Teach a man to fish, and he won’t go hungry, but teach a man to appreciate fine wine, and he might just grow up to be the next great winemaker.
For some, wine is a birthright. The world is filled with winemakers who spent their childhood running through the vineyards of France or Italy or Napa Valley. For others, the path isn’t quite so straight or so well lit.
Thomas Rivers Brown is a man you should know by name and reputation alone. He currently stands among California’s most accomplished and sought-after winemakers. With his pockets full of 100-point wines, he has the luxury to pick and choose his clients (and his vineyards). The list of wineries hoping to score his services isn’t getting any shorter. Obviously, that wasn’t always the case. Believe it or not, there was a point in Brown’s adult life when he hadn’t yet had a sip of wine. Brown was raised in South Carolina among folks who generally frowned upon alcohol. His family had roots that ran centuries deep, but Brown had no plans to stick around. College offered the perfect escape, and he headed to the University of Virginia to study English Literature and Economics, an ideal double-major for anyone who has no idea what they want to do with their life. As luck would have it, his college sweetheart came from a family of serious wine collectors. They sparked his interest in the finer side of wine, and then kept the fire burning with their impressive cellar access to their impressive cellar.
As anyone who loves wine knows, it’s not an easy or an inexpensive passion to pursue. Fresh out of college and appropriately broke, he packed up his Honda and drove all the way to Napa Valley. For $50 a month in rent (plus utilities), Brown crashed in a friend’s closet in Oakland and started knocking on doors, working parttime gigs and hanging out at one of the Valley’s iconic wine shops.
As Brown sums it up, “Literally, the way to learn about wine is to taste everything that someone will put in front of you.” Starting with European wine, he jumped in with both feet and tried “anything and everything that someone would open.” Soon enough, he was working harvests and then assisting at Turley and then he lucked into some pretty big clients (*ahem* Schrader) willing to take a chance on a newcomer. As a consultant winemaker, Brown is more hands on than many famous names in the business. He keeps his wines close, tasting often and tapping instincts that seem supernatural to outsiders. Ironically, it’s as much of what isn’t done as what is, that sets his wines apart. His style is naturalistic, “cautiously interventionist,” trusting the decisions made in the vineyard to carry through to the bottle without a lot of meddling. It’s no accident that he only works with the very best vineyards. Brown’s advice, to any forward-thinking wine lover, is to share the good stuff. For many years, he depended on the kindness of others to loosen the corks on wines that were out of his reach. His philosophy is one of generosity: share great wine, share your knowledge, and keep the quality juice flowing for the future. Call it your civic duty as a drinker, or just good citizenship, but the world could use more Thomas Rivers Browns and we’re happy to provide liquid inspiration.