Interview with Ken Brown, Winemaker

Winemaker at Ken Brown Winery

We had the opportunity to interview Ken (Byron Kent Brown), believe it or not, right in the middle of the very busy harvest season. For being a giant icon in the California wine business, (first winemaker at  Zaca Mesa in 1977, founder and winemaker at Byron with his wife Deborah, worked extensively with Mondavi, etc) Ken is just a really good guy and very easy to talk to. His desire to pull away from the large wineries and pursue his ambitions with his quality, boutique, small- production winery is a breath of fresh air for those Pinot Noir lovers in the know.
Ken Brown

Wine Factor Interview with Ken Brown (9/22/2011)

[WF]: First of all, thank you for taking the time during this busy harvest season to sit down and speak with us.

[Ken]: If it were next week, it wouldn’t have happened. We have our first 4 tons in from the Nielson vineyard in the Santa MariaValley. Absolutely looks beautiful. It’s such a cold year; it’s kind of a concern. We need some heat! Our best vintages are normally our warmest years. And usually sooner or later we get some heat, but it’s fine, I’m an optimist. This could be the best vintage ever! Everything from the vine’s standpoint is absolutely beautiful. So if we can get the heat we’re going to have a great vintage.

[WF]: With the labor of love that it takes to create a truly quality wine, how much of this is in the growing, or managing the grapes compared to the winemaking?

[Ken]: So you’re talking about the viticulture versus the enology? (yea) I’ve been asked that question many times. I think 100% of the wine quality comes from the vineyard. And the second you cut the cluster and take it to the winery, then 100% of the wine quality comes from the winery. So the way I look at it is, you don’t separate them - you can’t. And I’m one of the few people, especially in my time when I was going to Fresno State I studied both viticulture and enology. I grew up thinking more with the European knowledge. In the 60’s and 70’s there weren’t a lot of CA wineries. Most of the bench marks were “Burgundy or Bordeaux”. They, the Europeans, talk about the concept of wine growing. So, I always thought of myself as a wine grower. When I say that, people always ask, “What do you mean”? It‘s the vineyard and the wine-making process, viticulture and enology. So my training is equal parts. Because I didn’t think you could make a really good bottle of wine if you didn’t have a firm grip on what was going on in the vineyard. To this day I enjoy being out in the vineyards. If I’m not there, I feel like I’m missing something because, especially at this time of year, that’s were I’ll be spending all afternoon. It’s not necessarily that I’m just going to the vineyards that are almost ready to pick. I’ll taste the fruit, but I really want to see what the vines look like. So let’s say our target is 24 -25 sugar on Pinot, I never pick to Brix level, it’s really to the flavor, the skin and seed development. Those three things. But when those things are in line, it’s usually 24-25 Brix or something close to that. But it’s the look of the vine. So if we’re getting close, let’s say we’re 22 sugar and it’s cool like it is, now it might be a couple more weeks before we could probably harvest. But, when I see the vines starting to turn yellow, the growing tips have stopped growing, all the indicators of the vines shutting down, the vine’s not going to develop the fruit if all the leaves fall off. So that’s what I’m saying, you have to work very closely with the vineyard managers. I don’t ever hesitate, like when we had this hot period a couple weeks ago, people called me and asked, Ken, do you mind if we water the vineyard, and I’d say not at all. Put about 3 hours on it. We’re just giving them enough water where they don’t think it’s all over, because once the vine thinks it needs to go into survival mode, then they’re going to drop their leaves.

[WF]: So, you want to stress them, but not stress them too much?

[Ken]: Yes, you want an even stress. You don’t want to overdo it or you’ll never get the fruit to its full ripeness, because the green leaves aren’t there anymore to do the photosynthesis. That’s a problem.

[WF]: With your fermentation techniques, do you utilize stem or whole-cluster fruit in the forming of your wines?

[Ken]: For the Pinots, most often we’ll de-stem totally, so it’s by choice that you don’t use stems. At Byron, we’d dump one “grape bin” of whole cluster grapes in the fermenter first, and that would be on the bottom, before crushing the rest of the grapes without stems. This has some benefits. One, if you want to have stems you have stems, but also by putting the whole clusters on the bottom it’s easy to get the wine or the juice out of the valve. The stems act like a strainer or sieve. In our area, where we have such cold growing regions, here in Santa Maria and Sta. Rita, it makes sense (this is a personal thing to me), and some people will disagree with it. If I was in a warmer region, and needed color or looking for tannins, then I would use stems. The warmer the region, like Carneros, I would use quite a bit of stem. Because the stems have tannins, and they’ll add more tannin if the grape itself is lacking tannin. In warmer climates, you’ll get better development in what we call lignifications. What I do to decide whether we’re going to add the stem, is I’d take the berries off and chew on the stem. And every time you do it here in a colder climate it tastes green, bitter. Well, if you ferment on that, that’s what you get in the fermenter. And the way I look at Pinot, that’s not what I want. But in Carneros (Sonoma), I would do the opposite, because it’s the warmest growing region on the west coast of the US for Pinot. There they get better lignifications both of seeds and stems and actually the skins. There are a few local wineries that use stems, and that’s their style. And it’s fine. I’m glad we’re not all making Pinot the same way – that would get boring.

[WF]: What is your favorite part of winemaking?

[Ken]: It really makes you sleep well at night – you’re just so tired! I don’t know, I think it’s the adrenalin rush you have because everything is happening so quickly and you know everything you’re doing, whatever decisions you’re making, is EXTREMELY important to the outcome of that wine. So it’s a real focus just to get in that groove, and you don’t get out until the last of the grapes are fermented and pressed off. I can identify with women who have had babies; we’re talking about post-partum depression. It’s weird. After harvest stops, you’ve been rushing so much, you kind of go, “I need something to do with myself here!” You get down, you’re depressed. Sure, you’re following the wines in the barrels, but it really slows down. At that point I don’t have any excuses to say no to people who want me to do spread-sheets and such. But yea, it’s that adrenaline rush that’s great.

[WF]: That’s outstanding. So what makes the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria appellations so unique?

[Ken]: I think to start off, for most people it’s really surprising that we would do so well with Pinot Noir this far south. And of course the easy answer, (I always do this in front of my maps) is because of our transverse valleys and that openness to the Pacific Ocean. The coast range is not developed here, it starts further north and if you go straight north to Paso Robles the coastal range is re-formed and it’s blocking the marine influence. The distance between the ocean and Paso Robles is about the same distance as the ocean to Buellton. And there’s a lot of difference in temperature because here, the prevailing winds are coming from the west/northwest. Both Santa Maria and Sta. Rita valleys are perfectly positioned in the direction of west/northwest to receive the full brunt of that wind. It is VERY windy out here on this Point Conception of California. It’s not that we’re kind of tucked back in and protected. We’re not – the ocean temperature is VERY cold. Both Santa Maria and Santa Rita are to the north of Point Conception if you look at a map, but if you go to the city of Santa Barbara, at the south of Point Conception, nobody’s going to call the water warm, but it’s not as cold. If you go in the ocean in Santa Barbara, you can go in without a wetsuit. You can’t do that to the north of Point Conception – not at all. So it’s a combination of the transverse valleys, the prevailing wind, and the cold ocean temperatures. Also it’s important to have some good soil combinations, if you have the right climate; you can couple cool climate and low vigor sites together and make the magic of Pinot.

[WF]: It’s known by many Pinot lovers that your wines have a cellaring potential unlike most Pinots today. What do you attribute this to?

[Ken]: I guess go to the appellation, especially Sta. Rita Hills. Santa Maria has sandier soils. Sandy soils tend to give lusher, softer, rounder structure. You don’t need to age them as long. In Sta. Rita Hills, we have Rio Vista vineyard, which is closest to Buellton, at the warmer end of the valley, versus Rancho La Vina, Salsipuedes, which are the colder vineyards, towards Lompoc. Outside of Rio Vista, all the vineyards I work with are in the colder end. I use Rio Vista as a balancing component. I never do straight Rio Vista.  However, a good part of the Sta. Rita Hills wine is the blend from Rio Vista because it is a softer wine. I’m also going to blend some colder end wines into the Sta. Rita Hills blend. So the concept is to give an overview of the appellation with one bottle of wine. If I just work with the warmer end, you just get a sense of the warmer end. The blends are different every year, but I’m always working with the warmer and the colder end of the valley, trying to strike a balance between them. So I think (the cellaring potential) has a lot to do with the vineyards I’m working with.

[WF]: What are the tell tail signs when you know early on, that you’ve got a really good vintage?

[Ken]: If you’re talking about in the winery, at the fermenter, I have 3 fermenters now with the Pinot from Nielsen vineyard that we picked 2 days ago. It has not started fermenting – it’s in the cold soak – we’re inoculating this afternoon (with yeast). But you just look at the top and you can just see the berries and the juice. But the juice is almost black, which is a real good sign – there’s a lot of color in this wine. And very small berries this year – when you look at the top of the cap, you can see the berries are very small. In fact, I think these are the smallest berries I’ve ever seen. This is good for quality. Smaller berries mean more skin to juice ratio which will result in darker and more complex wines.

[WF]: How many tons per acre, roughly?

[Ken]: It’ll vary. There are 2 vineyards that I contract with which I am not even getting fruit from this year, so that’s very low yield, like zero! It’s because of the freezes and frosts and the extremes we had in January and April. Some vineyards, like Cargasacchi, is maybe 2 tons, Clos Pepe is maybe 2.5, and so they’re a little bit lower than normal this year. It depends on their location, how they were affected by the freeze and the frosts this year.

[WF]: I’d like your opinion on why there is such a proliferation of low-quality Pinot Noirs on the market.

[Ken]: Boy, it’s a lot better than it used to be, you know. With the recent advent of consumers wanting to spend less than $20 a bottle retail and less than $15 if they can find it.  The problem with Pinot is you CANNOT make a good bottle of Pinot and sell it for a retail shelf price of $20 a bottle. It’s the most expensive grape to grow. Of all the grape varietals that we work with, it’s always going to have the lowest yield. And also, from the vineyard management standpoint, it’s going to require the highest labor input with handwork. If you’re going to sell it for $20 or less you cannot afford to give it any input. If you want to sell under $20 a bottle, it’s mechanized totally, and that’s not very precise. But at the high end we’re sending crews in the vineyard, spending a lot of money to pull leaves, drop green fruit and shoot position.  So it’s very, very precise, and very expensive. And you don’t have that many tons per acre to amortize the cost. So the cost per ton is very expensive. Whether it’s our own vineyards or I’m buying the grapes, the acreage contracts are very expensive for Pinot but worth it to achieve quality grapes.

[WF]: What is your opinion on the rating system today, where one or two individuals can elevate to the heights or drop a wine to the dregs these days? Should there be some sort of “panel of experts” insomuch as each individual’s unique palate; should there be some different way for people to find quality wines?

[Ken]:  (Laughing) I knew you were going to ask me that. How do I answer that? Um…, you know, it’s unfortunate that there are just a few that are so influential. It has changed California wines – they’re much more different now because of that. If you go back to the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, the average alcohol was so much lower, they were much more European style. On the other hand, if I were to start a new winery, nobody knows me and I’m just going to be another winery trying to get recognition, I guess I’d do the same thing and pick at higher alcohol levels for higher wine scores.. You know, I don’t like to drink those wines, so personally, I don’t make that style. And I don’t have to make that style. But I kind of understand why people do, because if they can get a super score then, you’re home free.

[WF]: Mystique and price.

[Ken]: Both at Zaca Mesa and Byron we sent samples to all the major wine writers.  There are wines that got really good scores through the years, that I didn’t think were my best wines. Then you have wines that you think this is going to get a great score, and it doesn’t. Well, it depends on who the wine writer is. If we’re talking about the two most influential, yea, I have a good idea what they’re looking for, and since that’s not really the style that I like or make, sometimes it happens. But I’m not trying to do that.

[WF]: Yea, and Ken, we talk about that all the time. We’ll talk about, OK, I had a absolute spectacular wine, and it got a 88 or something. I have had wines that are 95’s and I just don’t get it – it’s not a 95!

[Ken]: Not that I ever buy wine by scores, sometimes when you go to a retail store and see a big sign with the score, you can’t help but notice it. But I’m very reluctant, if it’s much above 93 points, I probably wouldn’t buy it if I didn’t know it. Because, one, the price probably got jacked up because it got the score, and it got the score because it’s a big, ripe, alcoholic, oaky wine, which is not something I would enjoy very much. So, to me, the sweet spot is 88-93.

[WF]: What are your favorite foods to pair with Pinots?

[Ken]: Oh, boy, there’s such a wide range. For me, I always talk about food when I taste through the wines, and wine is food. So we’re just combining these foods. One of my favorites is – I love duck – duck and Pinot always works well. And then there’s salmon – salmon and Pinot work really well. And then there’s everything in-between. There really isn’t too much that doesn’t go with Pinot.  It’s interesting, we’ll have a tasting – that’s by appointment only - a lot of times we’ll have at the end of the day a little wine left and I’ll take it home. Deb does the cooking… so we have a wide range of cuisine, but Pinot Noir works with almost any food.

[WF]: Your wife Deborah?

[Ken]: Yea, so I’ll have just an inch or two of 4 or 5 different Pinots left over.  Unless it’s really spicy, and even then, we have Pinots like the Santa Maria Valley Pinots, because of sandy soils, tend to have less tannin. So they don’t clash as much with spicy food. The more tannins, the more they clash with spicy food. In fact I had sushi yesterday at a great local sushi restaurant with a well-known winemaker and we had a bottle of Pinot Noir. If you put a small amount of wasabi on sushi, it works.

[WF]: What new projects are in the future for Ken Brown?

[Ken]: You know, for me, I’ve been involved in a lot of research over the years with Mondavi, and still, I pay a lot of attention and talk to people about what’s new in the vineyard, what’s new in the winery,  but I’m not as actively doing that anymore. What I’m trying to do is work with the vineyards that I have, to perfect the vineyards and with the wines coming off of those existing vineyards. That’s a life-long occupation, even if I were 30. I’m trying to perfect what I have and keep looking for something new to pick up. There are a couple of vineyards that we have coming on line. Rita’s Crown is just phenomenal. Last year was the first real crop and this will be the second year. Wonderful Pinot is coming off of this vineyard. And then Radian, at the cold end of the Sta. Rita Hills, has really fabulous Pinot potential. For me that’s really exciting to see. To know that we’ve got 3 or 4 years of discovery coming up with these young vineyards, and after that, trying to perfect the wine making.

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