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

Sonoma Diary 1: Not Only Chardonnay at David Ramey

“The press have characterized us as a Chardonnay house,” says David Ramey, a fraction ruefully, “but I think we make world-class Cabernet as well.” He makes his point with a tasting of the complete range of Chardonnays, showing his Eurocentric aesthetic when he divides them into ‘village wines’ (AVA) and single-vineyards. We followed this with a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons from a recent vintage and from the ‘difficult’ 2011 vintage.

David Ramey founded his own cellar in 1996 after making wines for several wineries in Sonoma and Napa. Today his children Alan and Claire are taking over. The winery is a bare bones warehouse-like structure on the outskirts of Healdsburg. Estate vineyards are mostly in Russian River, but grapes also come from long-term contracts with vineyards on Sonoma Coast to the west and Napa Valley to the east. Production is 60% white and 40% red.

The winery is a practical building in Healdsburg

The Chardonnays offer a textbook illustration of differences between areas and sites. Pressed as whole clusters, they ferment and age in French barriques, for 12 months with 15% new oak for ‘village’ wines and for 20 months with 25% new oak for single vineyard wines. Aging is identical for all single vineyard wines. Style does not change going from an AVA wine to a single vineyard, but these develop greater flavor variety and more complexity, and give the impression of more structural support for longer aging.

Fort Ross Seaview is relatively lean compared to the richer Russian River Valley or Carneros. In Russian River, Westside and Woolsey are leaner than the more opulent Rochioli and Ritchie. The cuvée from Hyde Vineyard in Carneros offers one of the most Burgundian-like expressions of that vineyard I encountered this month.

How long will they last, I asked, with the problems of premature aging of white Burgundy in mind. “Twenty years,” David says, “with no premox!” After some years of trials, the winery made a switch in 2013 to using the Diam technical cork, which not only guarantees absence of TCA, but also offers a controlled rate of oxygen ingress. David makes his point about the effect this will have by pulling out a Woolsey Chardonnay from 2013 and a Ritchie Vineyard from 2009. The 2013 (under Diam) was scarcely different in appearance from the current release, and nose and palate showed the same style, but with increase in depth and density resulting from age. The 2009 (under conventional cork) was a deeper color, and the organoleptic spectrum showed the beginnings of oxidative changes. “Diam will allow the wine to age longer and retain the same character,” David says. (The winery is given to experimentation and trialled screwcaps, but David does not believe the wines would ultimately achieve the same complexity as under cork.)

We turned to red wines. The Pinot Noir from Russian River shows the restrained style of the house, and the Syrah from Petaluma Gap (a relatively cool area) showed a northern Rhone-like freshness. But the Cabernets were the pièce de résistance. Annum comes from a variety of sources in Napa Valley, about half from Oakville, the rest from Mount Veeder and Saint Helena or Diamond Mountain. The restrained style is reinforced by some subtle hints of bell peppers to cut the black fruits. Good as Annum is, however, it is eclipsed by the single-vineyard Pedregal, which is subtler and deeper. Both wines are blends, Annum with a minor component of Cabernet Franc, and Pedregal with Petit Verdot (the two varieties are cofermented rather than blended to get a more integrated result). For both wines we compared the 2015 vintage with the 2011, a year that had been generally slated by the critics at the time. But the 2011s showed beautifully as classic representations of the Bordeaux blend, with the varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon really coming out. “Some critics are looking for power, but we’re showing the 2011 vintage now,” David says.

There’s room for all styles in Napa and Sonoma, of course, but across the range these are real food wines: there is nothing forced or pumped up here.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Sonoma.

Tasting Notes

2018, Fort Ross-Seaview, Chardonnay
This comes from the Charles Martinelli Ranch, two miles from the pacific at 1,100 ft elevation. Fresh nose leads into elegant palate with some buttery overtones. Generally a relatively lean, well balanced impression, just short of expressing minerality. 14.2% 91 Drink -2028

2018, Russian River Valley, Chardonnay
Fruit is a little more obvious on the nose than with Fort Ross Seaview Chardonnay. It’s a touch fatter on the palate, with a touch more viscosity, but also more sense of citrus in the fruit spectrum. Very flavorful. This comes from a variety of sources, with more than 50% from Westside Farms, the rest from four other sites. 92 Drink -2028

2018, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
Fresh nose leads into palate with filigree sense of acidity. Fruits moving towards yellow plums. Greater sense of texture to the palate compared with Rochioli, and long finish. David Ramey says this is usually the richest of the single vineyard wines. 93 Drink -2030

2018, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay
Restrained nose with faintly herbal, piquant impressions. Palate shows lovely balance of stone and citrus fruits with some bare hints of oak in the background. There’s just a touch of citric acidity to offset the oak. Flavors are now emerging on the palate. David Ramey says this is usually one of the richest single vineyard Chardonnays. Sourced mostly from Mid-40 block with the rest from River block. 93 Drink -2029

2018, Russian River Valley, Westside Farms Chardonnay
Fragrant nose with sense of perfume and filigree acidity. Oak shows faintly in background with just a hint of residual bitterness. This cuvee has a restrained sense of asperity., This vineyard is also the major source for the Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which shows as fatter from its other components. 93 Drink -2030

2018, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay
Bright acidity reinforces the lively impressions of the citric-driven palate, offset by a touch of oak on the finish. Softly textured palate shows yellow plums and citrus. Lovely balance and texture. David Ramey says this is usually the leanest of the single vineyard Chardonnays. 93 Drink -2031

2018, Carneros, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay
More herbal impressions here, compared to Russian River Valley single vineyard wines. There’s a fugitive whiff of gunflint, and David Ramey says this is often a feature of this vineyard. Greater sense of extraction on palate, although not more viscous. Fruits incline to citrus with touch of bitterness from oak in the background. Great flavor variety is coming out on palate. 93 Drink -2031

2013, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay
Color is barely any darker than the 2018, still lemon rather than gold. Nose shows faintly herbal overtones and age has brought more evident depth to the palate: the citric impressions are a little more forceful and there’s a hint of gunflint. Everything is a bit deeper and more intense. 92 Drink -2027

2009, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
A little deeper in color than current vintages and more golden. The nose shows just a whiff of development and a trace of oxidative influences is evident on the palate, although still at the stage of adding complexity. While this is still very good, it shows more of a change in character, moving away from the primary citrus influences. This vintages was bottled under conventional cork, and later vintages bottled under Diam will no doubt show as fresher at the same stage. 91 Drink -2025

2017, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir
This comes from a mix of clones and terroirs, ferments with 23% whole clusters, and ages for 14 months with 40% new oak. Does not show the flamboyant style of exuberant fruits and viscous palates of the more extreme Pinots from Russian River, but is nicely balanced between earthy fruits and herbal notes. Structure shows in a bare hint of bitterness on the finish that should resolve shortly. 90 Drink 2022-2030

2015, Petaluma Gap, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah
Complex nose shows red fruits and a fugitive trace of menthol. Palate is slightly herbal, slightly nutty, full flavored, with that suspicion of menthol returning on the finish. Developing nicely with good follow-through on the finish in a style reminiscent of the northern Rhone. 91 Drink -2029

2015, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 17%, Malbec 3%,)
Sweet ripe fruits show a nicely restrained style, with a palate more focused on blackberries. Tannins are supple in the background. There are some faint and attractive herbal notes showing retronasally on the long finish. The Eurocentric style is reinforced by a fresh not of faint bell peppers at the end. 92 Drink -2031

2015, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Petit Verdot 11%)
More subtle and deeper than Annum. Very faint bell peppers on the nose. Beautifully restrained, Bordeaux-like freshness, nicely rounded fruits are supported by supple tannins, hints of bell peppers and tobacco come back on the finish. It has the quality of top wines of seamless layers of flavor. 94 Drink -2031

2011, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 75%, Cabernet Franc 25%)
The wine opens with absolutely delicious classic notes of bell peppers to counterpoise the black fruits. Palate is smooth and supple with tannins resolving. The cool climate impression reflects the conditions of the vintage and really reflects varietal character. 92 Drink -2027

2011, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Petit Verdot 24%)
Nose shows subtle notes of bell peppers and faint hints of development. A leaner, mineral character balances the black fruits. The finish shows a good sense of texture with firm tannins supporting the fruits and some hints of dryness developing on the finish together with notes of tobacco. 93 Drink -2029