The creation of a new winery is always an exciting thing, especially when it is founded with the goal of being small, conscientious, and expressive of a particular place and grape. By exciting, I mean especially exciting to me. Like turning the corner in a new neighborhood and discovering a tiny shop that sells exquisite crafts, or finding a hole in the wall restaurant that serves the perfect version of a favorite dish, tasting a great wine from a recently begun boutique winery is one of my favorite experiences in the world.
We hear a lot (and I certainly write a lot) about wineries or wine labels that represent the realization of a lifelong dream. Or equally as often they are the expression of someone’s ultimate vision, usually something like: “I want to make the most awesome [fill in the blank with varietal or appellation] ever.” These wineries and wines begin with a story already formed within them — a story of the life and trials and tribulations involved in getting the opportunity to pursue the dream or that vision, and the wines are the first chapters of its completion.
But there is another type of winery out there that is just as interesting, but much less common. A winery which springs up almost by chance, and then like a small bird on the edge of a nest, needs to learn to fly — to create its story as it goes along, finding its way in the world.
Rivers-Marie is one of those wineries.
“One day I was just talking with Scott Zeller, the owner of Summa vineyard, and nearly out of the blue, he asked me if I wanted some fruit,” says Rivers-Marie winemaker and owner Thomas Brown, “I would have been insane not to have taken it.”
And just like that, a new winery was born.
Summa Vineyard is well known in the circle of Sonoma County Pinot Noir lovers who have made Williams-Selyem’s wines the cult phenomenon that they are today. For years, all of the vineyard’s fruit, some of it from the oldest Pinot Noir vines on the Sonoma Coast, went into those wines, many of which were some of the most sought after Pinots in all of California.
But times change and so does the ownership of wineries, and often when that happens, contracts get renegotiated. Or they don’t. And when a grower decides that it’s time for a change, and if that grower happens to have some of the best Pinot Noir fruit on the planet, people who have the right connections get really, really lucky.
And in Thomas Brown’s case, it meant that all of a sudden he had the opportunity to make some really great Pinot Noir, which he wasn’t about to pass up. As a successful consulting winemaker for several properties throughout Napa and Sonoma, there was no issue about the facilities or the equipment or the barrels, so really all he and his girlfriend Genevieve (who also acts as his business partner in this new venture) had to do was invent a winery from scratch.
While the paperwork can be a pain, any winemaker will tell you the hardest part of starting a new winery is coming up with the name and the brand identity (logo, colors, etc.). For his inspiration, Thomas stayed close to home. His middle name is Rivers. Genevieve’s is Marie. And just like that you’ve got a wine label.
Genevieve, who comes from a Northern California farming family, helps with the viticulture as well as the business, while Thomas takes care of things in the cellar.
When I spoke to Thomas about the Rivers-Marie wines he complained a little that people tend to talk about him first and the wines second, which is a fine complaint for a humble, down to earth guy like hiim, but I think it is both unavoidable and important. The winery is a fledgeling at the moment (the 2004 is the third vintage) and the story of what it is and what it will become is certainly bound up in Thomas’ identity as one of the hottest young winemakers working in California today.
Thomas Rivers Brown fell in love with wine like many do. Right out of college he worked as a wine buyer in a restaurant, and after discovering he had an interest in wine, he traveled around Europe as a twenty-something where he really caught the bug. But unlike many of us, he decided to do something about it, and with the impetuousness of the young, he found his way to a friend’s house in the Oakland ghetto in 1996, where he had a standing offer to sleep in a very small walk-in closet. From there it was a reasonable hitchhike to the Napa Valley, and he eventually pestered his way into an entry level job at the All Seasons wine store in Calistoga.
“It was a magical time in the valley,” Thomas recalls. “It was still relatively inexpensive to live there as a single guy. I found an apartment without a problem. But there was also something in the air. Parker had just released his scores for the 1994 vintage in California, which sort of rocked everyone’s world, but things hadn’t quite exploded.”
Working in the wine shop gave him the time, the place, and the background (not to mention the cash for a room in the valley) to explore other options, which initially presented themselves as an opportunity to work as a field hand during the harvest. Thomas’ first experiences in the vineyard were the 1997 harvest at Kent Rassmussen’s vineyard.
In addition to finding ways to get his hands dirty, so to speak, Thomas spent his time out of the fields tasting as much wine as he could, as often as he could, with people who knew a lot more than him about it. One of those people ended up being Ehren Jordan (then the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars) who happened to mention in late 1997 that he was thinking about looking for an assistant for the following year.
“I raced home and immediately put a resume together,” Thomas recalls. “I had worked as a wine buyer, and this one harvest, and was still working at the wine store, and I scraped together any piece of other wine knowledge I had and threw it on a piece of paper. I suppose at that point I had a fairly firm grasp of the various steps of the winemaking process, but I couldn’t tell you much more than what order to do them in.”
Thomas thinks his resume was the first of nearly 200 that Jordan received for the position, but he ended up with the job, partially he thinks, because he was a bit of a blank slate. “It was after the harvest, so Ehren had a bit of time, and he didn’t mind teaching someone, as long as they didn’t come with any preconceived notions about the right way to do things.”
And so the saying goes, that was the first day, of the rest of his life. After more than four years of working with Jordan, Thomas went out on his own as a consulting winemaker, at a high point in demand for such services. Even just in his second year at Turley, Thomas had picked up two consulting clients, Outpost Vineyards and Chiarello Vineyards, and his dance card was quickly filled with as many more as he wanted in the coming months and years.
Not bad for a kid who just decided to get into the business by climbing his way to the top. “I don’t know how it happened, really. It’s crazy,” he says. “I can talk about this in a deadpan way, like it’s all business, but its really phenomenal when I step back and think about it.”
Thomas now makes wine for twelve different wineries: Outpost Estate; Chiarello Vineyards; Nicholson Ranch; Schrader Cellars; Maybach; Seaver Vineyards for baseball hall of famer Tom Seaver; Diamond Terrace; Policy Vineyards for former GM of the 49ers, Carmen Policy; Bisou Wines, a new Cabernet from St. Helena; Tamber Bey; Two Hands, the Australian label that is soon to release its first Napa wine; and Rivers-Marie.
He is responsible for roughly 18,000 cases of wine, much of which is Zinfandel and Cabernet. Which is why some people come to the Rivers-Marie wines expecting the wrong thing. “There are definitely people who think that they’re going to get some big, ripe, jammy wines because my name is on the bottle, and because I make some big wines” says Thomas, “but what they don’t understand is that this fruit dictates a different style.”
This is a personal project for Thomas and Genevieve, rather than a wine that a vineyard owner has asked them to make. It’s also proof that Thomas has quite a range of expression when it comes to winemaking, as well as the fact that he knows what to do with Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. No candied, jamminess here.
The fruit that goes into these wines comes mostly from the Summa Vineyard near Occidental, California, though the Sonoma Coast blend contains a bit of fruit from another Occidental vineyard. Summa’s yields are extremely low, only about three-quarters of a ton of fruit per acre, and some of the old vines yield only a couple hundred pounds of fruit per acre. A day before picking, Thomas and Genevieve make a pass through the vineyard and cut away any fruit that doesn’t look perfect, and then hand pick the fruit the following day, sorting and completely destemming before crushing. The wines are given a long, extended cold soak for sometimes up to 10 days to extract color and aroma from the thin skins. After fermentation the wine is very lightly pressed and barreled with full lees (without removing any sediment) in mostly new French oak. They are racked (poured off the collected sediment) once in about 10 months and then bottled with no fining or filtration of any kind.
These wines are tremendous — some of the best examples of the form I have tasted in a long time, and are great early chapters in the story of a winery that has yet to be written.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2004 Rivers-Marie Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a lovely fruit nose of cranberry, sour plum and rasberry with hints of spice. In the mouth it has gorgeous acidity and bright flavors of tart plum, raspberry, and dried herbs. Tannins are imperceptible to nonexistent and the finish is moderate with hints of white pepper towards the end. 180 cases produced. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $25.
2004 Rivers-Marie “Summa Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine has a gorgeous nose that starts with a slightly gamey element but is quickly suffused with plum, rhubarb, and an undercurrent of minerality. In the mouth the wine is beautifully textured with excellent acid balance, silky and thick on the tongue with complex primary flavors of raspberry, black tea, and white pepper notes. The wine also has some lovely umami characteristics which surface in the front palate and continue in the very long finish. 130 cases produced. Score: 9.5. Cost: $30.
2004 Rivers-Marie “Summa Vineyard Old Vines” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has an incredibly rich nose that includes plum, rhubarb, candied yams, and light notes of earthiness. It has a stunning mouthfeel and weighty presence on the tongue with perfect acid balance surrounding rich, juicy flavors of raspberry, cranberry, tart plum, black tea, and dried herbs all of which course through an exceptional finish that seems to go on for ages. Truly a tremendous wine. 60 cases produced. Score: 9.5/10. Cost: $50
Some of these wines are occasionally available for sale online, but in general, they are sold to a few retailers, restaurants, and mailing list customers only. You can sign up for the mailing list online.
In addition to Pinot Noir, Rivers-Marie will also be making a Howell Mountain Cabernet, the 2003 AND 2004 vintage of which will be released in September (mark your calendars). The wines are in such small quantities that Thomas felt like he couldn’t just release the 2003 wines (all sixty cases of it) on its own.