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The Southern Winemaker Who Made a Name for Himself in California: Thomas Rivers Brown

Thomas Rivers Brown is one of the most sensational and celebrated talents in winemaking today, as evidenced by the extraordinary ratings, awards and accolades he has received from industry luminaries, including being named Food & Wine Magazine's Winemaker of the Year 2010. 

Excerpt from Food & Wine Magazine: Winemaker of the Year - By Richard Nalley: F&W honors a Napa winemaker known for his hands-off style. On his first pilgrimage to Napa Valley as a recent college graduate, Thomas Rivers Brown was star-struck: "All those people and wineries I'd read about back in Virginia—you could actually meet them and visit them!" He promptly moved to California and threw himself into the winemaking life. His new education began when winemaker Ehren Jordan at cult Zinfandel producer Turley Wine Cellars gave him an entry-level job in 1997. In the past few years, Brown has become one of the most sought-after consulting winemakers in Napa Valley, making high-end Cabernet for 15 different labels at the Black Sears and Outpost wineries on Howell Mountain, with clients like Schrader and Maybach. There is even a Thomas Rivers Brown method—a non-interventionist style that eschews technology and, he says, "all those elements that contribute to sameness"—but beyond a common generosity and roundness in the tannins, there's no Brown signature present in the wines themselves. "We pride ourselves on there not being a recognizable trait," he says.

Portrait of Thomas Rivers Brown (Photo credits: Briana Marie / Town & Country Magazine)

Brown was born in South Carolina, where his family had deep roots, and attended the University of Virginia, where he developed an interest in wine. After college, he waited tables at a restaurant near Richmond and soon took over as wine director. 

He visited the Rhône and Burgundy regions several times before moving west, arriving in Napa in 1996, where he found a job at a wine store in Calistoga, called All Seasons, a tribal gathering spot for Napa's wine community. There he met Ehren Jordan, who had just become the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars; Jordan hired Brown and later connected him with his first winemaking client, a new winery on a spectacular ridge of Howell Mountain called Outpost.

Among those Brown met at All Seasons was Fred Schrader who quickly recruited Brown to the Schrader team. United by a shared dream of producing "no holds barred" wines of the highest calibre, Fred's instinct to hire the passionate youth was spot on.

Thomas Brown and founder Fred Schrader with bins of cabernet sauvignon grapes from Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard in the Oakville region of Napa Valley (Photo credits: Schrader Cellars).

With Schrader, Brown made cabernets from plots in the prime To Kalon vineyard in Oakville, earning the first of many perfect scores from Robert Parker with the 2002 vintage. The Schrader cabs were powerful, ripe, and viscous – stylistically very much akin to the so-called cult cabernets that redefined Napa winemaking in the 90s. 

Brown's success at Schrader attracted a host of clients eager to avail themselves of his magic. Napa has other superstar winemakers, but it's hard to shake the impression that every deep-pocketed wannabe arriving in the valley over the last 15 years has hired Brown to produce a trophy cab.

As of this fall, Brown oversees a total of 40 wineries, making a multiple cuvées for most, at five different facilities. One of his current and most exciting projects? Senses Wine. 

The Senses Wine team with Thomas Brown. (Photo credits: Senses Wine).

It all started while walking the Thieriot Vineyard in Occidental. Brown's work with the wines of Rivers-Marie combined with his love of Occidental's extreme Sonoma Coast growing region make him a natural fit for Senses.

Together with Christopher Strieter (finance and business guru), Max Thieriot (farmer and actor, on A&E’s Bates Motel), and Myles Lawrence-Briggs (English major turned vintner), Brown produces delicate, nuanced wines that exhibit balance and depth on the palate.

Shop Schrader Cellars here and Senses Wines here.

Article credits: Town and Country Magazine, Schrader Cellars, Wine Spectrum.

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