The Midas Touch of Thomas Rivers Brown

Over two decades, this self-taught winemaker has made an indelible impact on California wine
The Midas Touch of Thomas Rivers Brown
Thomas Rivers Brown in the vineyards of Napa brand Outpost, for which he makes a diverse lineup of red wines. (Tai Power Seeff)
Nov 15, 2018

Thomas Rivers Brown is at it again. There are times when the peripatetic winemaker seems to be launching a new project every week. Currently working with 45 clients, Brown is responsible for 800 tons of grapes from 325 acres going into some 150 wines, and has even designed several wineries. It's a juggling act that keeps him in perpetual motion, but Brown thrives on activity.

He has steadily increased his winemaking pace since driving his Honda Passport from Sumter, S.C., to Napa in 1996 and finding his footing in an industry then foreign to him.

Since then, Brown, 46, has become one of Napa's most accomplished winemakers, handily guiding production of some of the region's most distinctive wines and sought-after brands. The grape he has ridden to stardom is Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for 85 percent of the 40,000 cases he oversees, and over the years Brown has made more than 60 Cabernets that earned classic scores from Wine Spectator. Yet his private nature and desire to deflect attention make him a man many know only by name and reputation.

His list of clients is a cast of well-heeled, often larger-than-life types who have chosen a wine country lifestyle. Schrader Cellars, founded by Fred Schrader, a dealer in art and antiques, stands at the top. Others include baseball Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver, owner of GTS; former NFL executive Carmen Policy of Casa Piena, who boasts five Super Bowl rings from his days with the San Francisco 49ers; and businessman Kevin Kinsella, who used earnings from the smash Broadway hit Jersey Boys to establish a winery in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley.

And the work continues to stack up. When Constellation Brands, owner of Robert Mondavi Winery, acquired Schrader Cellars in 2017, the firm convinced Brown to stay on as winemaker. In addition, RMW owns a large portion of the famous To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville and plans to upgrade its Cabernet from the site with Brown's assistance. (Andy Beckstoffer holds some 90 acres of To Kalon, which he sells to more than a dozen wineries, including Schrader.) Across these projects, Brown's access to a lion's share of To Kalon offers him a chance to create a legacy there. In fact, he has already made two 100-point wines from the vineyard for Schrader, a pair of 2007 Cabernets released in 2010.

But Brown's work isn't limited to Napa or to Cabernet. In Sonoma, he has worked with Shibumi Knoll and makes Pinot Noir from two Schrader properties—Boars' View, which lies east of Fort Ross and next to Marcassin winery, and Aston, farther north near Annapolis, a very remote region.

Rivers-Marie is Brown's own brand, which debuted in the early 2000s. The label, which utilizes Brown's middle name and that of his companion, Genevieve Marie Welsh, makes a dozen-plus wines, including Sonoma-grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in addition to its Napa Cabernets. In 2010, the couple purchased the 6-acre Summa Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation and recently contracted to purchase fruit from the Herb Lamb Vineyard for a Rivers-Marie Cabernet bottling debuting with the 2016 vintage.

Brown's wines are much like the man himself-reserved and intellectual, refined in style. He is judicious in his use of smoky, toasty oak, and although wood is evident in his wines it plays the part of backup singer rather than lead vocalist. His clients marvel at the nuance with which oak is integrated into their wines, adding complexity without overwhelming the fruit.

He has proven a master at taming Cabernet's aggressive tendencies and giving the wines a Burgundian mystique. His success with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir promises to further his reputation for finding special sites and crafting wines that express their terroir.

Ehren Jordan was one of the first to notice Brown's passion for wine and his multitasking skills.

The two met in 1996 at Calistoga's popular wine watering hole All Seasons. Brown had arrived in Napa with little more than a naïve curiosity about wine, but proved a quick study. He began working at the wineshop and wine bar, where wine geeks commingled and shared their perspectives. That camaraderie with the wine crowd was just what Brown was looking for. It appealed to his intellect, and as he absorbed more and more information, he began seeing possibilities. "One thing I realized about wine is that you can never know everything there is to know," says Brown. "That appealed to my intellectual curiosity."

Jordan so enjoyed interacting with Brown that he hired Brown to work for him at Turley Wine Cellars the next year. Right away, Jordan noticed Brown's economy-he didn't waste time and always stayed on point. One day he watched Brown perform three tasks simultaneously-topping up two barrels with wine, washing two others and letting two others drain and dry. "If you're economic in motion, you can do more things at once," observes Jordan.

"He's a phenomenally observant human being," adds Jordan, "and one of the more talented individuals I've met in wine. ‘How do you keep it all straight?' " he asks rhetorically. "It's not an issue for Thomas. He has a clear vision and is focused. That's innate. He learns from every job he's done."

An economics and literature graduate from the University of Virginia, Brown figured he might end up on Wall Street one day. Wine was nowhere in his original plans. He got his first taste of a special wine from a girlfriend's father's cellar. It was a Chardonnay from Kistler, the 1992 Cuvée Cathleen. Kistler took an early lead in refining Chardonnay, crafting rich yet elegant wines that made a lasting impression on Brown.

Brown's lack of a formal wine education proved less a hindrance than an asset, a sort of blank slate that allowed him to discover things on his own or absorb things he learned from colleagues to build his own philosophy. "In some degree it leaves you less restrained," says Jordan of Brown's autodidactic wine-education.

In 2000, Brown hit it big when he landed consulting jobs with two of the fastest-rising stars in Napa Cabernet: Fred Schrader of Schrader Cellars and Tor Kenward of Tor. Both were buying Cabernet from Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, and with the two brands sharing similar styles and approaches to winemaking, it worked for everyone.

Over time, Brown became more involved with Schrader, and winemaking colleague Jeff Ames gravitated toward Tor. Schrader had entered the wine business in the early 1990s with Colgin-Schrader, a venture with Ann Colgin, then his wife. The couple divorced in 1997, with Colgin keeping the wine business and Schrader his art company. But it wasn't long until Schrader wanted back in the wine game.

What really propelled Brown's career forward was his and Schrader's decision to broaden Schrader's lineup from To Kalon, expanding from one to five different bottlings. Schrader welcomed dissecting the vineyard plots. He was impressed by Brown's ability to read a vineyard and to know what a young wine in barrel needed or didn't. As they sorted out the wines, designating five different bottlings proved worthwhile.

"His biggest asset is that he's amazingly intuitive. He has a sixth sense about the vineyard, when to pick and when to drop fruit," says Schrader. "He has ‘Helenesque' attention to details," Schrader adds, referring to masterful winemaker Helen Turley's meticulousness. "Everything's clean. That's a trick when you're crushing grapes for a dozen wineries in one facility."

Schrader helped Brown hone his approach to winemaking using lessons Schrader had learned from Turley when she made his Colgin-Schrader Cabernets in the early 1990s. "We wanted to make wines in a naturalistic way," recalls Schrader. "No enzymes, flavor or color enhancements, no reverse osmosis or spinning cones. If [Brown's] wines shine it's because basically it's all a natural process of winemaking."

Both men are fixated on tannin management, aiming to avoid overly aggressive or heavy-handed wines, instead preferring plush-textured charmers. It's a popular style aimed at offering immediate pleasure and not expecting consumers to cellar a wine for a decade and hope the tannins ease. Their wines were an early portal into where Napa Cab was headed, in opulence, oak presence and textural harmony.

Brown is more hands on and present than some hired guns, who often direct winemaking from afar. He monitors his wines by keeping them at one of three facilities, so he's able to taste all of his wines as often as he chooses.

In fact, he became so fascinated by the inner workings of wineries that beginning in 2001 he began designing them for clients, starting with Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma Valley then adding Tamber Bey and Mending Wall in St. Helena and now his own Rivers-Marie winery in Calistoga.

That said, he has learned not to meddle unduly. When it comes to winemaking, Brown is a cautious interventionist. "Wine has its own way of finding its center," he says. Having worked in many cellars he believes too many winemakers are too eager to tweak and adjust a young wine instead of letting it run its own course. Patience is part of his mantra.

Brown admits he likes to keep as many balls in the air as possible, knowing that some will hit the ground. But only a few do; his clients are thrilled to have Brown head up their winemaking and realize that even in a valley full of talented winemakers, Brown stands apart.

Some of the brands Brown works with go back to his start. He assumed duties at Chiarello and Outpost from Jordan when the latter moved to Turley Cellars. Casa Piena, GTS, Shibumi Knoll and Maybach became clients in the early 2000s. Among the more recent additions are Revana, Round Pond, Vermeil, Stone the Crows, Pulido Walker, Riverain and Ampere. Ferrari-Carano in Alexander Valley had been struggling with its Prevail bottling, but having Brown work with the wine resulted in a quantum leap in Prevail's quality. Brown is also organizing a wine program for the new Four Seasons being built in Calistoga.

He does all this with two full-time assistants: Will Segui, who oversees the Rivers-Marie operation specifically, and Dan Ricciato, who oversees vineyards Brown sources.

In his role as consultant, Brown performs different duties for each of his clients, charging them differently too-either by the ton, or based on what tasks he does or how much time he spends. Sometimes his salary is based on case production, sometimes on a brand's success.

"I don't want the fees so high that they end up harnessing the project," says Brown. But typically his clients care more about quality than the cost of business. Most are so wealthy that the possible profits from a few hundred cases don't really matter.

A new client might pay comparatively little at the outset but perhaps more as the wine gains attention. Pricing adjusts as brands grow and Brown proves his worth. He charged Maybach $20,000 per year to start, but that has now risen to $150,000. Schrader has been his highest-paying client, at about $700,000 a year.

Twice a year or so, Brown takes on a new client from among dozens of hopefuls. Being chosen is akin to being a first-round draft pick in professional sports.

To register on Brown's radar, candidates need to have a driver vineyard that will propel the wines-and very deep pockets. The latter criteria is the easier of the two; vineyard prices and availability remain far bigger obstacles. Land or a planted vineyard in Napa Valley hovers in the $200,000 an acre range for the choicest spots. Some go for $1 million.

"If someone doesn't have a vineyard or doesn't understand the business, that's an easy ‘no,' " says Brown. He believes a wine's success is directly tied to the quality of the vineyards it comes from. "If you harvest B+ grapes, you'll get B+ wines," he says. He's leaned how to pick his wine partners. All of his clients have A+ vineyards.

His stringent standards hardly stop or even slow the interest, however. Owning a vineyard in Napa or Sonoma has become an archetypical status symbol. But too many vintners hope to recoup their investment or turn a profit quickly, Brown says, which are unrealistic notions.

"They have to know that it takes time to establish a vineyard or style or brand," says Brown. "I tell them to enjoy the their rewards," the rewards being a gracious lifestyle. "You'll lose a lot of money until you sell and then you'll make a lot of money," he says with a sly, knowing smile.

For those who earn Brown's seal of approval, it can be the beginning of something special. Prices for his wines are high but consumers don't seem to mind. Availability is a bigger challenge; most of the wines are made in volumes of only 150 to 350 cases. One day when we visit he is overseeing a new release from Rivers-Marie online. Within an hour, most of the 1,000 cases are gone.

Brown's track record is unassailable. There have been no serious toe stubs. His wines are beautifully crafted, rich and expansive, fun to drink and a good bet to gain. There's a common theme that runs through all of Brown's wines, reds and whites alike. It revolves around complexity, graceful balance and generosity of flavors. The oldest wines of his I've tried have held up very nicely, still reminiscent of their earlier presence, full of fruit and shaded by exotic oak. He doesn't miss the tiniest of details.

One thing you need to know about Brown is he's a Southerner. He grew up in Sumter, S.C., a one-time plantation settlement named for Gen. Thomas Sumter, the "Fighting Gamecock" of the Revolutionary War. Modern Sumter, a town of approximately 40,000, remains a tranquil setting that could evoke Andy Griffith's mythical Mayberry, where no one locked their doors at night and Main Street had one stoplight.

"Growing up in the South gives you an accent, very good manners, ‘yes sir, no sir,' formality, and no slouching in your chair," he says, expressing his dry sense of humor. Traditions stick and etiquette matters.

Brown was reared a Southern Baptist in a congregation where alcohol was frowned upon by many. "Some of the folks in my family didn't drink ever," he says. Iced tea and lemonade were more popular. Those who did drink were partial to Coors, Jack Daniels or Jim Beam. When Brown's grandmother would visit on Sundays, "all the beer was put away, and when she left it all came back out. We just didn't talk about it."

Many parts of Calistoga remind Brown of his hometown. He and his family reside on a shady street of handsome old homes in the downtown area of Napa's northernmost city. Attending the Fourth of July parade is a community tradition. Tourists swarm for the mud baths and a view of the occasional geyser from the hot springs nearby and to bask in the mellow vibe of the city's Old West charm. No one locks their doors there, either.

Brown's biggest fan is Welsh, whom he met more than a decago ago. A year younger than Brown, she grew up in Calistoga, where her family partnered in the Forni-Brown-Welsh Gardens.

Welsh brings a spirited personality, rapid-fire speech, an appreciation for fine wine and equilibrium to their life and home. Her energy and enthusiasm are at the opposite end of the spectrum to Brown's reserve. She was attracted to his kind, soft leadership, his embrace of her Calistoga lifestyle and his eternal optimism.

"I'm not a gentle woman," she says, "but he is the consummate gentleman. He and I hit the jackpot with each other."

They are parents of two children, Oscar Calhoun Brown, 10, and Hazel Flannery Brown, 8. It's a 1950s-model lifestyle, with a dash of Brown's Southern roots, says Welsh. She is most pleased by how Brown has become a complete part of the fabric of Calistoga. Brown was a star baseball and soccer player in high school and now coaches their kids in sports. He is a strong supporter of the Boys & Girls Club of Calistoga, where he's one of the biggest fundraisers.

Welsh says they live at the intersection of eccentric and calmness. "We're so lucky to grow up with this lifestyle," much of it centered on their children, their family and wine.

"[Thomas] has a wonderful internal compass and a work ethic he inherited from his father," says Welsh. "Fred [Schrader] took a shot on him and we've embarked on this beautiful ride, watching this great part of the high-end world of Cabernet. What a neat thing to have happened to us. Without sounding too gooey, I fall in love with him every day."

They are both wine fanatics; in fact, they are about to tear down her old family home in Calistoga to break ground on the new Rivers-Marie winery.

Wine at the Brown household is a varied experience. Brown estimates he spends $100,000 per year buying wine to taste. He collects Champagne and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He also chases older California Cabernets and occasionally Bordeaux. They are all part of his ongoing education.

"The real focus for me is the trinity of Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Grenache," he says. "There's a common thread in those wines, which is weightiness without heaviness. I definitely consider myself a volume drinker so I like varietals that provide impact but also inspire pouring more glasses. These three varietals provide aromatics that draw me in. That's really the first impression of any wine you drink and the perfume across these grapes is pretty intoxicating. They all have good palate presence without being tiring."

Every once in a while, when Brown's work is taxing, Genevieve "yells at me" for taking on a new client, Brown muses playfully. Until it's time to sit down for dinner and enjoy the wine of the day, whatever that might be. It's always something different, new and exciting, an opportunity to reflect on the richness of their life and share the blessings of the various bottles. Welsh can count on that.

In the modern history of California wine, several winemakers stand out for their impact on their times. Two of the most influential have been André Tchelistcheff and Helen Turley. Brown's career intersects with both of them, and as he moves forward into the next phase of his career, he has the chance to solidify his place in the company of these two leaders.

Tchelistcheff has a passion for grapegrowing, and insisted on strict sanitation measures in the winery. He kept Beaulieu Vineyard at an elite level for decades after Prohibition was repealed, and helped establish the modern template for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Brown works with some of the same vineyards that Tchelistcheff used at Beaulieu. The most direct connection is Georges III, formerly named BV No. 3, a Cabernet vineyard in Rutherford now owned by Beckstoffer and source of a perennially top-scoring Schrader wine.

Brown's career also brushes close to Turley, a winemaking icon who ushered in the era of Napa's cult wines. Turley helped shape a new model with clients such as Colgin-Schrader, with the Herb Lamb Vineyard, and Bryant Family Vineyard; she set new standards for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with her own brand, Marcassin.

Brown never worked directly with Turley, but he has links to her through her affiliation with Schrader at Colgin-Schrader and his friendships with Jordan and winemaker Matt Courtney, who both worked with Turley early in their careers.

Brown has many advantages. He works with the best Cabernet vineyards in Napa in an era of expert winegrowing and state-of-the-art cellars, not to mention that his clients have few if any financial constraints that might hinder the winemaker's pursuit of quality.

At Rivers-Marie, the new, 9,000-square-foot, $9 million winery in Calistoga will not only streamline winemaking but give the brand the ability to host customers. A second brand, Caterwaul, debuted with the 2015 vintage; Caterwaul 2015 is a Stags Leap District Cabernet from the Regusci Vineyard. Brown believes it captures Stags Leap's iron fist in the velvet glove character and also fits in nicely with the rest of his portfolio.

In Brown's wine world, it's all about making the best. That's the goal for most vintners, of course, but Brown has put a system into place where it's clear where he starts and where he intends to finish. His approach is to win over the palates of wine lovers who can also appreciate the scope of his efforts. Not just anyone can do that, and he's become a master.

 

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