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2011 Best Pinot Noir: Kosta Browne Winery

Author: Julie Fadda
May, 2011 Issue

Kosta Browne Winery has been voted Best Pinot Noir in the 2011 NorthBay biz readers poll.

What makes a great Pinot Noir? “That depends on whom you ask,” says Michael Browne, fonder and winemaker at Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol. “Balance is the key. We like intensity of flavors, so the challenge is to balance it with finesse. Texture is also important. We go for a velvety, silky texture. Good fruit makes good wine,” he says. His last ingredient: “Cool people to drink it with!”

Browne partnered with Dan Kosta in 1997, when both were working at John Ash & Co. and saved their tips to purchase a half-ton of Pinot Noir, a used barrel and a hand-crank stemmer-crusher. At the time, there weren’t a lot of Pinot Noir producers. “It was a huge leap of faith,” says Tony Lombardi, director of brand management and public relations. And while only 25 cases were made that first year, they knew they were on to something good. By 2001, they were up to 250 cases and looking to grow their business. Enter Chris Costello, who partnered with them and provided the business and financial know-how the company needed to really expand. “Without his insight we wouldn’t be where we are,” says Browne.

In 2005, Wine Spectator gave a nod to the 2003 vintage, and the company really took off from there. By 2007, it was producing 10,000 cases and moved from custom crushing facilities to opening its own in Sebastopol. “It’s 18,000 square feet of Pinot love,” says Lombardi, referring to what used to be an apple processing plant. “The first thing they did was install a stereo system,” Lombardi says. It’s meant to be played loud (and it is). At press time, the winery announced its plans to move into an even larger facility, at 45,000 square feet, in fall 2012. It will be the anchor tenant in the former Barlow Apple Factory, a complex being reinvented to include food, art, wine and wellness in downtown Sebastopol. I wonder what the stereo will be like there….

Today, Kosta Browne annually produces 13,000 cases of Pinot Noir sourced from 24 different vineyards spread throughout Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands. Its two most largely produced products are the Russian River Valley blend and the Sonoma Coast blend. There are also eight single-vineyard bottlings and a “4 Barrel” offering, a blend that changes yearly (the 2007 release has a meaty, smoky character I wanted to bite instead of sip).

Ninety percent of the wine is sold to people on the mailing list twice a year, which currently has a wait of 18 to 24 months for the spring release of the two main blends (Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs), and a four- to five-year wait for the fall release of the single-vineyard wines. The remaining balance of wine is sold to fine dining restaurants across the country.

New on the menu is a 2009 “One Sixteen” Chardonnay (toasty nose, vanilla notes, lush, long finish), with 200 cases made that will be released to mailing list members in fall 2011. Production will increase to 400 cases with the 2010 vintage. The Chardonnay program is being overseen by associate winemaker Shane Finley and lead production manager, Ryan O’Donnell.

A small number of large-format bottles are produced for philanthropic purposes. At the recent Atlanta Wine Auction, Kosta Browne’s lot included a six-pack of five-liter bottles, a 20-person dinner, an acoustic set by Ed Rolin of Collective Soul and some top mailing list spots. It went for $65,000, benefiting the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Working with so many vineyards, sometimes it’s hard to be consistent, but Browne knows exactly what he’s looking for. “The wines have ripeness, sensuousness and voluptuousness,” explains Lombardi. “They pick the grapes when they think they taste great.”  

And Browne has his own winemaking style. “You have to pay attention to detail; not mess with things too much. If it’s healthy, leave it alone. Pinot Noir is fickle. You can lose some of its soul and energy if you mess with it too much,” he says. “I want intense flavors with a feminine style—a feminine beauty. Something that sounds good on your palate; something even a non-drinker would say, ‘Wow! That tastes good!’”

Browne says the winery’s success over the past 14 years has been “quite a ride.

“Thank you [NorthBay biz readers] for noticing us! We don’t have a lot of wine out there, and it’s not in a lot of restaurants. We’re just trying to do our best. So to have local people know about it—and dig it—means a lot.”



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