Visiting Thomas Rivers Brown

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 05-03-2011

“My wine isn’t some cancer drug that your life depends on – but people treat it like that,” joked Thomas Rivers Brown, as we talked about the brouhaha that erupted earlier this year upon the release his latest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.

Within just three hours on January 18, more than 1200 orders had been placed – double his previous one-day sales record. Brown was shocked.

“With small allocations, no scores to speak of and no one new added to this Pinot release, I’m still at a loss to explain the response we saw,” he posted on the WineBerserkers message board. “There are certainly worse problems to have, but I am disappointed so many good customers got cut out of this release. We even leaked in all the wine we had earmarked for distribution and cut our library stock back from 5 cases to 3 cases and still we won’t make it through the day.”

Needless to say, some longtime fans of Rivers-Marie wines were upset. A handful even sent some not-appropriate-for-this-blog emails to Brown.

But neither Brown nor his supporters should have been surprised — Thomas Brown is the nation’s hottest winemaker. In 2008, he made history as the youngest winemaker to receive a perfect 100-point score from Robert Parker – and he received two of them, for the 2006 Schrader “Old Sparky” and 2006 Schrader CCS Cabernet Sauvignons. The next vintage, with the same two wines, he again received two 100-point scores from Parker, and also received two 100-point scores from the Wine Spectator’s James Laube.

He was Food & Wine’s “Winemaker of the Year” in 2010, and in addition to Schrader, he’s the winemaker behind highly regarded labels like OutpostMaybachSeaver Family VineyardsBlack SearsCasa Piena, and about a dozen others.

His personal label is Rivers-Marie, and until recently, it somehow managed to fly below the radar — despite an 18+ month waiting list. As of January 18, those days are officially over.

Wine geeks outside the Bay Area generally don’t realize that California’s wine scene is incredibly welcoming. This is understandable – we see these winemakers on the covers of our favorite magazines, see their products on our favorite wine lists, and geek out over their releases. So expecting to meet any big name in the flesh seems as fantastical as expecting to meet Johnny Depp or Sandra Bullock on a trip to Hollywood.

But it’s not. And that’s still hard for me to get my head around.

Thomas Brown harvesting Zinfandel grapes with Pauline Tofanelli, the "Grand Dame proprietor" of Tofanelli Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Schrader cellars.

Just before visiting Napa a couple months back, I shot Brown an email to see if he’d be available for a quick meet-and-great. I’ve been purchasing wines from Outpost and Rivers-Marie for nearly three years, so was hopeful he’d have a couple of minutes to chat about his latest releases.

As it turned out, his schedule was wide open. So he invited me to his house in the heart of Calistoga, where we hung out and talked wine for three hours. I left concluding that Brown isn’t just one of California’s best winemakers – he’s also one of the nicest.

Brown’s obsession with wine was triggered shortly after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1994, where he majored in both English and Economics. Right out of college, he started waiting tables in a restaurant just outside Richmond. No one was managing the restaurant’s wine list, and Brown had an interest in wine — so he took over.

He soon went to Europe, and over the next year, he just kept going back – exploring Burgundy and the Rhone valley about a dozen times over the next year. He then decided it was time to turn his passion into a career. So he headed to Oakland in October of 1995 and moved into a friend’s closet – literally. One of his close friends from college had a walk-in closet that was large enough to fit a twin bed, so offered to rent Brown the real estate for $50 a month.

Once there, he started visiting Napa Valley regularly.

“It was so cool that I could visit all the wineries I was reading about,” he explained. “I could actually meet the people behind the wines.”

A few months later, in early 1996, Brown landed a job at All Seasons Wine Shop in Calistoga. By then, he was living in Napa Valley and tasting wine as often as he could, often participating in tasting groups with the same Napa Valley winemakers that left him star struck.

One of those winemakers was Ehren Jordan, who mentioned that he was thinking about hiring an assistant winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. Brown gave Jordan his resume – and a few months later, at the tail end of the 1997 harvest, Jordan offered Brown a job. They started working together in December of 1997.

At the time, Jordan was the winemaker and GM at Turley; the winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyards; heading up wine operations for Chiarello Vineyards; was about to take on a new client called Outpost; and was putting the wheels in motion for his own label, Failla. Brown, meanwhile, knew virtually nothing about making wine – but was eager to learn.

Fortunately, he was a fast learner. So when Jordan decided to focus exclusively on Turley and Failla in 2000, he was able to hand over his responsibilities at Outpost and Chiarello to Brown.

Around the same time, Brown and his wife, Genevieve, started thinking about launching their own wine project. They’re both huge Pinot Noir fans, so when an opportunity to purchase fruit from Joan and Scott Zeller – owners of the legendary Summa Vineyard on the extreme Sonoma Coast – presented itself in 2002, they jumped at the chance.

Summa Vineyard was planted in 1978, and fruit from the vineyard created many of Williams-Selyem’s most celebrated wines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So in 2002, with the offer to purchase Summa Vineyard fruit, Thomas and Genevieve’s wine label was born. (As for its name — Thomas’s middle name is “Rivers,” and Genevieve’s middle name is “Marie.”)

And that 2002 Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir is still rocking.

The Pinot lineup.

When I visited Brown’s house, he popped open 8 wines for us to taste. We warmed up our palates with some of the 2009 Rivers-Marie B. Thieriot Vineyard Chardonnay, and then tasted through four Pinots – the 2002 Summa Vineyard; the 2004 Sonoma Coast (this was a blend of two Occidental vineyards, Joya and Summa, blended in equal proportions); the 2007 Summa Old Vines; and the 2009 Sonoma Coast. My favorite of the bunch was the ’04 Sonoma Coast. In 5+ years, though, the ‘07 Summa Old Vines is going to be off-the-charts delicious.

We then worked through the 2006, 2007, and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignons. If you have any of the 2006 Cab, go for it – while still young, it was drinking beautifully.

As we tasted through the wines, we started talking about the price point of Brown’s offerings – and how incredibly affordable they are.

The Cab lineup.

Consider the Rivers-Marie Cabernet Sauvignon. While most of Brown’s clients charge $100 or more for their Cabs, Brown charges $55 per bottle. His Pinots are even more affordable – the Rivers-Marie Sonoma Coast blend is priced at $25. The Summa Old Vines is $60 per bottle, but it’s his most sought after wine, and only around 100 cases are produced each year. Plus, Williams-Selyem’s Summa Vineyard bottling was California’s first $100 Pinot – and that was 20 years ago, back in 1991.

“I know what it’s like to buy wine,” Brown explained. As we discussed the $25 Sonoma Coast bottling, Brown said, “I like offering a great wine at an entry-level price point.”

The conversation, as one might expect, then turned to Brown’s own wine-buying habits. Thomas and Genevieve have an incredible cellar – one that would make any wine geek, regardless of his or her palate, salivate. It’s full of wines from Burgundy, Piedmont, the Rhone, and Germany. He has boatloads of Williams-Selyem Pinots — and other legendary Sonoma producers — from the 1980s through today. He’s got virtually every cult Cabernet you can think of.  Nearly every slot in every rack is full, and the cellar is full of boxes.

Indeed, throughout our time together, I got the sense that Brown would rather talk about other people’s wines than his own. But there are several exciting things happening with Rivers-Marie.

In September 2010, Thomas and Genevieve purchased the Summa Vineyard. That’s where it all began for their label, so the purchase will ensure that Summa Vineyard fruit remains the cornerstone of River-Marie’s Pinot Noir program. Joan and Scott Zeller planted the vineyard, so the Browns are only the second owners of the site.

Plus, Brown sees himself as “better in the vineyard than in the cellar,” so is hopeful that owning the vineyard will result in even better fruit, and therefore, even better wine.

This coming fall, Rivers-Marie will release its first ever single vineyard Cabernets. Brown still plans on releasing the Napa Valley blend, but will also be offering wines from the Roberto Corona Vineyard in Oakville and the Panek Vineyard in St. Helena.

As we finished our visit, I asked Brown if he had any plans to reduce the number of labels he’s working on or dedicate all his time to Rivers-Marie.

“I’m having too much fun to stop,” he answered.

That’s a good thing. No one, right now, is making better wines than Thomas Rivers Brown. So the more wines he makes, the better.

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