Ascent of the Apprentice

Winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown had an impressive track record in Napa Valley—well before his most recent successes with Hestan and Meyer

Excerpted from the April 30, 2012, issue

When Napa Valley vintner Fred Schrader went looking for a winemaker in 2000, he hired a promising 29-year-old who was apprenticing at Turley Wine Cellars, known for Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. It was a gut-feeling hire for Schrader. The apprentice, it turned out, had never made Cabernet, and it is not his favorite wine. But the relationship evolved and has paid off handsomely for both Schrader and his winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown.

When Napa Cabernet is debated, Brown’s name is increasingly mentioned. Of all the spectacular Cabernets made in the past decade, his is one of the most inspiring collections. Since 2000, he has made 37 individual bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon for Schrader Cellars. Twenty have earned ratings of 95 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, including a pair of 100-point 2007s. Ninety-one is the lowest score in the bunch. Brown’s Cabernets are opulent and polished, offering layers of dark berry and toasty integrated oak.

In one sense, the style is very basic. “We wanted to make wines in a naturalistic way,” says Schrader, who taught Brown how to make Cabernet. “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.”

Brown’s expertise has not gone unnoticed. Each year he turns down dozens of lucrative offers, and seals the deals he does make with a handshake. Fees range from $20,000 to $250,000, depending on the project and its level of progression. All of his clients come from a position of wealth, says Brown, and share a passion for success and precision.

Those happy to employ his services include baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (GTS), on Diamond Mountain; former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy (Casa Piena), in Yountville; and star chef Michael Chiarello of Bottega, in Yountville. Then there’s filmmaker Chris Maybach (Maybach) and Kevin Kinsella (Kinsella), founder of online gaming site Zynga; both of their wines have earned classic ratings. Brown also makes wine for Tru, Outpost, Harris, Black Sears, Hobel and Clark-Claudon. He is making a new wine called Aloft for Napa stalwart Charles Krug, as well as consulting for Revana and Round Pond.

Almost lost in the shuffle is Brown’s own label, Rivers-Marie, which comes with some irony. Pinot Noir, not Cabernet, is Brown’s first love. Because Brown is soft-spoken and shy, Rivers-Marie is just starting to gain wider recognition. He makes Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the label, which combines his middle name and that of his partner, Genevieve Marie Welsh. Brown makes two Rivers-Marie Napa Cabs (Corona in Oakville and Panek in St. Helena) and a half-dozen Pinot bottlings from various sites in Sonoma, including Summa Vineyard, which he and Welsh bought in 2010.

He is also overseeing Schrader’s two Sonoma Coast Pinot projects—Aston and Boar’s View. The Aston Pinots share the richness found in the Schrader Cabernets, while the Rivers-Marie Pinots have been more restrained. As Brown gains experience, he’s building more depth and complexity into his own wines.

If a winemaker can only be as good as his grapes, that explains part of Brown’s success, as he is working with a variety of top sites. His aim is to taper the style to the terroir. Those who know Brown say he’s intuitive, a good listener, confident without being arrogant, and wise beyond his years. Brown “knows it’s going to take 10 years to know the vineyard and 10 years to make a great wine,” says Chiarello. “He has pride of winemaking without ego of winemaker.”

Keeping track of all the vineyards isn’t as impossible as it seems, says Brown. “Once you’ve worked with a vineyard for five, six years, you get an idea of who’s [harvesting] early and who’s late.”

In Brown’s case, it turns out that not having any experience with Cabernet wasn’t a hindrance. His collective work with the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet for Schrader remains his greatest achievement to date, but the promise of future projects is equally enticing and he remains a story to watch.