"It's all about the site."
That is the main motivator for Thomas Rivers Brown when it comes to his own personal project, Rivers-Marie. Thomas Brown, today one of California’s foremost Winemaker/Consultants makes mostly Cabernet based wines for labels such as Shraeder, Outpost and Maybach. Yet, it is his Rivers-Marie label, which he shares with his long time partner Genevive (who’s middle name is Marie), where Thomas expresses a more delicate and restrained style of winemaking that’s inspired by his true love for traditional Burgundy and Barolo.
Brown grew up in South Carolina, and got the wine bug while at the University of Virginia. Not knowing what to do after college, he worked in restaurants to further his passion and knowledge for wine (and food). He headed west to California in the late `90's and got a job at the wine-centric All Seasons Restaurant in Calistoga. This lead to finding a job as an assistant winemaker at Turley Winery in 1997, under the tutelage of Ehren Jordan. Three years later, he took over the winemaking at Outpost on Howell Mountain, where he remains as winemaker today, along with a huge and growing roster of top producers in the Napa Valley where he consults.
Rivers-Marie itself was launched in 2002 when Thomas made a tiny amount of wine from the legendary Summa Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast. Today, Rivers-Marie has grown to include not only a blended Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, but also several single vineyard sites from in and around Occidental including Occidental Ridge, Willow Creek, Silver Eagle, and two seperate bottlings from the Summa vineyard which Thomas and Genevive purchased in 2010. In addition to Pinot, Thomas makes small amounts of Cabernet and Chardonnay as well.
For his Pinot Noirs, Brown is looking to Burgundy as a model. He tends to pick on the early side when there is good flavor and texture development but before the wines get blowsy and lose focus and site-specificity. He uses native yeasts and a little bit of whole cluster to give complexity. Aging occurs mostly in used barrels - from no new wood in the Sonoma Coast, to between 10 and 30% in the single-vineyards depending on vintage and parcel. Given this restrained approach, it is not surprising that the wines age beautifully.
For Chardonnay, the wines are picked for energy and focus, and aged in minimal new wood with no lees stirring for 12 months. They are then held for several months in tank, and bottled without fining and filtration. They are clean, pure and delineated with a good balance of intensity and restraint.
For Cabernet Sauvignon, the sites he uses, mostly in and around St Helena and Oakville, express themselves with a classic power and density that is a hallmark of Napa Valley. While the Rivers-Marie Cabernets are a bit more plush than his other wines, he ensures that "they are not too exagerrated so as to blur the site and the vintage". For Thomas, his Cabernets are a perfect comprimise between power and elegance.