Thomas Brown didn't inherit a winery, and he never went to school to study viticulture or enology. He complains about wine prices and is frank about bad vintages. Yet he's become one of the most sought-after consulting winemakers in Napa Valley.
Born in Sumter, S.C., Brown went to the University of Virginia, where he majored in English and economics, thinking he might end up on Wall Street. Then he discovered wine.
"You can never know everything about wine. I think that's what intrigued me," says Brown, 31. "And it was so completely outside my experience growing up. That fact fit my personality pretty well. I was always a bit subversive or counter to the established order around me."
In 1996, Brown moved to Napa. He went to work for All Seasons Wine Shop in Calistoga, where he met Ehren Jordan, winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars. Jordan mentioned that he needed some help in the cellar, and Brown was the first to apply for the job. He started in 1997. "My learning curve was steep, but I was always a great student."
After three years, Brown ventured out on his own, beginning with Outpost and Chiarello, clients he inherited from Jordan. His roster has since expanded. Last year, Brown made 8,000 cases in four different facilities, including Zinfandel for Outpost, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah for Chiarello, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Nicholson Ranch and Cabernet Sauvignon for Schrader, Tamber Bey and Frank Family.
With only six vintages under his belt, Brown has already made some exciting wines, such as the Outpost Zinfandel Howell Mountain 1998 (93 points) and the Chiarello Family Petite Sirah Napa Valley Roux Old Vine 1999 (92). But not everything has gone as smoothly; the Nicholson Ranch Pinot Noir Sonoma Valley 2001 (84), for example. "The Pinots will always be light in color and fruit-driven," he says in defense of the wine. "I enjoy Pinot that smells and tastes like Pinot."
Brown is not afraid to be contrary. One day, when talking to a client about how to price a wine, Brown suggested, "Why don't we look at what it cost to make it, and price it that way?" His client laughed and dismissed the idea. "I just wish people had their eye on the long-term success of a project instead of on making all their money back with the sale of the first year's wine," Brown says.
But, he admits, "I talk a good game, but we'll see how I price my wines when they come out." Brown's first wine from his own yet-to-be-named project is a 2002 Pinot Noir from Sonoma's Summa Vineyard, the source of some fine Williams Selyem offerings. Brown is also managing partner of Ridgetop Partners, a new project that in 2001 purchased 40 acres on the Sonoma coast near Annapolis and planted 14 acres of Pinot Noir.
But Brown would rather talk about collecting Burgundy (which he calls a "sickness") than try to sell you his own wine. "I'm ecstatic that the demented part of my love for wine hasn't gone away, as I have seen it fade in many people when one of their beloved hobbies becomes a career," says Brown. "Being a winemaker has allowed me to appreciate wines even more, because now when I'm tasting, I can taste backwards into a wine. What I detect in the finished product, I can now associate with the processes that made it so."
For Brown, the challenges of being both a wine lover and a winemaker are just beginning. "Though I took all the wines I make up a notch or two in 2002, I'm not content with any of them. The wine lover in me knows the perfect wine is out there, but it is going to take a lot of work for me to get to that level as a winemaker. Hopefully, conjoining the two elements in me will make that search for perfection come more quickly."