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Kosta Browne and Littorai: Quality pinot noir in two distinct styles

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. - Like many of the best wineries in Sonoma, both Kosta Browne and Littorai lie hidden behind unmarked gates where only those with appointments get a pass code to unlock the entry. Both are among the most coveted producers of pinot noir in America, able to extract the essence of famously delicate grapes that thrive in the warm days and cool, fog-shrouded nights that hug the Northern California coast.

At Kosta Browne Winery, partners (from left) Dan Kosta, Chris
Costello, and Michael Browne now hold a minority stake after selling the business to Vincraft for $40 million in 2009. Kosta and Browne launched the winery in 1997 with $2,600 and one barrel of grape juice.
At Kosta Browne Winery, partners (from left) Dan Kosta, Chris Costello, and Michael Browne now hold a minority stake after selling the business to Vincraft for $40 million in 2009. Kosta and Browne launched the winery in 1997 with $2,600 and one barrel of grape juice.Read more

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. - Like many of the best wineries in Sonoma, both Kosta Browne and Littorai lie hidden behind unmarked gates where only those with appointments get a pass code to unlock the entry. Both are among the most coveted producers of pinot noir in America, able to extract the essence of famously delicate grapes that thrive in the warm days and cool, fog-shrouded nights that hug the Northern California coast.

But Kosta Browne and Littorai could not be more different - as I found out one marvelous recent afternoon with invitations to both in my pocket. They share the same zip code, situated less than three miles apart. But these wineries reside at nearly opposite ends of the pinot universe - from the style and spirit of their wines to the physical nature of the wineries themselves.

Kosta Browne, a perennial fixture in the penthouse of Wine Spectator's annual Top 100 wines in the world, is the definition of a California cult pinot, with more than 15,000 hopefuls on the waiting list to taste one of its intensely fruit-driven, richly colored, high-octane wines.

Littorai, meanwhile, is the pinnacle of Burgundian finesse in New World soil, making relatively light-hued wines that still leave a deep impression of the vineyards they came from. That mastery of terroir and a devotion to the rising trend of biodynamic farming recently earned Littorai founder Ted Lemon the coveted distinction of Winemaker of the Year from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Flamboyant power or subtle complexity? It's a growing dichotomy that increasingly polarizes the world of American winemaking. But the divide is especially apt as pinot noir continues its meteoric rise, quadrupling in production during the last decade in California, tripling in Oregon - boosted, in part, by the movie Sideways in 2004. Its value as a food wine versatile enough to pair with fish or meat has resonated, becoming by 2008 the most popular grape in American restaurants, according to a Wine & Spirits magazine poll. (Both producers are represented in select Philadelphia restaurants, see "Where to Taste" on this page.)

That pinot noir is so wide-open to interpretation - from jammy rich to nearly rosé, a far broader range than cabernet or chardonnay - is all the more telling about the intent, skill, and direction of American winemakers today.

Then again, in the collegial circles of Sonoma vintners, where California's pinot noir industry is anchored, the competition is more friendly than heated. Pinot's many personalities, they say, are just further evidence of the amazing grape's chameleonlike character. But an afternoon visiting two of the very best producers at either extreme showed just how complex, compelling, and contradictory this rapidly rising grape has become in the hands of California's masters.

Kosta Browne

Any romantic notions of bucolic vineyards cloaked in mist are banished the moment I arrive at an anonymous industrial park, cue the obscure back gate to creak open, and begin searching the labyrinth of warehouses in this former apple-packing plant for "BLDG.3." Beside a basketball net, a door on one warehouse is cracked open next to tiny a sign hardly bigger than a wine label – "Kosta Browne" - that tells me I'm in the right place.

Just inside, a blaring soundtrack of classic rock echoes through the expansive room, all agleam with shiny steel tanks, fermenters, and rack upon rack of barreled wine. Every last drop of it is already spoken for by Kosta Browne's international list of 10,000 members, who happily pay $52 to $72 per bottle.

"Sorry, that's as low it goes," says cofounder Dan Kosta, motioning to big speakers fixed all around the ceiling of the smartly renovated warehouse. "This stereo can really crank."

No surprise. Kosta Browne is all about intensity. One Healdsburg restaurateur, Nick Peyton, who co-owns Cyrus (one of the lucky restaurants on the Kosta Browne list), called the wines "amazing stuff" that his customers crave. But their style is also an exercise in limits: "How much fruit can you put in a single bottle of pinot noir?"

Given the reputation, I'm wary. The previous day, I'd tasted another winery's famously supercharged wines (Martinelli), pinots that topped 15 percent alcohol with flavors so bombastic, the nuances of the grapes was lost in the heat.

My first taste of Kosta Browne, however, a 2008 single-vineyard bottling from Keefer Ranch, was the kind of Wonka flavor that made my eyes flap open. It was like chomping down on a mouthful of raspberries that turned to cherries, softened into the vanilla warmth of cola and cocoa, then, on a final wave of juicy acidity, lingered with a hint of clove. I wanted another sip. The intensity was vivid, but so was the refinement, with a surprising complexity.

The secret to crafting such a bold-yet-balanced beauty? Kosta and his partner, winemaker Michael Browne, two former restaurant workers who launched their winery in 1997 with $2,600 in cookie-jar tip money and one barrel of juice, were about to give me a peek.

I had arrived just in time for the blending of the 2009 vintage, and 200 barrels of various clones and barrel treatments of pinot noir were arrayed on the floor before us like the myriad instruments of a vast orchestra of grapes, at the ready to be whirled into sonic harmony.

Kosta Browne does not grow its own fruit - "we're winemakers, not farmers," says Kosta. But Browne is intimately involved with their 25 contracted vineyards, from Sonoma to the Santa Lucia Highlands; he's on-site during the harvest to ensure the fruit is picked at optimal ripeness - the key to the wines' intensity. Critics have called this the "Californication" of traditionally delicate and often earthy pinot noir. But Browne counters that lush ripeness is very much a unique feature of California's warm terroir.

Harnessing it is the trick, and these are young winemakers on a steep learning curve. Browne concedes that the early vintages that sealed their reputation for big wines in the hot seasons of 2003 and 2004 were too intense, with alcohol levels crashing over 16 percent. The current wines have pulled back from those extremes, hovering more reasonably near 14.7 percent - and the intricacy of the winemaking shines through.

"People think we just put pinot in a barrel, but it's the blending that's the art," says Kosta, who wades though the rows of barrels with a glass pipette, eagerly drawing sample after sample for us to taste.

There's wine from numerous different pinot clones, and multiple vineyards. Wine fermented from whole clusters, and wine from destemmed fruit. Wine in barrels with different degrees of toasted wood, three different ages, made by several different coopers, and even distinct barrels from one producer that come from three different French forests. Every one of them tastes remarkably different, and sometimes 30 different barrels shape the blend from just one vineyard, as Browne, a music man, searches for "that best sound I can find on my palate. If there's no sousaphone or violin, man, it's missing something."

For their '09 Kanzler Vineyard blend, he says, that might mean some clone 668 for dark fruit, floral aromatics, and backbone for structure, and an equal part clone 115 for lighter raspberries and cherries, for "more movement on the palate." Add some exotic Pommard clone fermented from whole clusters for "something wild" and "velvety texture." Then a splash of "press wine," squeezed from the pomace, adds a mouthwatering "halo effect."

Some wines come quickly, but others can take as many as 25 mini-test batches before Browne finds his perfect tune. And he usually does. With ratings from influential wine critics that consistently range in the mid-90s, this former cookie-jar winery was sold in 2009 to Vincraft for $40 million, with Browne, Kosta, and partner Chris Costello remaining minority owners. Alas, Kosta Browne has brought intensity to the world of pinot noir in more ways than one.


James Laube, the Wine Spectator columnist who blind-tastes and rates more than 700 California pinots each year and is one of Kosta Browne's biggest boosters, also considers Littorai among the state's best producers in the lighter Burgundian style. But he rarely gets to taste the wines.

"I love Ted Lemon's wines, too. I collect them," Laube says. "But Ted doesn't like them to be reviewed. He wants you to come to taste with him at the winery."

That means no chance for Littorai to ride the marketing boom that can come from a big-point rating splash, as most magazines only review wines blind at their offices. But it's no surprise, given Lemon's track record as an iconoclast.

He's one of America's most passionate proponents of biodynamic farming and winemaking, having created here in 2008 an integrated "green" farm that he believes is "the model of the future for what world-class vineyards will look like in 50 to 100 years."

But just as he refuses to send wine to media for ratings, preferring word of mouth in top restaurants such as Cyrus ("Ted Lemon is a god," says Peyton), Lemon eschews any official organic certifications for his vineyard: "I'm not into gold stars."

Lemon's background is unique. In a region saturated with vintners trained at the University of California Davis, he is one of the few who learned his craft in France, rising in 1982 to become the first American winemaker ever of a Burgundian estate, Domaine Dujac.

His reputation then as an apostle of the French approach to pinot - lighter-bodied, earthy, with delicately balanced acidity - is understandable. (He is also renowned for chardonnay.) But since arriving on the West Coast in the mid-'80s, Lemon insists his mission has, in fact, been to create wines that channel the terroir of Northern California's coasts rather than France. Littorai is Latin for coasts.

The farm he owns with his wife, Heidi, just outside downtown Sebastopol, where Lemon's Pivot Vineyard does indeed roll down a bucolic, sloping hill through chilly mists on the morning of my visit, is the showpiece of his sustainable philosophy. The solar-powered winery itself is illuminated by natural light, and its walls are insulated with bales of recycled rice straw. Windows flip open at night to allow the fog-chilled evening air to cool the space. Water is recycled through a constructed wetlands outside, and inside the wine is never pumped, but flows through the building by gravity.

It is in the vineyard, though, where a giant berm of decomposing compost made from vine clippings, pomace, hay, and manure rings the edge of the vines, that Lemon's art is most evident, departing from the fertilizers of conventional farming in favor of the natural, almost-mystical approach of biodynamic farming, which sees the land as a self-sustaining organism.

Instead of spraying with chemicals, Littorai uses "teas" made from stinging nettle, yarrow, oak bark, and compost, and preparations that have been transformed "by the effects of the cosmos" into superrich nutrients after six months buried in the earth inside a hollow cow horn.

"I farmed chemically for 20 years and got to the point where I just didn't see that the tenets of Western agronomy worked," says Lemon. "I didn't believe or disbelieve. I just wanted to try a different path, and we've never looked back."

Skeptics can roll their eyes. But the results are on the vine and in the bottle. Lemon's fruit is smaller, clustered tighter, and more evenly ripe and intense than before. The grapes hold better nutrients for fermentation. About 40 percent of his grapes come from his own acreage, 60 percent from select vineyards in Sonoma and the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, to the north, that farm to his specifications.

Compared to wines I'd just tasted at Kosta Browne, Littorai's single-vineyard bottlings look as pale as strawberry juice. But surprisingly, they are only about one-half to one percentage point lower in alcohol.

And when I brought them to my lips, it was like tasting ethereal earth-prints of distinctive vineyards along the coast that left deeply vivid, swirling flavors without being heavy. From May's Canyon in Russian River there were wild strawberries, sassafras, and spice. From Cerise in Anderson Valley, I tasted forest floor, juicy cherry, and tea. A 2006 Haven from the Sonoma Coast rang like blueberry bell tinged with raspberry cream soda. The 2008 Pivot brought black cherries, supple tannins, and the tartness of ruby grapefruit.

The fruit was there, but nimble and lithe on the tongue. Lemon shuns those riper, heavy pinots as "sudden-impact wines, the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster in which images are constantly flashing in front of your face."

"There's a battle for America's soul on a bigger level, with visual media and music that's all about constant assault," he says. "Maybe wine on some level reflects that."

His wines, he realizes, require a different sales pitch, which is why he's targeted the restaurant trade, where palates are receptive to a more soft-spoken and food-friendly approach to the music of pinot noir: "What we're interested in is the space between the notes."

Where to Taste

If you would like to try these precious California pinot noirs, here are some places where they are available. Wallet alert: They aren't cheap, even before the restaurant markup.

Kosta Browne is allocated in the Philadelphia area to an extremely limited number of restaurants, including Union Trust (an extensive collection of AVAs - blended from many vineyards - and single-vineyard bottlings ranging from $195 to $250), Del Frisco's (two single-vineyard bottlings at $250), and Teca in West Chester (one "Sonoma Coast" and one "Russian River Valley" AVA bottle left at $195).

Littorai wines are available retail in Pennsylvania by special order only, ranging from $47.29 to $75.29 (plus handling and fees), with no minimum bottle order. They are also in select Philadelphia restaurants ranging from about $105 to $170, including Vetri, Union Trust, R2L, Savona, and Fountain Restaurant.

- Craig LaBan