Sonoma Diary 2: A More Sophisticated Style at Kosta Browne

Is it still true that Kosta Browne has a ‘big’ house style, I asked current winemaker Julien Howsepian. Founded by Dan Kosta and Michael Browne in 2001, the winery became famous for its forceful style for Pinot Noir. “This happened as an accident when some fruit came in at very high (25.2) Brix,” said Dan Kosta, “We made the wine, and it was just perfectly  exhilarating. That turned me on to picking fruit when it tasted good, rather than when people are telling me.”

Dan Kosta and Michael Browne sold the winery in 2017, and it moved through some subsequent changes of ownership before ending up with Duckhorn in 2018. “[The big style] is still true,” Julien says, “but we have tightened it to make a more balanced wine with a more sophisticated style.  We decided we wanted to fine tune the cellar, but we still have a bold style that is Californian, that is who we are. We want to celebrate California fruit. We’re a little more restrained, but we don’t want to turn our back on what made us successful.”

Located in old apple processing plant that’s part of a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol, where Kosta-Browne is the anchor, production is exclusively Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It has broadened from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Santa Lucia with the addition of Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. There are five AVA Pinot Noirs, 1 Chardonnay, and 20 single-vineyard wines (15 Pinot Noirs and 5 Chardonnays).

Kosta Browne is in an old apple-processing plant in The Barlow, a development on the outskirts of Sebastopol

The late harvest policy for the old style at Kosta Browne often produced wines around 15% alcohol. They did not taste as over the top as the alcohol level might suggest, but there was no mistaking the forceful style. The current releases that I tasted on my visit ranged from 13.4% to 14.4% and in no case was alcohol particularly evident on the palate. It is fair to say they do indeed show a more sophisticated style.

The Russian River Chardonnay (One Hundred Sixteen, named for route 116 that runs through Russian River Valley) shows an underlying richness, but a mix of vessels for fermentation and aging has given it good flavor variety. “We didn’t really develop this style for our Chardonnay until 2015,” says Julien. The main difference moving to the single vineyard El Diablo Chardonnay is the increased sense of refinement. “This is our leanest Chardonnay,” Julian says. “It marks our progress with Chardonnay. We used to pick later, then one year we picked a week earlier, and realized that we’d missed the mark.”

The Pinot Noirs share impressions of earthy red fruits on the palate with an underlying richness cut by a sense of structure partly reflecting some use of whole clusters. The Russian River Valley AVA release has smoky undertones and lifted red fruit aromatics. Gap’s Crown Vineyard from Petaluma Gap is more forceful and intensifies the sense of earthiness, and has more grip on the palate. Free James from a vineyard near the coast gives a more linear, cool-climate impression, with a sense of mountain tension. Moving to Mount Carmel from Santa Rita Hills, the aromatics are higher-toned, and the sense of tension increases. “This is the coolest region we work with,” Julien says. Cerise Vineyard from Anderson Valley is the most concentrated and most tannic release.

The house style remains relatively bold, but fruits are (relatively) more restrained and better balanced by the structure. Refinement increases from AVA to single vineyard, and each single vineyard has a character you can relate to its soil, climate, and region, far from the uniformity of super-ripe fruits. Julien says the wines drink best from 3 to 6-8 years after the vintage.

Tasting the Current Releases

2019 Chardonnay One Hundred Sixteen (Russian River Valley)
Fruitful nose with bright fruits tending to citrus contrast with smoky notes from new oak. Nice balance on palate: I wouldn’t call this lean, but it shows a citrus flavor spectrum and is not big or buttery. Some richness comes through the textured palate, which is flavorful. The wine fermented 80% in barriques and 20% in foudres, and aged two thirds in wood, including new French oak, used French oak, and Austrian oak. 13.5% 90 Drink -2025

2018 Chardonnay El Diablo (Russian River Valley)
The vineyard is at 500 ft in a warm site on the east of the hill, planted with a tight spacing of the Robert Young and Montrachet clones. The wine ferments and then ages half in foudre and half in barriques; overall there is 48% new French oak and 14% new Austrian oak. Aging lasts 14 months The wine gives a leaner impression than the 116 Chardonnay, starting with its smoky nose. The palate is smoother with a silkier texture. There’s an impression of stone fruits in front with citrus behind. Good acidity supports the fruits. Flavor variety develops slowly in the glass. 13.4% 91 Drink -2018

2019 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
The predominant source for the AVA release is Bootlegger’s Hill (almost a quarter), with about ten other sources. This vintage used 6% whole clusters and includes about ten clones, It ages in 45% new French oak for 16 months. Complex nose shows earthy notes, smokiness, bright red fruits, and some lifted red fruit aromatics. Smooth silky palate reprises those smoky notes with a sense of tobacco. Silky tannins are barely noticeable on the finish, which leaves a smoky, earthy, tobacco aftertaste. 14.1% 91 Drink -2027

2018 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
The vineyard is in the Petaluma Gap AVA planted with a variety of heritage and Dijon clones. Fermentation uses 10% whole clusters, with aging in 40% new French oak and 15% concrete to keep freshness. The nose is more forceful and earthier than the Russian River release. The red fruit palate offers a rounder impression but also has more sense of structure. Earthy red fruits on the palate are cut by a touch of tannin on the finish; good grip on the palate. Needs another year for the tannins to soften and allow the fruits to show as earthy strawberries, but already this is the roundest and approachable of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. 14.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029

2018 Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills)
Aromatic nose is higher-toned than Gap’s Crown from Russian River. Earthy red fruit impressions are poised between strawberries and cherries. Firm tannins are just evident by some bitterness on the finish. You can see the greater use of whole clusters (49%). This has the greatest sense of tension of the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and something approaching a sense of salinity on the finish. 13.5% 92 Drink 2022-2029

2017 Free James Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
The vineyard is at Freestone, very near the coast. The wine aged in almost 50% new French barriques for 22 months. The nose has taut aromatics and a sense of tension. The palate has relatively restrained fruits tending to red cherries, and the sense of tension returns on the palate. Fruits are more linear and there is more of a cool-climate impression than other cuvees. 13.4% 91 Drink -2028

2017  Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir (Anderson Valley)
The wine ferments in a mix of wood and concrete and ages in barriques for 19 months with almost half new oak. Earthy red fruit aromatics show on the nose. This is the densest and most viscous of the releases, the weightiest with the greatest sense of extract, with red fruits supported firm tannins that show a touch of bitterness on the finish. It’s the most tannic of the single vineyard wines. That earthy impression increases in the glass. It would benefit from more time to let the tannins soften. 13.4% 92 Drink 2022-2029

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