was another source of beverage spirits. Many consumers, how ever, became disappointed by certain poor quality brandies being marketed and did not forget this after World War II. I heard many consumers at that time state that they would not purchase brandy because of this. Poor spirit beverages were not only confined to brandy but also to some blended whiskies which utilized poor quality neutral spirits which were then available for use. Seagram 7 Crown was a better blended whiskey, and we can say that it was a forerunner of public acceptance of lighter spirits and brandies. Even today, Seagram 7 Crown sold 6,000,000 cases in 1982 and is the third largest brand spirit item.

In any war environment there are shortages, and World War II was no exception. Therefore, with this unique opportunity to satisfy a demand for distilled spirits, much brandy (good and bad), as well as wine (also good and bad) was sold. Much of this brandy was from the pro-rate and some was made from grapes harvested, due to the vineyard labor shortage, in late December and even January. The grape quality was poor, and any brandy made was poor. Also, during World War II all raisin varieties (Thompson) had to be made into raisins for food – particularly for the 12,000,000 people in the U.S. armed services plus our Allies.

I am devoting extra time and attention to this area, as I want to stress that the California brandy makers and marketeers were aware of these quality problems and of the need to produce brandies that the American consumer would buy. California brandy experts of that day evaluated all the brandy stocks on hand and determined that Americans, as with other brown spirits, wanted a good brandy, but somewhat lighter in flavor. The heavier brandies, even some long-aged in new oak barrels, were not as acceptable. Most of the pro-rate brandy after World War II was distilled into high proof. Another problem affecting brandy quality (besides poor grapes) had been the pre-war lack of good brandy making and distillery technology. We must remember that after repeal, or 15 years of Prohibition, not many of the pre-Prohibition knowledgeable brandy makers were around. Some, like Lee Jones of Shewan-Jones and founder of the Lejon brand; L. K. Marshall of Bear Creek Winery; A.R. Morrow of Fruit; and E. M. Brown with Shewan-Jones and National

Distillers, were basically the ones who understood the brandy business and who trained others after repeal. In my view, the period just after World War II was the time when California brandy makers became more aware of this need to improve; and we were fortunate that Dr. Jim Guymon was on the scene at that time to assist us with research (at U.C.) and by his frequent visits to wineries to discuss all aspects of brandy making. I, myself, can’t recall the number of visits and long hours of discussion many of us had with Dr. Guymon on this subject of how to improve our brandy making techniques.

The timing in the production of brandies was a big problem. We must realize that post-Repeal and post-war California wine industry sales were 75%-80% dessert wines. Dessert wines require fortifying brandy, or wine spirits/ or high proof as we call them today. The demand on our distillery equipment was for processing distilling material generated from that part of the grapes not used for juice. Also, remember that we produce approximately 90 W.G.’s of dessert wine per ton of grapes vs. 180 W.G.’s of table wines. This meant that almost half the grape tonnage was distilled as high proof. The winery distilleries of that period were designed, based on the wineries’ crush, only to handle this large amount of grape tonnage for high proof. As a result, unless you were only a brandy maker — and there were only a few such operations — a winery had to do most of its brandy distilling immediately after the season, and only do limited brandy making during the crush season. For many wineries, brandy making was a by-product. Most distilleries did their brandy making post-crush season. My first brandy making experience was with the ISC, Clovis Winery, the old La Paloma Winery, which was greatly expanded in 1946. We had two new high proof stills and one still only for brandy. Most wineries were not as well equipped. During this post-war period a number of areas involving brandy production needed improving. There was the need to produce better wines for distillation rather than use, as had been done by some, the balance of the grape after drawing off some free run for wine only. Also, there was a good deal of controversy between the Federal Alcohol Regulatory Agency and the brandy makers as to the definition of “brandy” and what material was eligible for distillation into beverage brandy. In 1941 the Brandy Gauging Manual was amended so that there were three basic classifications of distillate made from fruit-grape. These were grape brandy, neutral grape brandy, and spirits-fruit grape. Also, there was the definition that brandy — whether neutral or grape — had to have the “taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to brandy.” In addition, grape brandy was to be distilled at less than 170 proof, and neutral brandy at between 170-190 proof with both these distillates to be made from the whole fruit.

Although there was considerable debate and controversy over this ruling, the Federal Government’s position remained firm. Regulations required that these products grape and neutral brandy — be distilled solely from the juice or mash of whole, sound, ripe fruit or from natural grape wine; and their interpretation of what constituted “natural grape wine” was what we call “table wine;” i.e., 11-13%., dry wine. The reason this was such a controversial point was that the brandy makers wanted to be able to produce a new type of brandy — lighter in flavor, or congeners, and basically the fusel oils, and primarily the amyl alcohol fraction of these congeners. At this post-war period with new distillery expansion taking place, some new still columns were erected, and could under approved statements of process permit the heads fraction to be redistilled with live steam and returned at lower proof via the closed pipeline system back to the main column and blended with the main brandy stream, and thus produce a lower congener product.

The regulation at that time required that the product draw not be over 170 proof at the tri-brix. Since that period, and during my term as Chairman of Wine Institute’s Laws and Regulations Committee, the regulation was changed so proof of distillation is now determined in the production tank.

With the desire to produce lighter brandies and to terminate all the controversy of that day with the Federal Alcohol Agency, the regulation was interpreted by the government in the early 1950’s that a fortified wine would be considered a standard wine and could be used in beverage brandy making. This was a big step forward for the California Brandy Industry. This change in the Federal position was most important since it enabled all brandy producers to make different level congener brandies; and with the American taste for lighter spirit products (like Seagram’s 7-Crown), this was made possible.

In the years following World War II the California brandy producers, cognizant of the damage done to the brandy industry from some low-quality brandies which had been marketed, changed their attitude toward brandy. Improved technology, both in the production of the wine to be distilled and changes in equipment and distillation control, resulted in uniform good brandy being produced.

During this post-war period, Dr. Guymon conducted considerable research in brandy production enabling brandy producers to better understand why certain practices were important in the production of a quality product.

In the period from 1939 through 1943 and prior to his military service — Dr. Guymon had either alone, or with others, authored and published seven articles on brandy. Most of this work was specifically directed to subjects such as fermentation mechanisms, analysis of sugar, pH, and tannin, etc. From the period 1948 to 1977, however, he authored or co-authored some 77 published articles on subject such as mutant yeast fermentations to reduce fusel oil; understanding of distillery operations; analysis of many beverage brandies; improved analytical procedures by gas chromatography ; brandy aging, including warehousing loss studies; and other miscellaneous subjects. Some of Dr. Guymon’s co-authors were E. Crowell, John Ingraham, J. Nakagiri , M. Amerine, and C. Ough. And there are other unpublished research projects in Dr. Guymon’s files which we hope will someday be reviewed and published. (See Slide 3)

In 1976, the California Brandy Advisory Board funded a project to compile the published papers of Dr. Guymon. This project — “Compilation of Findings on Existing and Ongoing Research Concerning California Brandy Production and Aging” was concluded in August, 1977 when two volumes of these Guymon articles were turned over to the California Brandy Advisory Board. At that time, it was hoped that this would be the prelude to a book on California brandy by Dr. Guymon, but his untimely death shortly after retirement halted this. We hope that sometime in the near future all his published and unpublished works will be compiled and presented in book form. Any volunteers?

In my opinion a very important contribution affecting our brandy industry made by Dr. Guymon was his work on factors affecting higher alcohol formation during fermentation, thus finding ways of reducing these higher alcohols in wine with a resulting lower fusel oil content in the brandy. Also, distillation work done by Dr. Guymon demonstrated the distribution of various higher alcohols — propyl, buty, and amyl — at the various proofs on still columns.

Also, another very important research project — which resulted in millions of dollars of savings to both the California brandy and grain alcohol industries — was the recycling of the heads(aldehydes fractions) back to the alcohol fermentation so that up to 95%. of the aldehydes disappeared in the fermentation.

I became involved with Dr. Guymon in this project when I was with Schenley. We utilized the high heads spirits by adding to sweet juice, which in turn was refermented with other distillery material. After distillation, we had a clean spirits. Previously, if we treated the heads with various chemicals such as caustic or potassium permanganate to destroy the aldehydes, we got a redistilled spirit, fishey or chocolaty in aroma, and poor in quality. Overall, we lost approximately 1% of the original P.G. input as high head distillate which was destroyed. Guymon’s process resulted in a recycling and recovery of this heads fraction with little effect in final quality of the spirit and reduced loss of very high heads distillate (over 10,000 ppm aldehyde) to 0.1-0.2% of the original P.G. Input.

From the results of this work on aldehyde recycling we, at Roma and Schenley, repeated this in a Schenley Canadian whiskey distillery to determine if this was feasible with grain spirits as well. It proved very successful. From industry results and requests from all distilled spirits segments – grain and brandy — the U.S. Federal Agency approved this aldehyde refermentation process to recover these heads fractions into usable spirits. Just how much money has been saved since 1956 due to this Guymon research project is unknown, but I would not be exaggerating if I stated that since 1956 I conservatively estimate that there has been a savings of at least $10,000,000 from redistilled heads previously destroyed [short segment of missing text].

Dr. Guymon’ s impact on today’s production of higher quality California brandies was in his emphasis on the following:

1. Proper grape maturity — high acid and low pH;

2. Preference for white or lightly-colored varieties (such as Tokay, Mission, Emperor) over red or black varieties;

3. Separation of juice from skins or pomace prior to fermentation and handling them as a dry white table wine;

4. Low S02 – (not over 75 ppm in the brandy wine fermentation);

5. Fermentation temperature lower than 75F;

6. Distillation of the fermented wine immediately after fermentation with a partial racking from heavy fermentation lees ;If wine fortified, 7. only high quality wine spirits used.

The above deals with distilling materials which, in my opinion, are the keystone to quality brandy. The other aspect has to do with the distillation of this DM into brandy.

To produce a uniform brandy, good control of the distillery process is required. In the past, the distiller learned to produce a good brandy after he had learned how to manually control the multiple variables in the distillation, and a neophyte distiller was awed at how a little adjustment here and there did the job. Actually, with our modern instrumentation, we can effectively control the distillation. Prior to the present instrument controls, the operator had to manually control the flow rates of the DM input and product output; the heads draw; the water control to the dephlegmator ; the reflux; steam, etc., and a change in any one of these variables would cause an upset distillery condition. Today, particularly with automatic instrumentation, we can control many of the variables such as installing in the bottom of the beer still a base pressure control for steam, a temperature control for overhead vapors which, in turn, can control the brandy product draw. There are other points in the distillation where certain variables can be fixed and automatic controls modulate the feed, product draw-off, water control, etc. to insure a smooth operation.

California’s brandy producers have learned much from the whiskey distillers. During my early experience with both National and Schenley, I learned the importance of a clean fermented wine, or beer, as it’s called by the whiskey distillers, if a clean distillate is to be produced. In whiskey production, the beer is distilled as it is completing its fermentation to insure that no adverse microbiological action takes place. And an experienced distiller can tell by smelling the distillate if this bacterial action has occurred even before any chemical tests are made to confirm an “aldehyde” formation. No heads are removed in whiskey, yet the final product will be low in heads. To whiskey producers, a clean beer results in a clean whiskey, and the same can be said of brandy. Therefore, anyone who wishes to produce a quality brandy must first produce a quality wine.

We should take a look at both California and import brandies to get some view on the congener levels.

Slide 4 shows a recent analysis of twelve California brandies which represent approximately 70%, of case sales. Please note that most brandies are lower in the iso amyl fraction, indicating either use of fortified brandy wine or special distillation techniques. Also note that of the twelve brandies apparently only two (#2 and #8) are unrectified or “straight”. The other have approximately 1.0 to 2 . 07 of sugar and glycerol. Recent statistics show that approximately 9% of U.S.A. brandy is unrectified.

The French brandies were from an analysis prepared a few years ago on some French brandies which had been imported and bottled in the United States. In my view, the main points are the higher amounts of higher alcohols, aldehydes, and ethyl acetates — and subsequent longer aging. It should also be noted that the Spanish brandies — very large sellers in the United States and worldwide — have very low congener levels — particularly in the lower amyl fraction requiring possibly less aging time, some rectification, and lower brandy flavors (yet very acceptable to consumers). The two Mexican brandies also are slightly lower in amyls, but one has a very high ester content.

I have dwelt on the congener level at length, as I believe this is one of our main yardsticks in classifying brandies as to heavy, medium, and light. Congeners give us flavors, some better than others. High amyl fraction is unacceptable to taste unless aged for a very, very long time; yet a medium or light congener brandy made from a clean wine and properly distilled can give a delightful brandy which, with less aging and some rectification, is pleasing to consumers.

Today we understand what is required to produce good brandies, and most brandy producers are doing a good job of producing brandies which in tasting can be graded very close. Yes, the more experienced brandy tasters can pick out the lighter brandies from medium and heavy brandies, but generally, as shown in the slide, the big majority of our California brandies are within a fairly close range.

I believe we have overcome consumer concerns surrounding brandy due to the poor quality brandies of the World War II period and shortly thereafter. The growth of brandy is real and slightly steadier than the growth of wine. In Slide 5, giving a 25-year view of California brandy inventories, production, and bottled brandy entering distribution channels, we can see a very positive long term growth in the consumption of our California brandies.

In a recent WINES & VINES article (9) (March, 1983 issue) the observation was made that “Brandy is becoming increasingly important to wine, grape folk;” it is further noted that the long-term trend in brandy sales in the United States has been consistently going up, with very little fluctuation; and that U.S. brandy sales increased some 208% in the 20 year period from 1961 – 1981 as compared to wine which increased approximately 195%. The total for all distilled spirits during that same period only increased 87.3%, or less than half of the growth registered by brandy.

Latest reports (10) comparing the 1982 vs. 1981 sales of distilled spirits show that brandy sales maintained around a 3 . 5% increase as opposed to a 2.0% sales decrease for all distilled spirits. The only other major spirits showing growth were liquers and cordials – and Tequila. This indicates that the public is purchasing brandy and is apparently willing to pay the price, as evidenced by the steady increase of import brandies, which are primarily the cognacs. In 1982(9) these import sales were around 6,700,000 W.G. or 2,800,000 cases. Converted to grapes prior to aging losses, this is approximately 145,000 tons, or 5% of the 1982 crush.

What can we, as California brandy producers, do to increase sales and consumption of our product, considering that all brandy sales represent only 4.57 of all spirits sold in the U.S.?

In 1971, the producers of California brandy formed the California Brandy Advisory Board. This board operates under a State Marketing Order and is financed by a $.05 per proof gallon assessment at point of production. For instance during the recent five-year period of brandy production of an average annual 15,000,000 proof gallons, approximately $750,000 was collected. For your information, all California brandy producers belong to this board; and I believe that at the latest count we have twelve California brandy producers.

Quoting from Jim McManus (11) — the Board’s President, he has stated that, “The Board’s purpose was to mount a communications program that would enhance the quality image of California brandy and its uses as a versatile beverage not just confined to a snifter for after dinner consumption.” The Board also performs extensive work in other areas such as trade barriers and brandy marketing in other states. The Board’s efforts have resulted in greatly expanding sales; for example, in the Sun Belt states, which were primarily areas of lower penetration. Of course, brand support by the brandy producers has been most effective. This, coupled with the California Brandy Advisory Board’s work and with the high quality of our brandies, has resulted in our present position. Considerable advertising money is being spent in the United States by foreign producers. Hennessy Cognac has launched an $8,000,000 ad campaign. Hennessy is the leading cognac brand in the United States today.

I believe we can do more to expand consumption of California brandies.

Today, many specialty spirit products such as Southern Comfort (using whiskey), Grand Marnier (using cognac) , Drambuie (using Scotch whiskey), Irish Mist (using Irish whiskey), and other similar products are being sold. Sales of liquers/cordials are double those of brandy, and brandy specialty products — with the proper market support — would, in my opinion, be accepted by consumers. This is a challenge to all brandy producers.

The big area where I believe we should put emphasis on is in the developing of credentials for our brandies so consumers will perceive them in the same light as they now do the cognacs, which are considered a premium class category. Today’s consumer considers cognacs to be a higher class than our premium brandies. In blind tasting we have found that our premium brandies are as well accepted as the cognacs, and the brandy and cognac experts at these tastings have been confused as to which was which. We should be able to show credentials for our brandies the same as the cognacs carry credentials which imply that they are of a higher quality than California brandy. Unfortunately, our government allows the importers to stress these credentials but will not permit us to make any such statements, except for an age statement such as “This brandy is _____ years old.” For a time, the BATF permitted use of a vintage year on a brandy label; but it has now withdrawn that right. We do not have the right, for instance, to tell our consumers that we can and do produce brandies of the same quality as cognacs, using the same type grapes, techniques, and aging, and to say that this product is comparable to cognac brandy, and let the consumer decide which of many similar products he may wish to buy.

In line with this, we are today seeing activity on the part of certain California wine producers who wish to produce brandy the same as in the Cognac area, using similar grape varieties such as St. Emillion and, for French Colombard, pot stills and aging in Limousin oak casks. Also, we are noting offshore interest for this type of California-produced brandy. We should be exploring all these areas mentioned, as I know we have the brandy technology and stills to produce such products. We need to support more brandy research at U.C. Davis and Cal State-Fresno and to also encourage our fellow brandy producers to explore new ways of producing and marketing brandy rather than discouraging or opposing innovations which could convince the U.S. consumer that we can stand up, quality-wise, with our brandies as we have done with our California varietal and generic table wines.

I would again like to thank the A.S.E., U.C. Davis, and others in honoring me as the Guymon Lecturer, and hope I was able to leave some new thoughts with you.

I wish to thank the many colleagues and associates who helped and advised me in the research, data gathering, and in supplying other materials used in preparing this lecture. These are W. Allmendinger, Phil Hiaring, M. Amerine, and J. McManus . I also want to thank other fellow brandy makers — H. Archinal, Ray Mettler, Art Musso, E. Crowell, R.L. Nowlin, Mike Nury, and Nino Muzio — all who freely discussed past brandy making with me and contributed to my knowledge, as I hope I may have done to theirs. And, finally, I shall always owe much to my past teachers on brandy making and distillation – particularly the late Dr. Jim Guymon, the late Elbert M. Brown, Wendell Phinos, and the late Al Knippenberg.


1. WINES & VINES, January, 1977 – “California Brandy History – I”

2. Irving McKee , University of California, Berkeley, California Article, “Mission Wine Commerce.”

3. Vincent P. Carosso, “The California Wine Industry – 1830- 1895.” U.C. Berkeley Press, 1951.

4. WINES & VINES, January, 1971 – “U.S. Brandy 80 Years Ago.”

5. James F. Guymon, WITS Seminar 11/13/76 “California Brandy: Past, Present, and Future.”

6. Wine Institute letter dated 7/17/46 – D. Uebelucker, Research Department.

7. Lee Jones, “Development of Commercial Brandy Industry” December, 1934, California Journal of Development.

8. WINES & VINES, January, 1968 – Article by James Riddell, “Brandy Production: Past, Present, Future.”

9. WINES & VINES, March, 1983 “Brandy is Becoming Increasingly Important to Wine, Grape Folk.”

10. Beverage Industry, May 6, 1983

11. WINES & VINES, January, 1983 – Interview – J. McManus , J. Welsch.

12. Leon D. Adams, THE WINES OF AMERICA, Second Edition, 1978, McGraw Hill.

2 thoughts on “1983 James F. Guymon Lecture: California Brandy — Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Elie C. Skofis

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