Thursday, May 1, 2008

T-Vine Vineyards: An Interview with Winemaker Greg Brown




I am very happy to add an interview with the winemaker/owner of T-Vine Cellars (pictured with flowing hair above) to the growing collection of winemaker Q & A’s on Vin de la Table. Most certainly one of the best of the two, this interview invites us into the wine world of Greg Brown, a talented and successful winemaker who only wishes the best for his fellow craftspeople, and who would be happy pairing baked beans with his finest T-Vine wines. In short, he’s a Vin de la Table interview dream.



Although T-Vine has a cult following for their berry-luscious Grenaches, purple Sryahs, decadent and fierce Petite Sirahs, jammy Zinfandels, brooding Cabernet Sauvignons, and occasional Merlots, winemaker Brown has little need to uncork his bottles to sell his wines.

His power to garner a following pre pouring has as much to do with his gracious and spirited nature as much as the fine reputation of his wines. Thankfully for those of us who have occasionally been swayed to buy on the basis of pure winemaker charisma, Brown does pop his corks for the public. And by god, his wines are terrific. They are concentrated, stunning, and in short, a California wine lover’s dream.

THE REBELLIOUS BROWN STORY

One day the corporate banker called Greg Brown was invited to a Cain Cellars wine crush, and his life changed overnight. Brown had already begun to feel in his heart (the one behind the breast pocket of his well-tailored Italian or American or British suit, below the ends of his slicked back hair, and far above the shined leather of his fine dress shoes) that banking was not his life calling.

That crush day, the grapes were so ripe with inspiration that almost immediately, Brown quit finance to “drag hoses at Cain Cellars for $7 an hour.” It was all wine from here on out.

After years as a cellar rat, Brown got the itch to try his own hand with wine. His grape of choice was Grenache, a grape indigenous to the Rhone Valley in France which Brown was crazy about.

At this point of inspiration seventeen years ago, few to none were making Grenache in the northern wine country. Most people hadn’t even heard of the grape. Tony Soter, Cain’s consulting winemaker at the time told Brown how funny he thought it that Brown wanted to play with this Rhone grape in a land where the favorite game was making Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Later of course, Soter loaned Brown his crushing facilities. Regardless of the raised eyebrows, the rebellious Brown knew exactly what to do. He made his first Grenache and put it in a Bordeaux bottle so that people would know that it was red wine.

In the millionaire’s game of winemaking, “with only $15,000 and true grit,” Brown worked hard, put his wine out there, helped build awareness for Grenache, and went on to wine hearts.

Proud of the manner in which T-Vine has become successful from the ground up, Brown sees his gumption and passion especially in the early years as crucial to his wine’s draw. Earning a following that loves his wines because of the contents of the bottle and for the inspiration behind them rather than for their ratings is important to Brown, who generally avoids press and ratings systems.

Unlike many winery representatives that actively send their wine to critics or wine ratings organizations, Brown prefers that T-Vine accolades come organically, or not at all. He hasn’t asked wine critic Robert Parker NOT to rate his wines, for example, but he hasn’t sent him sample bottles like so many others do either. Brown normally also avoids interviews, saying that "he could be having morning coffee for years with someone before they know I'm a winemaker.” In Napa, when wines are far too often used trophies, Brown prefers to utilize his as sources to inspire pleasure rather than fame.

INSPIRATION

On the back of his wine bottles, Brown inscribes quotes meant to share pieces of the T-Vine spirit and intention with its drinkers. With it’s main feature being a short newsletter, the T-Vine website stresses simplicity and serenity over marketing. While it's true that Brown's wines have no problems selling, it's clear that his point in life is not making money. Rather, It seems to be to exist in a space of inspiration and peace.

When I asked Brown why winemaking inspires in him more spirituality than other acts in life, he spoke of the act and the end result.

“Nothing else produced has the spirit of the person as infused in the product as wine. In wine, you can see personality, the traits of the person who made it, and if they were inspired, you can taste it. And there are so many metaphors in wine: the new growth in spring time, the pruning back, and these all conjure up thoughts of spirit and consciousness.”

Which brings us to Brown’s model of winemaking, which is invoked with spirituality but refuses to take itself too seriously. Comparing making wine to breathing, Brown states that “it’s extremely important, but no big deal.”

Brown thinks likewise about FOOD AND WINE.

One of the best memories he had, he says, with food and wine was one experienced "at the top of a slide in a French playground, straight out of a brown-bagged bottle with a baguette." While it hurt my cheese-freak heart to hear that Brown’s memory didn’t involve cheese, not even at the top, middle, or lower portion of the slide experience, it’s endearing to hear a winemaker say that his one of his favorite food and wine pairings required only love for the products involved. And a child’s recreation tool.

If there did happen to be cheese present during the playground adventure, I told him, his T-Vines Rhone Wines and Zinfandels in particular would have been good to have handy. At a recent Wine and Food Pairing class session at work, we served three different cheeses, and I was amazed to find that they paired perfectly with all of them. All were a bit funky, perhaps a little stand-offish- either salty and aged, washed cow’s milk or natural rind goat, but after the T-Vine wines strutted their stuff a bit, they were melting with simple pleasures of the pairing within minutes.

Brown was happy to hear his wine was a hit, but let it be known that he was for “rebellious wine drinking,” the sort that inspires blending wines at the dinner table rather than inflicting rules. Which may be why at an upcoming event with T-Vine at the wine shop where I work, we’re serving his wines with big, juicy burgers.

When not sipping T-Vine with America’s favorite sandwich, Greg prefers simple food with his wines and says that people should drink red with fish if they want to. Even though he loves French country or peasant style food such as roast lamb and vegetables with his wines, he’s also cool with “opening a can of Annies’ split pea soup and adding some garlic.”

Brown’s not afraid to admit his not-elitist preferences in the vineyard either.

In a time when it’s become fashionable to knock wines for being “fruit-bombs,” Brown freely admits that he likes his own wines laden with fruit. Why shouldn’t he, he asks.

Instead of picking by brix, Brown picks by intuition. He tastes the grapes like he would a peach. If they taste ripe, sweet, he’ll consider other properties such as mouthfeel and color. Although a some point during the winemaking process he might utilize scientific instruments, Brown relies more on what he’s learned by roaming the vineyards year after year and his own taste preferences than scientific measurements or what people profess is best at the moment.

Not that Brown would say anything negative about his fellow winemakers who might use such analysis systems or be otherwise influenced. He wouldn’t say anything bad about his fellow winemaker’s methods or wines period. He’s not ashamed for liking sweet fruit, canned soup or beans and he wouldn’t criticize other winemakers for staying true to their vision either.

“It’s what makes this country so great. They’re doing what they want and listening to their heart. There’s just too much press focusing on what’s wrong, and not enough focusing on what’s right. People have so many more mentors now instead of corporations leading them on- that’s terrific. They follow their vision. As far as I’m concerned, so much of the wine out there is 95% better than what I was making when I first started anyhow.”

He named one winemaker in particular, David Phinney of Orin Swift’s The Prisoner fame, as someone who really inspired him, because “he’s one of the sweetest guys you’ve ever met, his wines are terrific and really fun, and you can’t help but be happy for him and how successful he’s been.”

Another common theme in Brown’s life besides the showering of those around him with the positive energy he so values in others, is to not take oneself so seriously. With a healthy does of his naughty humor in mind, I will close this interview with a favorite joke of Brown’s.

"A blond and a brunette pass by a flower shop and the brunette looks in to see her boyfriend. "Oh," she groans, unhappy "My boyfriend is buying me flowers." "Why, what's wrong with that, don't you like flowers?" asks the blond. "Well," the brunette replies, "After he buys them, I spend at least a week with my ankles around my neck." "Oh. Why," the blond asks, "don't you own a vase?"

This vintage promises to be a good one for T-Vine.

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5 comments:

Kirstin said...

I have since been informed by the winemaker that he DID have cheese on that special day on the French playground. It was stinky, and amazing.

Any favorite stinky cheeses out there?

Jason Lefler said...

Kirstin,

Great portrait of Greg Brown. It definitely captures how easy it is to like both him and his wines very much.

Have you ever had Taleggio cheese? It is quite screamin'.

Kirstin said...

I have had Taleggio, and it rocks. Especially good with Barbarescos.

Jerry said...

Since we're on the Italian cheeses, I dig Robiola. Pungent and delicious!!!

martin said...

Had some of the syrah when I was in San Francisco this summer. Outstanding. Wish I could get it here in Canada.