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On Harvest With ... Michael Browne

Kosta Browne's winemaker talks about this year's delayed harvest, and why it might be the best crop of Pinot Noir he's ever worked with

Robert Taylor
Posted: October 11, 2007

During each year's harvest, Wine Spectator asks winemakers to share their thoughts on the challenges of the season and the quality of the grapes they're picking. Because so many factors influence the timing and quality of a harvest--from the region to the variety and even to the experiences and opinions of an individual winemaker--it's often difficult to get a true sense of what's happening in the vineyards. This vintage, Wine Spectator found winemakers who specialize in certain varieties to sound off on their individual, grape-specific experiences—right in the middle of harvest.

Michael Browne is winemaker at Kosta Browne, the relatively new but highly acclaimed boutique Pinot Noir label he co-owns with Dan Kosta. (Their first vintage, 1997, was paid for with tips that they earned as sommeliers at John Ash & Co. in Sonoma County.) The wines are made at their small winery in Sebastopol, Calif., and the grapes are harvested from vineyards in Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. Their high-octane Pinot Noirs have a reputation for being rich, opulent and concentrated and have consistently received outstanding and classic scores. Browne spoke with WineSpectator.com on numerous occasions during what became a very unusual but extraordinarily successful Pinot Noir harvest in Russian River and Sonoma Coast.

The Grapes: Pinot Noir

The Geography: Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast

Sept. 11—A very early September harvest has come to a halt: "The weather has cooled way down," says Brown in the first of what turned out to be an extended series of reports on the progress of picking. "We had the potential of 100 tons of Pinot Noir coming in this week and now we're only doing about 6. In August we had some heat come in, which moved the early stuff up really quick, and then it wasn't really letting off so we started bringing in grapes. Then we had a cooling trend, and things changed pretty quickly. It cooled off to the 70s, so things are actually going backward in terms of Brix, and the grapes are starting to plump back up. Right now, the assessment on the early fruit is a good one, but that's just chapter one. The rest of the fruit we aren't going to know until we see how this weather plays out. I have about 100 tons hanging out there, which is about half of our fruit."

Sept. 20—Still playing the waiting game: "We haven't picked any Pinot [since the weather cooled]. Everything is holding and things have dropped way back in sugar, anywhere from 1 to 2 Brix after that August heat. But the integrity is still great in the vineyards. The canopies are beautiful, there's no yellowing in the basal leaves or the fruiting zone. The fruit is just hanging there. It's not suffering or anything; it's kind of wild. It's very bizarre because this is what everyone wants each year—a long hang time—and now that we get it, nobody knows what to do with themselves. And I'm fighting the urge because I'm watching these slow flavors progress without the sugars really rising too much and the pH levels are holding. The acids are dropping just a bit, and everything looks pretty ideal right now. We're just waiting, but a lot of this fruit hanging is maturing up in a way I've never seen before."

Sept. 27—A very late harvest is in full swing: "We pulled in 70 tons [of Pinot Noir in the past three days]. The fruit is looking really good other than a small patch of dehydration that we sorted out. Really cool stuff. We're getting 24.5 to 25.5 Brix, 6.5 to 7.2 titratable acidity and pHs anywhere from 3.3 to 3.5. I'd just been waiting and waiting and waiting and tasting and tasting and tasting in the vineyards, and there's a slow curve of flavors. And then all of the sudden you can see them start loosening a bit, the clusters themselves, because they're really tight, and you touch them and you can feel that they are slightly loosening. Usually at that point the flavors just pop, and it's 'OK, let's get them off,' because you really have a very short window before they start to go downhill. And now I can hang out in the winery more, which is fun."

Apparently size does matter: "It's really interesting this year that the clusters are so tiny and the berries are so small. A lot of times you get the hens and chicks in the clusters, but what I'm seeing more of is miniature clusters that look like they've been put through a shrinking machine. Like 70 percent of normal size, some of them even less. Last year we were getting something like 130 grams per cluster and this year it's like 90. But they're not shattered, they're just small. There was a lack of rain early in the year, and the vines didn't have much water to plump the fruit up. We had a great bloom and a great set and the clusters started off small and just stayed small. But the quality is really great. I've never seen Pinots this dark in my life. Across the board, the flavors are just rockin' and they are really dark and really good."

To whole-cluster ferment, or not to: "When I take the early lots in, I'll do some whole-cluster fermentation. It's really site specific. I'll smell the stems and see what I'm getting off them, but mainly I just make a little wine and see what it starts to give me. And then, what I've learned over the years with these vineyards, is that some of them accept whole-cluster better than others, so those are the vineyards where I get my whole clusters from, namely Garys' and Copeland vineyards. They really do well with whole clusters. Kanzler tends to be real aggressive with the whole-cluster fermentations so I don't do a lot, but I do some because it adds a really great component. I may do 10 percent in the Kanzler."

Never harvest on an empty stomach: "I make food for the crew as much as I can. Chef Boyardee raviolis are great. [Laughing.] But typically we try to cook a good dinner. Last night we did tri-tip and prawns with Caesar salad, but burgers and barbecue chicken are always good."

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