“Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good.”
― Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success
I’ll not waste your time with an inane story of my wine drinking escapades. I will neither share the time I got shitfaced on Absinthe in Chicago with author Neil Gaiman nor shall I tell you about the time I accidentally used a 1995 Petrus to make Sangria. The last bit may have come from the French movie Barbeque, but I can’t quite differentiate fact from fiction when it comes to situations I’ve experienced while drunk.
My focus this time around is about one winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown. He’s one of, if not my favorite winemaker working today. If you have not heard of him, I’m sure you’ve heard of the wineries that he’s consulted for or where he’s been winemaker. They include, Schrader, Maybach, Kinsella, Chiarello, Outpost, Revana, TOR, C. Mondavi, Jones Family, Harris Estate, Hestan, Seaver, Black Sears, Casa Piena, to name a few.
It all began in 1997 when Brown beat out about 200 resumes to land a job that would begin his journey into winemaking. From the research I’ve found for the nearly fifteen years, he’s been involved with over 20 producers, he is in constant demand for his private wine consulting and depending on the job, can charge well into the mid-six figures. That’s not bad for a kid from South Carolina who graduated from the University of Virginia and then travelled around France, learning about the nuances of Old World grapes. After a bit of time in Europe, Brown headed to the New World, Northern California to be exact and began to learn about a different style of wine making.
After he found his way to Napa Valley in the mid 90’s, he landed a job at All Seasons wine store in Calistoga. Brown and I have that early work experience in common; as you might recall me writing about working at the iconic Morry’s of Naples in earlier articles. I can tell you firsthand, you learn about wine real fast when you work at a wine store. People come in who really know what they’re talking about, from vintages and wineries to characteristics and qualities. It was a joy (a word I don’t use lightly) working for Morry’s. I was a voracious learner and an avid listener and I wanted to absorb as much knowledge as possible, from those who really knew what they were talking about. I was a quick study and I loved being able to help customers find the perfect bottle. I imagine Brown being that way too.
He cut his teeth at All Seasons and in his spare time would get small jobs in the vineyards, working at various wineries, learning all he could about growing from people who had done it so well and clearly successfully for years. Those experiences also afforded him access to the most important tool in the wine business; drinking and learning everything he could about what a well-structured wine should taste like.
And then, it happened. An opportunity came to Brown that he could not refuse. He quickly got a resume together and applied for what would ultimately be both the job he landed and the one that would change his life forever. He went to work at the renowned Turley Wine Cellars. He would work under the guidance of winemaker Ehren Jordan. Jordan now runs and owns Failla Winery and they make a damn nice Pinot Noir. Brown learned from the ground up what it took to get wine in a bottle. The process is challenging and goes well beyond the main obstacles of just weather and soil conditions. There are many other factors that come into play when you grow grapes. Any winemaker will tell you that the whole process is part farming, a dash of science, a kerfuffle of magic and an extra serving of passion. Yeah, lots of passion.
After Turley, Brown moved to the cult loved Schrader Cellars in 2000. It was there he made cabernet sauvignon for the first time. He was not a big fan of the varietal, but it would become one that would earn him the respect of the entire valley and also earn him 95+ points from Wine Spectator, for the wines he produced with Schrader over the next 15 years. Two of those wines would earn Brown and Schrader 100 points in 2007. Brown still works with Schrader and oversees two Pinot Noir projects that are worth seeking out; Boar’s View and Aston.
It was his passion for wine, his love for keeping it simple and his dedication to producing remarkable quality, not just once but year after year, that led him to be the Winemaker of the Year in 2010 by Food and Wine Magazine. In less than fifteen years, in an industry that is intensely competitive, always changing and where a name means everything... that’s an accomplishment worth talking about.
This review is not on the wineries Brown works for, but the one he has his name on with his partner Genevieve Marie Welsh; Rivers-Marie. They produce pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay all from various vineyards in Sonoma County and Welsh isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty. She’s from Northern California and was raised in a farming family. Welsh takes care of the viticulture as well as the business, whereas Brown does all things cellar. The price points for their wines are ridiculously low and that’s because Brown wants everyone to enjoy his wines. Charles Smith, the Washington winemaker, has the same philosophy about pricing and it seems to be working for both of them. [Charles Smith article here] However, to enjoy Rivers-Marie you must get on the mailing/waiting list and hope you get an allocation letter when the new vintages are released. Last year I was offered three cabs and three chards. I happily purchased all of them.
Brown and Welsh started Rivers-Marie on a whim. A grower friend of theirs’s offered to sell them grapes to make a pinot noir and Brown jumped at the chance to make wine from the legendary Summa Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast. Planted in 1979 by Steve Young and sold in 1982 to Scott and Joan Zellar, Summa Vineyards have been dry farmed ever since.
For the newly released 2013 vintage, Rivers-Marie had two different chardonnay offerings, each under 300 cases. That is a small allocation. They also had five different cabernet sauvignons, with the largest case count being 400. This is not a highly overproduced wine operation. Rivers-Marie is a labor of love that probably squeaks by each year. But when you love what you do, there is always a way to make it work. Always.
I’m on the mailing list and the allocation was small this year, but I grabbed what I could of Brown’s wine and then found a few cases of Rivers-Marie at a wine auction I visit every week. I was able to bid and buy two cases, one of the 2013 Rivers-Marie, Sonoma Coast, Chardonnay and the other was the 2013 Rivers-Marie, Kanzler Vineyard, Pinot Noir. Both are in my wine storage for a few years but I’ll report on them when the time is right. I’m looking forward to that.
What I drank (most happily) for this article was the 2008 Rivers-Marie, Summa Vineyards, Pinot Noir. In case you don’t remember, it’s the vineyard that was planted in 1979 and it’s where Brown’s first bottle of Rivers-Marie was produced in 2002. Well, in 2010 Brown and partner Welsh purchased Summa outright and it’s now where they grow. Again, not bad for a guy who one day decided he wanted to work in the wine business and learned it all from the ground up, starting at a wine store. Not bad at all.
Rivers-Marie, Summa Vineyards
Pinot Noir, 2008
Winemaker: Thomas Rivers Brown
Label: Summa Vineyards
Region: Sonoma Coast
Varietal: Pinot Noir
Appearance (Color): Medium Ruby
Aroma (Complexity): Apple, Berry Fruit, Mild-Earthy Elements
Body (Texture and Weight): Medium
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Apple, Plum, Forest, Cherry
Finish (What lingers): Apple,
Food Paring: Chicken and Brie Cheese
Serving Temperature: 60°
Final Rating: 93
Drink now through: 2018
The Y9 Point Rating System
Wine Score | How Good the Wine Is
95-100 Classic: an extraordinary wine
90-94 Outstanding: wine with superior character & style
John Turi has had an impulsive career as a writer, wine critic, and artist. He has two published books of short fiction and poetry. He is a former child actor with the anxiety to prove it. He began college with a major in Mortuary Science, later switched to Creative Writing, and, finally finished at a free love hippie art college in Southern California with a degree in Graphic Design and Marketing. During his college years he worked in the wine industry and acquired a delicate palate for varietals. For the last 20 years he has become a private rare book and wine collector. He desires California Pinot Noir from Sonoma County in Northern California. As a way to pay for his wine and book collection he works as a Senior Marketing Manager for one of the largest adult sex toy companies in the world. For the good of his sanity, he is a columnist at ConnotationPress.com, where he writes a monthly wine column featuring only the best bottles. He currently resides in Southern California with his beautiful wife Shawn Marie, a motivational speaker for female entrepreneurs. Enjoy John's latest book 'A Drinker With A Writing Problem - A Wine Lover's Retrospective' available at Amazon in softcover, ebook and audio book formats.