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. 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 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 the state.
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. The paperwork was easy. The name was easier. Thomas’ middle name is Rivers. Genevieve’s is Marie.
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.
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.
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 as 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 Winery 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 more than a dozen different wineries. He is responsible for roughly 18,000 cases of wine, much of which is Napa Zinfandel and Cabernet. Which is why some people come to the Rivers-Marie wines expecting the wrong thing. These are not Napa wines, they are wines of the Sonoma Coast, and beautiful examples of the form.
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 a couple of other vineyards in and around Occidental, including the Occidental Ridge Vineyard, which has been added to the lineup as a single vineyard designated wine. 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 vineyards 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.
This year, for the first time, Thomas made a Chardonnay, “if only to cut down on our white Burgundy purchases,” he said, as well as just to see what it would be like. The answer: pretty damn good.
2007 Rivers-Marie “B. Thierot Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Bright yellow gold in the glass with a faint hint of cloudiness, this wine offers aromas of hazelnuts, chamomile, cold cream and dried straw. In the mouth it is bright with gorgeous lemon juice and pink grapefruit flavors that are tinged with saffron and sarsaparilla. The wine has incredible, searing acidity and great balance. Give this sucker time and it will blossom into something amazing, I believe, but I’d have a hard time preventing myself from drinking it soon. 120 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45.
2007 Rivers Marie “Willow Creek Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cranberry and plum aromas and hints of cedar. In the mouth it is bright and nicely balanced, with pure cranberry and raspberry flavors that have a linear quality. Nicely balanced with great acidity and pure fruit, this wine saw only 33% new oak. 84 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.
2007 Rivers-Marie Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium to dark garnet in the glass with a hint of cloudiness, this wine has a nose of bright cranberry, sawdust, and wet earth. In the mouth it is smooth, with a velvet texture and soft, beautiful acidity, alluring flavors of cranberry and rhubarb with overtones of cedar and wet oak. It has a nice, long finish, which has a clarity to it that I find throughout the wine. 225 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $25.
2007 Rivers-Marie “Occidental Ridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Brilliant, medium garnet in color with a faint haze, this wine has a lovely, earthy nose of forest floor, pomegranate, and dark cranberry aromas. In the mouth it is incredibly soft and velvety with brilliant balance — nay, poise — and flavors of cranberry and black raspberry. Amazingly, the more I tasted this wine, the more I got notes of mint on the finish, only to discover that much of the vineyard is carpeted in the stuff. 180 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45.
2007 Rivers-Marie “Summa Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium to dark garnet in the glass with a little cloudiness, this wine possesses a phenomenally powerful nose of rhubarb, cranberry, raspberry aromas. In the mouth it is, no doubt about it: sexy. Raw, pure, sliding on satin sheets texture that makes my knees weak. The core of its perfectly balanced fruit is raspberry and crabapple, with fantastic flavors of orange peel, pine needles, hints of lavender, and crushed fresh herbs emerging on the looooong finish. 120 cases made. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $45.
2007 Rivers Marie “Summa Old Vines” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium to dark cloudy garnet in color this wine has deep, rich aromas of cherry, candied orange peel, pine sap, and deep raspberry fruit that I could smell before I even grabbed the glass. It’s difficult to say which is most impressive — the liquid, heavy silk of the texture of this wine or the deep resonant clarity of its raspberry and forest floor flavors that thrum like some ancient drum head struck in the forest. These swirl with rich notes of various herbs and spices, with hints of mint as the wine seems to float endlessly across the palate in a sort of exotic neutral buoyancy that keeps me tasting it for minutes. 100 cases made. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $60.
So how do you go about finding these wines? Very few of them make it to retailers, so the best way is to sign up for the mailing list. The 2007 vintage was just shipped to distributors, so shortly there will be some available at retail. Keep an eye out. In the meantime you can find some of the (excellent) 2006 wines available for purchase online.