THE TIP ENVELOPE

POWER OF TWO

The story of Kosta-Browne begins with two friends, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne. The year was 1997 and the buddies both were working at John Ash & Co., a popular restaurant in Santa Rosa, California. Dan was the general manager; Michael was the sommelier. But their real passion was something bigger, bolder, and more brazen than anything either ever had done: They wanted to create Pinot Noir. The catch: Neither gentleman had experience making wine. What ensued was a tale of perseverance, dedication, and hard work. That, and of course, a little bit of pinot noir.

“THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE”

Once Dan and Michael agreed to make wine together, they realized they needed money to bring the dream to life. So they started saving. Dan proposed saving $10 apiece every night on those nights when the duo worked together. Looking back, he says, “The amount was something that wasn’t going to kill us but something that was going to push us to keep going.” As Dan and Michael socked away their hard-earned cash, they stashed the money in an envelope that they kept in Dan’s desk drawer. Over the course of a few months (working anywhere from three to five nights a week), they amassed about $1,000, still a few hundred bucks short of their goal. Thankfully, a chef at the restaurant kicked in the difference and Dan and Michael were on their way. The next step: Purchasing equipment and grapes.

NO SCHOOL LIKE THE OLD-SCHOOL

With $1,400 in the bank, Dan and Michael managed to buy a half-ton of pinot noir grapes from Everett Ridge, in the Russian River appellation. The next challenge: Actually making the wine. Neither man had problems using other people’s equipment for most of the winemaking, but Michael insisted on purchasing a used barrel and his own hand-cranked de-stemmer/crusher. Finding the barrel was easy; finding the other tool proved to be a bigger challenge. Finally, with harvest approaching, they bought the device from a friend. All told, Dan and Michael estimate they spent about $400 of their cash on equipment and about $1,000 on grapes. Once the wine was in the barrel, they made enough labels for 24 cases. Those early labels read KOSTA BROWNE. They looked eerily like the ones we use today.

GROWING WITH WHITE

Dan and Michael poured most of that first barrel for VIP customers at the restaurant. When the barrel was almost empty, the duo decided it was time to raise some more money. This time they didn’t pool tips; instead, in 1999, Dan and Michael secured some angel investments from friends and family and made 3,400 cases of sauvignon blanc from Lake County. As Michael explains, this move made sense because sauvignon blanc grapes were cheaper than pinot noir, the wine didn’t need barrels to age, and he and Dan could turn around the product quickly. “It was a quick strike,” he says. It also was a decent hit; the wine sold well enough to get the brand moving, almost exclusively through distribution.

STICKING WITH PINOT

The following year—2000, to be exact—Michael set out to follow his dream and make more pinot noir. Because Kosta Browne was so young, because it wasn’t well-known yet, Michael experienced a certain degree of difficulty getting good grapes. After weeks of networking, Michael convinced John Ferrington, the former assistant winemaker at Williams Selyem, to connect him with the owners at Cohn Vineyard, a source for one of Williams Selyem’s single-vineyard designate wines. Always the charmer, Michael convinced the Cohns to sell him grapes. The good news: Finally, our winemaker could make more pinot. The bad news (at least for a startup winery running low on cash): That pinot needed time to age.

TWO BECOMES THREE

Waiting for wine to age can get dull, and in early 2001, Michael decided he’d pass the time by writing a formal business plan. He studied business books. He read through plans friends gave him. Finally, over the course of a weekend, he put together a plan of his own. He printed it out at the Kinko’s on 4th Street in downtown Santa Rosa. Dan took the finished plan to his father, Tom, to ask for advice. Eventually, Dan and Michael ended up in a meeting with local entrepreneurs, Rick Markoff, Jim Costello and his son, Chris. After spending time with the guys, they were all intrigued. Then they tasted the 2000 Cohn. They were hooked, and agreed to form a partnership.

LEANING ON THE COMPANY CAR

Chris’s first act on behalf of the fledgling partnership was to work with his father and Rick to rewrite Michael’s business plan. With the right plan in hand, the challenge was three-fold: To line up investors, to make more pinot noir, and to figure out how to sell it. Michael and Dan were optimistic this next phase would take months; the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, slowed the industry to a halt, and the next chapter took three years. There’s no way to sugar-coat it—this time was a slog. Michael’s broken-down Volkswagen Jetta became the company car, and he drove it all over the San Francisco Bay Area to drum up support. Jim leveraged his network hard to entice investment. After three years of meetings, rewrites and a restructuring, the team had raised just short of $1 million from 19 investors.

KEEPING HOPE ALIVE

The leaders of the new partnership, and Jim in particular, recruited nearly every one of this crew personally, by sharing the vision, enthusiasm, determination, and dedication to quality exuding from both Dan and Michael. The group became known as the “Founder Investors.” Without them, Kosta Browne likely wouldn’t have made it through this difficult time. Bankruptcy certainly was an option—Michael and Dan mentioned it frequently but refused to give up. Chris remembers he felt the same way. “I thought of backing out numerous times, but I never did,” he says. “Michael’s enthusiasm and determination and Dan’s likability and charisma kept me involved.” Michael channeled a different kind of inspiration—in one particularly disheartening stretch, he pictured himself in a rhinoceros costume, barreling his way through the realities that were holding him back. In the end, the team was committed to making great wine. Their perseverance was about to pay off.

BREAKTHROUGH!

From the very beginning, Michael’s goal with his pinot noir was to get at least one 90-point score. With this in mind, in 2005 he made a decision that would change the history of Kosta Browne forever. He was late to bottle the 2003 vintage that year, so he implemented a micro-filtering technique that eliminated the possibility of bottle fermentation, removed doubts, and preserved the integrity of the wine. These simple differences in protocol—longer hang-time for the fruit, more aging in the barrel, micro-filtering—resulted in an elegant intensity upon which critics seized in reviews for that vintage. Wine Spectator gave the 2003s two 95s, as well as three other scores of 90 or higher. They were unprecedented scores for a winery as small as Kosta Browne. And the scores changed everything. Michael admits he was “terrified” when he heard the news, and wondered: “How the hell am I going to keep this up?!” Chris remembers him being white as a ghost when he arrived at the winery that morning, and screaming with glee when he heard the news.

GROWING INTO TO A NEW HOME

From there, the name of the game at Kosta Browne was growth. With growing numbers of collectors and connoisseurs becoming interested in Kosta Browne, demand skyrocketed, and our brand set off on the path toward becoming the fan-favorite it is today. Vintages sold out. The list to be on our list grew. Michael and Dan found themselves in the difficult-but-not-shabby position of telling friends and customers that they’d have to wait for the opportunity to purchase wine. It all added to the mystique. We were able to move into our own dedicated winery facility, still nothing fancy but a place that was just for us. We had the tools to continue to make great wine and keep our fans happy. Almost overnight, Kosta Browne became a cult sensation. It was an overnight success that took eight years to happen. The rest, as they say, is history.

Beth Whybrow Leeds is an illustrator working from St Helena, California. She helped us document our origins story with great humor. Beth works in a variety of styles and mediums and can be found at bethwhybrowleeds.com.

Stories

We’ve been making wine for almost 20 years although it still often feels like it all just began yesterday. Sometimes it is worth taking a moment to pause and think about where we’ve come from and how we got to here. These stories, told by us and others we’ve met along the road, make us smile – ever grateful for the journey.

2009 - PRESENT

Onward

California Pinot Noir endures in the fine wine world and we are delighted to be a continued part of that conversation. As we mature as a winery we grow in different ways. We construct a custom winery tailored to how we make wine. We work with new financial partners who share our vision for quality. We invest in our first vineyard and begin to grow our own fruit. We are awarded the coveted ‘wine of the year’ – the only Pinot Noir to do so to date. Our focus, however, remains the same as before: making the best Pinot Noir we can.

A Study in Cerise

Our Estate in Anderson Valley
A photo essay by Lindsey Ross

The Crew

By KB Winemaking
Photography by Troyce Hoffman

The Rite of Interns

By KB Winemaking
Photography by Troyce Hoffman

2005-2009

PEOPLE ARE WATCHING

After almost nine vintages under our belt something curious started to happen. Interest in what we were doing grew and we began to gain recognition for our winemaking style. Our long awaited ‘overnight success’ struck and the challenge become less one of ‘staying alive’ to one of trying to keep up with the attention and demands while continuing our commitment to quality. We were also finally able to share our success with the original investors who generously backed our vision.

Nothin' Like a Dame

A conversation with Fred Dame (Master Sommellier)
By Matt Villano

1997-2005

ROCKY BEGINNINGS

When we started, we had little more than a shared love of Pinot Noir and the desire to go and make some of our own. We took all that energy and committed ourselves to try our luck. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always even fun. These formative years tested our resolve and patience beyond compare but laid the quality foundation for what was to come.

The Tip Envelope

By KB
Illustrations by Beth Whybrow Leeds

Press

We’ve been fortunate to have nice things said about our wines and what we do. Here are some highlights.

2009-Present

Wine Spectator, May 2010 "Fans of Kosta Browne won't be disappointed by the 2008's. This is another very strong vintage for this Sonoma County winery, with 11 outstanding wines that show the level of quality possible..."

Wine Spectator, December 2011 "#1 Wine of the Year..."

Vineyard & Winery Management, March 2012 "The Sonoma County producers long road to overnight success..."

Wine & Vines, September 2013 "Kosta Browne is ready to crush the 2013 vintage in new, custom built winery.

Vinous, July 2014 "Kosta Browne has done a marvelous job with their four 2012 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots. These wines show why Kosta Browne is among the top Pinot Producers in California."

Wine Advocate, October 2015 "Looking at the 2013's, this was obviously a great vintage for this estate and all the wines showed sensational purity and freshness paired with layered, nicely concentrated and textured profiles. I'd say it's the finest lineup I've tasted from this estate..."

Wine Advocate, September 2016 "This was another rock star lineup from Kosta Browne and it’s certainly one of the most impressive lineups I tasted all year. And while I generally consider 2013 to be a better vintage than 2014, these 2014s are a step up over last year’s releases, which were no slouches either."

2005-2009

Wine Spectator, December 2005 "#11 Wine of the Year..."

Wine Spectator, May 2006 "I'm also starting to believe, thanks to them and many others...that we have entered a new era for California Pinot Noir..."

Wine Spectator, December 2006 "#7 Wine of the Year..."

Wine Spectator, April 2007 "What Dan Kosta and Michael Browne have accomplished in 2005 is every bit as staggering as their watershed 2004 vintage.."

Wine Spectator, December 2009 "#4 Wine of the Year..."

1997-2005

Pinot Report, October 2003 "This Pinot really shows off the quality what the Cohn Vineyard can do in the right winemaking hands..."

Wine Spectator, September 2004 "Partners Dan Kosta and Michael Browne followed their taste buds into winemaking, parlaying their experience as sommeliers into a boutique Pinot winery in Sonoma..."