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Winemaker Talk: Byron Kosuge

A Pinot Noir and Syrah specialist working in Chile and California

James Molesworth
Posted: February 27, 2007

Byron Kosuge, 47, is a California-based winemaker with more than 20 vintages of experience under his belt. He specializes in Syrah and Pinot Noir.

Kosuge is a California native, and wine is in his blood—his father was a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis. Kosuge himself started out as an English literature student, but caught the wine bug along the way and joined Saintsbury in 1987.

After the 2000 harvest at Saintsbury, Kosuge struck out on his own, focusing on Pinot Noir. He began making the wines for Miura, a label owned by his Davis roommate, Emmanuel Kemiji, and then connected with Courtney Kingston of Chile's Kingston Family Vineyards. Kosuge is also working on a yet-to-be-released Pinot Noir project in California's Santa Lucia Highlands, called McIntyre Vineyards, as well as his own Pinot Noir and Syrah label, called B. Kosuge Wines, whose debut 2004 vintage was released last May.

Wine Spectator: What got you interested in being a winemaker?
Byron Kosuge: Three wines convinced me that I needed to be involved in the wine business: the 1967 DRC Montrachet, a 1971 Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny Vieilles Vignes and a 1970 Louis Martini Special Selection Cabernet. This was back in the early '80s. When I finally realized that my future as a literary scholar was not very promising, I switched to studying wine. After a couple of harvest jobs and a brief stint in grad school studying American literature, I began working at Saintsbury in 1987. It was there that Pinot Noir and I discovered each other.

WS: What was your first vintage in the wine business, in any capacity?
BK: My first vintage in the wine business was 1983. I worked an internship—in other words, I was a grunt—at Sonoma-Cutrer under Terry Adams and Bill Bonetti. I nearly cut off my finger when I smashed it between two barrels. I also lived in a cold, clammy cabin in the woods out on the Russian River.

WS: Who have been your biggest influences as a winemaker?
BK: My father, who loved wine in a very down-to-earth way. [And] the gang at Saintsbury—David Graves, Dick Ward and Bill Knuttel—who showed me you could be very serious about making wine and still goof off … a lot.

I've also been fortunate to work with some great growers, like the Talleys down in Arroyo Grande, Lee Hudson in Carneros, Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, David Hirsch, and many others over the years, who remind me constantly how important it is to be out in the vineyard.

WS: What is it about working in Chile that you like? And in California?
BK: In both places, there's a kind of pioneer mentality, at least when it comes to Pinot Noir. Especially in Chile, where Pinot Noir hasn't been taken seriously until pretty recently. Chile has enormous potential in the cooler coastal areas that is just starting to be realized. I think the best wines are still ahead of us, in Chile and in California too, and that's exciting.

WS: You mentioned you like Syrah because it does well in lots of places, yet Pinot is very site specific. How do you reconcile working with two grapes that grow so differently?
BK: While Syrah does well in many places, it is still very expressive of where it's grown. Or maybe I should say it could be if it is allowed to be. Its warm-climate expression is different than its cool-climate expression but it can be exciting wine in both situations, unlike Pinot, which is not very successful in warm climates.

As you know, people tend to think of Syrah as a warm-climate variety because it is warm in the Rhône during the summer, but warm climate in France and warm climate in California are two very different things. There are still limits on where Syrah should be grown—it's a very vigorous variety so lower-yielding sites are a must. And it can set a huge crop, so you need to keep an eye on that as well. It's just more adaptable to different climates than Pinot is.

WS: What is your favorite food pairing with a California Pinot versus a Chilean Pinot?
BK: I would probably go for a lot of the same pairings—wild mushrooms, duck and truffles—the usual, for both wines. But Chilean Pinot (at least the ones I make) are a bit firmer, not quite as ripe and plush as most Californian Pinots, so in some cases might be a better foil for rich food. I tend to drink Pinot with almost everything. Well, maybe not shellfish …

WS: What is your favorite food pairing with a warm-climate Syrah versus a cool-climate Syrah?
BK: Warm-climate Syrahs are so rich that they are almost like dessert wines, and are best by themselves in my opinion. Cooler-climate Syrahs, or maybe I should say cool-climate-styled Syrahs, with their earthy, floral, spicy, sometimes exotic aromas, I think go well with hearty, earthy fare, like braised short ribs, lamb shanks, that sort of thing.

WS: Other than one of your own, what is your favorite wine?
BK: Actually, I don't drink a lot of my own wine. I love Alsatian wine—Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris—though I don't have a favorite producer. Of course Pinot Noir and Syrah too. I had a 2003 Jamet Côte-Rôtie not too long ago that was lovely. Syrah is such an amazing grape, so good in so many places.

WS: What do you do when you're not making wine?
BK: When I am not making wine, which is not often since I began doing two harvests a year, I still try to keep up on literature, though that's mostly on airplanes these days. And I spend as much time as I can with my young daughter and seek out the many good things to eat and drink here in the North Bay of California, where I live.

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