Just like anything you hold close to your heart, you hope other people love it too. Sure, Kosta Browne has thousands of fans today, but in the early days—that period when Michael and Dan were struggling more to make ends meet than they were to make good wine—devotees were a little harder to find.
One of the very first: Fred Dame, Master Sommelier.
At the time, Fred already had made quite a bit of history as a wine expert. He was the first American to successfully pass all three parts of the Master Sommelier Examination in a single year. He founded the American Branch of The Court of Master Sommeliers. Fred was in between jobs at Seagrams and Terlato Wines when he started hearing friends in the industry talking about pinot noir from two "restaurant guys" in Sonoma County. He had tasted Williams-Selyem pinot and was eager to get a different perspective on grapes from the same general land. So, right around the year 2002, he reached out to Dan and Michael to learn a little more.
The three hit it off immediately, drinking beer, telling stories, and joking about wine and grapes and farming and more. Fred asked probing questions about what motivated Dan and Michael to make wine. All of their responses pointed to one driving factor: Passion.
"The more we talked, the more it became clear [Dan and Michael] got into this because they just loved wine," Fred remembers. "If you're having fun when you're making wine, the wine reflects it."
“When we were getting started, any positive feedback—especially from critics—was crucial,” remembers Michael.
And the first vintage Fred tasted, the 2001 Cohn Vineyard, certainly stood out. He recalls the Burgundian-style pinot as "big but having a level of finesse" he really enjoyed. He called them elegant, balanced, well-rounded. He waxed on about them to friends.
These rave reviews were not lost on Michael or Dan.
"When we were getting started, any positive feedback—especially from critics—was crucial," remembers Michael. "We were just doing whatever we could do to keep moving forward, so hearing someone who wasn't directly involved with the wine come in and tell us we were doing a good job; that meant a lot."
“You didn’t screw this up!”
And Fred kept coming. Each year after that first one, Fred reconnected with Dan and Michael at the Russian River Valley Pinot Forum and tasted the latest vintage. Each year, he was wowed by how well the upstart winery crafted its wines. Even the Chardonnays.
"When I first tasted Kosta Browne's wines, I thought, ‘Son of a gun, these are good,'" he recalls. "Then when I tasted them again I said, ‘You didn't screw this up!' Of course the last thing I said to them was, ‘Now do that again!' And they did. And they've kept on doing it. The consistency of Kosta Browne wines has been remarkable. They continue to not screw it up!"
Fred also remembers the lean years. He remembers how, in 2003 and 2004, Dan and Michael almost failed. He remembers hearing through the grapevine (pun intended) that getting fruit was hard. He also remembers telling them why he knew they eventually would succeed—in a word, quality.
"I was confident they'd figure out a way to make it happen because the quality was so exceptional," Fred says, looking back. "Along with other brands such as Williams Selyem, Dehlinger, Rochioli and Kistler, Kosta Browne was at the forefront of the California pinot renaissance. They understood terroir, grapes, vineyards. These factors, plus that passion. They simply would not be denied."
“Son of a gun, these are good.”
Today, as Chairman of the Board at Guildsomm.com, and vice president of prestige accounts for American Wine and Spirits of California, Fred is exposed to great wine and great winemakers every day. Dan Kosta and Michael Browne remain two of his favorites.
As the winery matures and comes closer to its 20th vintage, Fred says he's confident Kosta Browne will continue to craft wine in a certain style: An elegant-yet-subtle approach that reflects uniquely the vineyards from where its grapes came.
"There's a great element of risk in doing this," says Fred. "Time and time again, these guys have faced that risk and come out on top."
Matt Villano is a writer who lives and works in Sonoma County. He writes about food, wine and business (as well as other subjects) and loved speaking with Fred about the convergence of all those things and Kosta Browne. Find Matt at whalehead.com.