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.
Most people know Thomas Brown as the consulting winemaker with the Midas touch. His wines made for the likes of Schrader Cellars, Maybach, and Outpost regularly hit, or at least flirt with 100 point scores from Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. With more than a dozen clients, Brown didn’t have to worry about finding cellar space for his wines. All he and his partner 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 (though Brown also does make a Napa Cabernet under the Rivers-Marie label).
Eight years after the lucky break that began Rivers-Marie, Brown was presented with another offer he couldn’t refuse: the chance to buy the Summa vineyard outright. Again, there was no hesitation. Summa was planted in 1979, and has been dry farmed since 1982. Consequently, the vineyard’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 an 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.
Only a few hundred bottles of this wine get made each year, and I tend to buy the very few that I am offered. Tonight I decided to open one, and found myself experiencing the most delicious of dichotomies that only the wine world can provide. The measure of many a great wine lies in the gut wrenching tension between the joyous experience of tasting the wine, and the simultaneous knowledge of just how amazing the wine would be if you had waited another 10 years to open it.
Alas, this was my only bottle of the 2008. While it is drinking stupendously at the moment, I shudder to think about the heights it will reach over the next decade.
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeous red candy apple, cedar, and wonderful mushroomy forest floor savoriness. In the mouth, the phrase liquid sex comes to mind, despite the cliché, as satiny, silky texture slips effortlessly across the palate. Flavors of raspberry, redcurrant, citrus zest, and red apple skin meld seamlessly with notes of wet redwood bark and a touch of damp earth. Stunning length and purity, with bits of citrus rind and cedar lingering in the finish. Phenomenal complexity and depth, and still quite young with many years ahead of it. 14.1% alcohol.
We drank this tonight with a roasted chicken, wild rice and spicy lemon gravy, and it couldn’t have been a better combination.
Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10
How Much?: $60 on release, usually $100 at retail.
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.