Note: This is a guest post from Robert Dwyer of The Wellesley Wine Press.
Kosta Browne is a Sonoma-based producer of mostly Pinot Noir made in a ripe, fruit-forward style. The winery is named after founders Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, who started the winery while working together at the John Ash & Co. restaurant in Santa Rosa.
As the story goes, they pooled a portion of their tips each night with the idea of one day starting a winery. They eventually scraped together enough money to produce a barrel or two of wine — and they’ve since grown the brand into one of the most desirable in California.
These are interesting times at Kosta Browne. In 2009, the winery was acquired by Vincraft for almost $40 million. In 2011, one of its wines was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year. And in 2012, one of its winemakers left the firm. But through it all, Kosta Browne’s Pinot Noirs remain the standard for bold domestic Pinot Noir.
Kosta Browne’s appellation Pinot Noirs sell for $58 and its single vineyard wines go for $72. Professional ratings for the wines have been impressive over the years. After a string of scores in the upper 90s, Wine Spectator crowned the 2009 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (96 WS/$58) its wine of the year. Although production levels are around 11,000 cases, there still isn’t enough to satisfy demand, making the mailing list particularly hard to crack.
It’s my one “no brainer” allocation I buy each year without hesitation.
But not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Kosta Browne. Thanks to its unapologetically bold style, the winery has developed a reputation for producing wines that are over the top. Too ripe. Gloppy. On steroids. Spiked with Syrah. Wine enthusiasts can get really (surprisingly) cranked up about wines like Kosta Browne’s being regarded as some of the best around.
At last year’s Wine Spectator Grand Tour in Boston, I met Sam Lando, Kosta Browne’s marketing and sales director. He was pouring the 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, a “sister wine” to the Sonoma Coast bottling. I got his card and arranged a visit to their production facility in Sebastopol earlier this year.
For now, Kosta Browne’s facilities are situated in the old Apple Time/Vacu Dry complex along Highway 116 and Occidental Road. Kosta Browne is one of several companies situated in this industrial/agricultural facility.
No stone gardens here — the Kosta Browne team just focuses on producing “the best damn Pinot Noir” they can.
Kosta Browne plans to move into The Barlow — a swankier, revived former canning facility with more space — later this year. But the winery still doesn’t plan on opening a public tasting room, because all its wine is sold via its mailing list.
During my visit to Sebastopol, I met with Sam Lando and Tony Lombardi (who handles their PR) along with executive winemaker Michael Browne. For a relatively quiet period in the winemaking season, the place was bustling with activity. It’s always fascinating to see cases of wine stacked up ready to be delivered at a facility like this. It turns out there are actually quite a few more bottles in circulation than the precious few bottles I have in my collection!
The Vincraft acquisition hasn’t fouled things up at at Kosta Browne. At least not yet. I love pure, singularly focused brands. Apple. BMW. Four Seasons Hotels. Quoddy. When wineries get acquired, it has a tendency to dilute the brand a bit. Dehumanize it. But I’ve never seen a winery team so focused and energetic. There’s a fast-moving buzz alive at Kosta Browne, and Michael Browne’s continued hands-on presence gives me confidence the brand is going to be strong for a long time.
It’s always more fun for a group of guys to stand around and chat when it’s over a glass of wine, so we got right into tasting. The first wine was a new variety in the portfolio — the 2010 Kosta Browne One Sixteen Russian River Valley Chardonnay. The “One Sixteen” in the name comes from the highway I’d just turned off and is a nod to the location of the vineyards whose grapes go into the blend. Turns out that Michael Browne and his team have done the same thing to Chardonnay as they have to their Pinot Noir — it’s rich and friggin’ delicious! Served at cellar temperature (a little warmer than I’d usually drink Chardonnay), it was mouth filling with tropical and lemon curd flavors and aromas. I don’t buy much Chardonnay, but I wouldn’t have minded a glass or two of this one.
Next up was a trio of Kosta Browne’s single vineyard 2009 Pinot Noirs: Keefer, Kanzler, and Gap’s Crown. Oh my — what a site to see. I’d never tasted Kosta Browne’s single vineyard wines before, and I’ve only had an allocation of its appellation offerings for a couple years. I was in for a treat.
I remember being torn between concentrating on the wine and remembering to ask the guys the many questions I had. Being responsible for marketing and sales, Sam is in a fascinating position. Think about it: If you called the shots at Kosta Browne, what would you do with pricing? How quickly would you seek to ramp up production? What percentage of your wine would you like to see in restaurants vs. consumer direct?
I peppered them questions along these lines. One of the more interesting ones I remember was discussing how to deal with customers on the mailing list who they suspect are flipping their wines (answer: throttle them back a bit). And about increasing production levels (answer: they need to continue finding high quality fruit sources to continue to increase production levels).
The single vineyard Pinots were terrific. I didn’t take detailed notes, but I remember enjoying all of them thoroughly. I didn’t sense significant stylistic differences between each of the vineyards, but they certainty remained true to what I’d enjoyed from their appellation bottlings.
What makes Kosta Browne wines special? The most distinctive trait I’ve found is the gorgeous mouth feel of the wines. I asked them about this, and they said it was an area they focus on. They said back in the day, Michael Browne discovered — quite by accident — that minimal racking (transferring wine from one container to another) helped develop this signature mouth feel. I thought for a moment I’d cracked the code of making outstanding Pinot Noir, but as I’m sure anyone who’s tried will tell us, it takes many different techniques and skills to consistently produce great wine.
It didn’t occur to me until I was leaving that I hadn’t met Kosta Browne’s winemaker, Shane Finley. A friend said he’d enjoyed tasting there with Shane — that he was quick to bust out a barrel thief and spending time with him made for a great visit. I’d learn later that Shane Finley had accepted a position as head winemaker at nearby Lynmar Estate. He also produces wine under his own label — Shane Wines.
A morning visit to Littorai provided the perfect bookends of two divergent paths in California Pinot Noir. The leaner, terroir-driven wines of Littorai compared to the rich, fruit-forward Pinot Noirs of Kosta Browne. There’s a place for both of these styles in wine. It was a pleasure tasting and visiting them both.
Kosta Browne is the George Clooney of wine. As much as I might want to look back on old episodes of E.R. and see him looking out of fashion in a Don Johnson/Crockett and Tubbs kind of way, Clooney looks cooler in those episodes than I ever will. Sure, Kosta Browne’s wines are big. Some of their highest scoring wines had alcohol levels well into the 15s. But they’ve managed to rein in alcohol levels (most are in the reasonable 14.5% range these days) while still retaining their signature characteristics.
If you like the Kosta Browne style, here’s a list of 7 reliably oustanding fruit-forward California Pinot Noir producers you might also enjoy.
Robert Dwyer has blogging about wine from a consumer’s point of view since 2008 at The Wellesley Wine Press. His aim is to help people enjoy wine more while spending less money by discovering value at all price points.