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Sunday Serendipity

By Stephen Eliot

Despite that fact that plenty of brandy is made in California, most of it is dull, insipid, mass-market stuff that comes pouring out of industrial column stills in an unceasing stream. True Alambic, single-pot-still brandies created with an eye to the traditions and techniques of fine Cognac are a comparative rarity in the Golden State but, when good, can challenge the best in the world. From time to time, we will be checking in on the devoted few West Coast artisan distillers who have chosen the road less traveled and begin our report with tiny Osocalis in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Our introduction to Osocalis came a few years back while attending a weekend wine event hosted by the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Growers Association. Having heard that someone up in the mountains was making serious brandy, we made a spur of the moment decision to take a break from tasting wines and headed up Old San Jose Road out of Soquel to see for ourselves. There is little about the place that suggests it is anything more than a working farm in the mountains -- an old farm house, a big barn that leans to one side and the usual assortment of livestock. In all truth, we wondered if we our directions were wrong or that perhaps that we might be wandering into dangerous territory where everyone on the mountain shared the same name and that unannounced visitors might be regarded as “revenuers” and summarily dispatched.

Daunted but determined we headed for the barn, the door of which opened and out came founder and distiller Dan Farber who welcomed us in. What was meant as a brief visit turned out to be a considerably longer stay and we listened as the thoughtful and articulate Mr. Farber spoke at length about Cognac, Calvados and California fruit. Very much convinced of the richness and depth inherent in local grapes, Farber works with a small, 100-gallon antique French Charentais still in crafting small lots of exquisite brandies. Dan makes the point that whereas French law imposes fairly strict guidelines as to what varietals are allowed in making Cognac or Armagnac, he has freedom to blend and gain complexity from a wide range of grapes that are off-limits to his French counterparts. Fully cognizant that brandy can only be as good as the grapes and wine from which it is made, Dan partnered with Jeff Emery, winemaker at nearby Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards in 2003, and the two work closely together in getting things right from the start. If there is a downside to the brandies of Osocalis, it is that they are and will remain in short supply. Unlike wines that are held by a winery for no more than a couple of years, fine brandies require years of time in the barrel and are not something that can be hastened along

The standard bearer for Osocalis, the Rare Alembic Brandy ($45.00), is composed principally of Pinot Noir and French Colombard, and strikes for what is to us a wonderful balance between the finesse and real elegance of fine French Cognac and the flavorful underpinnings of California fruit. It smacks of vanilla, crème brulee and dried fruits, and, while very rich, it is light on its feet and shows the real polish possible from carefully made, well-aged spirits. It is a house favorite hereabouts and whatever search its finding might entail is well worth any effort.

Osocalis Distillery
5579 Old San Jose Road
Soquel, CA 95073
(831) 477-1718

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