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September 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Finding the Right Fit

Kosta Browne is ready to crush the 2013 vintage in new, custom-built winery

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 
In winemaking, as in many of life’s other pursuits, it’s the simple things that often matter the most. Michael Browne, winemaker and one of the founders of Sonoma County’s Kosta Browne Wines, knew he wanted the company’s new winery to have three things: barrel storage, hot water hose stations and drains.

The new Kosta Browne winery at The Barlow development in Sebastopol, Calif., has 9,000 square feet of temperature-controlled and well-lit barrel storage space, 37 Strahman hose stations with hot and cold water and compressed air and drains in every corner of the production areas.

A few other luxuries also equip the new home of the well-financed winery with a sterling critical reputation for Pinot Noir. The professional kitchen, for example, is used for hosting wine club members and other special occasions, a large lab is equipped with top-of-the-line analytical equipment, a cold room for receiving harvested fruit and a custom-designed pneumatic punch-down system on rails above three bays of open-top fermentation tanks are among the highlights.

Founding partners Dan Kosta and Michael Browne teamed with investor Chris Costello in 2001. After a string of rave reviews and high scores, the founders sold a controlling stake to the Vincraft Group in a $36 million deal. Plans for the new location were in place prior to the investment, and Browne said the new winery is being paid for through wine sales. “Our business is self sustaining,” he said.

Built at The Barlow
During a recent tour of the new winery, Michael Browne said he and his partners knew they wanted a new home, but the economics of building an estate winery didn’t make sense to them. They evaluated a few other warehouse winery locations in Sonoma County but didn’t really like what was available.

An employee of their new parent company suggested they contact developer Barney Aldridge, who was looking for tenants for his project The Barlow, built on the site of a former apple cannery and rail depot in Sebastopol. Browne said they met with Adridge and liked his vision; they also decided that three of the planned buildings would fit their needs. “We had the right space to design a winery how we wanted it,” Browne said.

The Barlow is a cluster of modern-looking buildings with roll-up doors. Tenants include breweries, a coffee roaster, a distillery, glass blowers, clothing shops and an ice cream maker. The concept is for shoppers to find unique wares while also getting a chance to visit producers in their working environments.

In addition to Kosta Browne, the development is home to La Follette and Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery tasting rooms as well as Wind Gap Wines’ planned production space.

While consumers won’t be able to walk into Kosta Browne to taste and buy a few bottles of wine (in fact it’s rather hard to even find the front door), Browne said they’re happy to be part of a pretty interesting and vibrant cluster of companies. The winery is permitted for 30 events per year, but Browne said they likely won’t ever host that many.

He said the winery doesn’t plan to open a tasting room, and added frankly that to them such a move would mean something had gone wrong. “We want to make sure it’s always a sought-out brand and coveted wine,” Browne said.

The winery sells 90% of its 14,000-case production directly to consumers, and the rest is sold to on-premise accounts. Right now the wait list has 300 to 400 people on it, and the average wait time is two to three years. Browne said he’d like to add more people to the list after the big harvest of 2012, adding that the cellar staff will make 22,000 cases at the new winery this harvest.

This year will also be the first that Kosta Browne crushes grapes from vines it owns.

The first ‘estate vintage’
Bill Price, chairman of Vincraft and Kosta Browne, announced his purchase of Gap’s Crown vineyard in the Sonoma Coast AVA at the start of the year. Kosta Browne is leasing back 37 acres of vines from the newly formed Gap’s Crown LLC. The winery also just closed on 20 acres of Pinot Noir vines at Keefer Ranch in the Russian River Valley AVA of Sonoma County. In addition to Sonoma County, Kosta Browne sources grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in California’s Central Coast.

In late June, Browne, associate winemaker Ryan O’Donnell and Tony Lombardi, public relations and brand management director, were showing off their new digs. At the time the spotless winery only housed wine in barrel from 2012.

As O’Donnell walked into the cellar work area where a crew was racking barrels with Bull Dog pups, a Johnny Cash song was playing over the winery’s sound system. O’Donnell pulled out his iPhone and lowered the volume. The winery is not just plumbed for hot and cold glycol but for surround sound, too.

O’Donnell said workers can tie into any of one of several music-subscription services such as Pandora or Spotify or use a Bluetooth connection to link to the system in whatever room they’re working. The music can also be set to play in just one specific area. If the staff in the administration building is playing classical or smooth jazz for a VIP tasting, the guys in the cellar can be blasting heavy metal. “You can rock out to whatever you want to,” he said.

Despite being just off Sebastopol’s small but congested downtown, the winery has the space to make unloading grapes fairly fluid. Trucks will enter from the rear, forklift operators will unload the bins and empty trucks, then exit from another entrance. It’s “one of the few drive-thrus in Sebastopol,” joked Lombardi.

Part of the winery permit process mandated that trucks stay off Highway 116, which runs through the heart of the city. Trucks will have to reach the winery from Highway 12, which enters Sebastopol from the east, and Browne said it shouldn’t be a problem.

After unloading the bins, forklift drivers will then move them to a cold room if necessary. Browne said the room, which also doubles as extra storage space, can be chilled to 40°F and gives Browne the flexibility to call a pick even if the winery is already processing grapes that day.

Quicker, more efficient
All of Kosta Browne’s fruit is picked at night to keep it cool, and the room helps ensure fruit stays at the ideal temperature even if the crush pad is too busy to process it. Last harvest, Browne said some fruit had to stay on the vine a little too long, and the wine ultimately wasn’t a fit for the Kosta Browne style. “Quicker, more efficient is what we want at this facility,” Browne said.

This harvest, Browne said he plans to add a Pellenc optical sorter to the processing line, but the rest of the equipment made the move from the winery’s old location at Owl Ridge Wine Services, also in Sebastopol.

Bins are dumped with a forklift into a Bucher Vaslin vibratory hopper that shakes out the shot berries and other debris. The clusters then fall onto a conveyor for manual sorting before dropping into an escalator that leads to an Armbruster Rotovib destemmer. O’Donnell noted that not only is the Rotovib gentle, it’s also very quiet.

In the final sorting step, grapes fall onto a Le Trieur sorter. The Le Trieur, conveyor and escalator are all sourced through P&L Specialties. “Our sorting line is crucial to our overall quality,” Browne said.

Sorted and processed fruit is collected in T-Bins or “gravy boats” made by Burgstahler Machine Works in St. Helena, Calif. The gravy boats are stainless steel sumps with one side shaped like a funnel, which help forklift operators dump the bins cleanly into open-top tanks.

Browne said the winery had collected fruit with regular half-ton MacroBins and moved them clear of the sorting line with a pallet jack. Now the winery has a few gravy boats, which are set on wheels and can be quickly moved out of the way when filled. “Any step we can take away to make it more efficient we’ll do it,” Browne said.

Maintaining quality
Browne said wine quality has improved and been maintained through better equipment and a flexible approach in the cellar and vineyard. Grower relations have also been instrumental to the winery’s success. “Vineyard management has been crucial,” Browne said. “It is very hard to farm Pinot, especially at the high end.…As we have grown, we have put much more effort into the quality of our relationships with our growers as well as the focus and quality of the farming.”

White grapes are dumped directly into a Willmes Sigma 8 press that can press 5-6 tons of whole-cluster fruit. The juice is pumped directly to 2,000-gallon slim stainless steel tanks for cold settling. After it’s clear, the juice is then racked to barrels for primary fermentation in French oak.

Browne said he likes some barrel fermentation for the texture and mouthfeel it gives to the wine, but he doesn’t like to push it too far. After about 40% of the total lot is done with primary fermentation, it will be transferred back to stainless steel tanks.

Browne said the move helps the wine retain its freshness and stay focused. “We’re in California; why would you want to make a Burgundy here, or why would you want a Montrachet?”

His sentiment is also seen in the fastidious commitment to cleanliness at the new winery.

‘A clean, clean winery’
Browne said Kosta Browne experienced some Brettanomyces-touched vintages around 2001 and 2002, and he never wants to deal with the yeast again. Any wine with a hint of Brett is outlawed from the winery—as is bacteria-rife kombucha tea. “We are a clean, clean winery,” he said.

Brettanomyces may have a place in other winemaking programs, but Browne said it’s too hard to control and doesn’t fit the winery’s style. “I don’t like it,” he said. “I like the smells of fruit rather than…other things.”

He said Kosta Browne imparts complexity to its wines through the fruit itself, employing whole-cluster fermentation and bottle aging.

How much of a wine is made with whole-cluster fermentation depends on the vineyard source and the vintage and can range from 8% to 25%. “We determine the amount of whole cluster during harvest,” Browne said. “We also ferment the whole cluster separately at 100% and keep it separate for the entire barrel-aging term. We can then blend back just what we need.”

Red fermentation occurs in more than 40 open-top, stainless-steel tanks, but the winery has oak vats by Tonnellerie Rousseau and Tonnellerie Saury and is installing some open-top Nomblot concrete tanks and already has three concrete eggs by Sonoma Cast Stone.

Browne said he conducts a five-day cold soak for some cold extraction to help build fresh flavors. The soak also allows the must to coalesce and give the winemaking team an accurate picture of the lot’s chemistry.

Reds are inoculated with Lalvin RC212. Browne said he’s found it to be an efficient yeast that fits his style. He said he can count on the yeast to get the job done without him having to worry about stuck or sluggish ferments.

Browne limits his use of sulfur dioxide and inoculates the wine to provide a layer of microbial control. He doesn’t let his wines undergo spontaneous (or native) fermentation, although he’s experimented with the method in the past. “I felt I had to work the wine more to do it,” he said. “I feel our wines are very complex, and it’s a style we love.”

A catwalk to be proud of
The cellar area contains three banks of tanks made by Quality Stainless Tanks, some of which are variable capacity. The tanks are accessible from a catwalk, a source of some pride for the winemaking staff, as Kosta Browne has never had one before moving into the new facility. From the catwalks, fabricated by Dimensions in Metal, winery staff will be able to operate pneumatic punch-down devices from R.S. Randall and Co. that run along metal rails above the tanks. The winery also has a forklift punch-down attachment for managing fermentations in the vats and the concrete tanks.

If a wine is running a little hot or starting to smell a bit reductive, the staff will splash the wine through a sump in an aerative pump over. “We want our yeast to be happy here,” O’Donnell says.

Reds are drained to portable tanks, and the must is shoveled into bins that are dumped into the Bucher Vaslin JBL basket press. The press can handle 5 to 6 tons with just a 4 5-minute cycle. Browne said they lose a little in volume with the Bucher but love the quick cycle—plus, he says, the wine tastes better. The winery purchased another Bucher press for this year. “The quality of the press wine is way better, and we can turn this thing all day.”

After pressing and during barrel aging, the wine undergoes regular analysis for VA and sulfur dioxide. The staff at Kosta Browne can run all standard lab analysis in-house, but they do send out for microbiological work. Because Browne feels too much SO2 can “rip the soul out of a wine,” he monitors his wines closely and makes slight adjustments as needed. The lab is equipped with a Chemwell 2910 Autoanalyzer for enzymatic testing and staffed with a full-time enologist.

During harvest, Kosta Browne will bring on three lab interns and 12 additional cellar workers. Four full-time workers, including a cellarmaster, staff the winery during the rest of the year.

While harvest at any winery can be grueling, the season can be especially hectic at Kosta Browne. Every bin of each lot is generally analyzed for Brix, acidity and pH, and the same commitment to detail is given to each wine lot as it goes through the winemaking process.

The winery receives fruit from three appellations that can often hit ripening at the same time. Because it specializes in just Pinot and Chardonnay, the harvest at Kosta Browne is often shorter than at other wineries but more intense. “Our fruit all comes in during a short period of time,” Browne said. “If we do not have the proper equipment and facilities to deal with that fruit, then quality goes down. We have built a system where we can handle the fruit as it comes, and I feel we are better than ever before in terms of quality.”

In 1997, the founding partners made the first vintage of Kosta Browne wine with a hand-cranked destemmer. Since then, Kosta Browne has been catapulted to the top tier of Pinot Noir producers in California, and the winery now has a home that reflects its remarkable ascent.

 
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