Thomas Rivers Brown, one of Napa's top winemakers, has finalized terms to become the sole owner of Aston Estate, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir brand that he started in 2001 with vintner Fred Schrader, founder of Schrader Cellars, and Chuck Sweeney, co-founder of Vine Cliff. The acquisition price was not disclosed, but the sale includes the brand, inventory and 14 acres of prime coastal vineyard planted to Pinot Noir near Annapolis.
"I put 20 years into this brand and vineyard, and it seemed silly to lose it," Brown told Wine Spectator, admitting that the partners had been shopping the brand for a few months before he had an epiphany that he should be the one to carry on. "We lost the whole vintage in 2020 [due to smoke], but rather than having the brand disappear from customers' radar, I realized there was potential."
Brown was instrumental in establishing Aston, finding the coastal property in 2000, when few wineries were operating in the remote and rugged Annapolis region, just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. He says both Schrader and Sweeney were keen to diversify their Napa-focused portfolios and pioneer a new area. But in the brand's 20-year existence, it was never properly promoted, Brown says.
Schrader parted ways with Aston after selling Schrader Cellars to Constellation in 2017. "That left a big hole, because they were our sales and marketing arm," said Brown. He adds that Sweeney was happy to slow down and sell his share to Brown.
Rather than incorporate the grapes into Brown's Rivers-Marie wines, something he says would increase volume by 67 percent, Brown wants to see what he can do with it as a standalone. "The brand has a lot of legs and potential, but it always seemed to be second fiddle to all of the partners’ other brands," he said.
The vineyard is planted exclusively to Dijon clones, which aren't Brown's preference, but he isn't planning to change anything right away. "If we were to re-plant, maybe I'd sprinkle in some Mt. Eden, Calera or Swan," he said. But he also believes that when Dijon clone vines get older, they tend to produce more exciting wines. He points to the Rivers-Marie Occidental Ridge Vineyard bottling as an example. "It's essentially the same make-up of Aston, but as it's gotten older, it's become more interesting due to vine age rather than clonal material."
The 1,500-case Aston brand wines will continue to be made in a contrasting style to that of Brown's Rivers-Marie wines, which he says is more a function of the terroir. "We talk about Annapolis as having a savage quality," he said. "Annapolis tends to yield a bigger, more structured style."
Despite a 3,000-person mailing list, Brown believes Aston has been underappreciated for too long. "It's essentially a 20-year-old brand no one has heard of," he said. He hopes a newly appointed national sales manager for Rivers-Marie will help spread awareness and position Aston where he believes it belongs: as one of the great California coastal Pinot Noirs.
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