Tales From: Santa Rosa and Byron Kosuge

Last week, I mentioned that my fondness for American Pinot Noir was rooted in an online purchase of a couple of decade-old Pinots from the Rochioli Vineyard. Once I tasted those two wines, I was convinced that I needed to try more domestic Pinot, so I headed back to my favorite online auction site (the Wine Commune, which is sadly now no longer a place to find some inexpensive gems), and sought out other California Pinots. At the time, I was not using any sort of inventory management (I have used Cellar Tracker since 2007), and my memory is a bit faulty, but I do know that these were among the many that I tried, all in the comfort of my own home in lovely Philadelphia.:

A few of the more well-known producers:

Chalone, Copain, Davis Bynum, Failla, Flowers, Gary Farrell, La Crema, Miner, Siduri, Testarosa

And some of the perhaps lesser well-known:

Ambullneo, B. Kosuge, Campion, Hirsch, Kazmer and Blaise, Nichols, Patz and Hall, Roar, Skewis, Walter Hansel

Since moving to Philadelphia, I have been making regular trips to the Northern California wine country–my wife’s parents live in the East Bay, and are a little over an hour away. But we would invariably go visit the wineries where I had been a member for years (which I had to stop once I moved to Philadelphia, of course, since the Commonwealth has such disdain for wine drinkers and outlaws such shipments)—and they were all in Napa.

Once I started to get more into Pinot, however, I needed to stray a bit further to the west and into Sonoma County. For the most part, Napa Valley is far too hot to grow quality Pinot Noir, but parts of Sonoma are much cooler, benefiting from the maritime influence, and the result is some of the best Pinot in the country.

One of the first “wineries” I contacted was B. Kosuge (pronounced kuh SOO gee), since I was quite impressed with a bottle of his “The Shop” Pinot Noir. I put winery in quotes since Byron Kosuge does not have a tasting room, or even a winery—he produces all of his wine in a custom crush facility in Santa Rosa. Byron is not, however, some weekend warrior, he had worked at Saintsbury for 15 years before venturing out on his own, and now consults for several wineries (including one in Chile).

That first meeting was a memorable one for me–it was my first-ever barrel tasting and I was amazed to see the spry winemaker climb among the barrels, often 10 feet up in the air, and insert his thief to extract a taste of a particular clone from a specific lot. We then retreated to a small room in the back, where we tasted a few wines from bottle and talked a bunch about wine. Two hours later, I emerged with a couple purchased bottles and a new favorite winemaker.

Byron, thief and flashlight in hand, among his barrels.

Byron, thief and flashlight in hand, among his barrels.

I have been back to visit Byron several times since and he remains the same, soft-spoken yet earnest, cerebral yet down-to-earth man that makes him one of the nicest guys I have met in the wine industry. I visited him again this past April, and as is typical with visits with Byron, we first tried a few wines out of the barrel.

Byron, taking a sample from his cement egg.

Byron, taking a sample from his cement egg.

We started with a couple Chardonnays, the first of which was in a cement egg that Byron purchased from Nomblot in France, who claim to have built the first cement egg fermenter a dozen years ago, based on the design of Michel Chapoutier, a leading winemaker in the Rhône Valley. The egg shape supposedly has special qualities but Byron’s main interest is the semi-porous nature of the concrete combined with the lack of flavor contribution.

2013 Chardonnay (sample from the egg). 100% Wente clone. Really fabulous—expressive fruit. Byron plans to blend it with the oak fermented chardonnay. All has gone through full malolactic fermentation. Outstanding.

2013 Chardonnay (sample from a hogshead–twice the size of a normal barrel, used to impart less oak into the wine). 100% Chardonnay Clone 4 (from UC Davis). Higher acid here with less creaminess than the egg. A different mouthfeel, but bright and expressive. Outstanding.

We then moved on to a barrel of 2013 Pinot Noir, as Byron warned: “Pinot can get ugly in the barrel. In spring, after malo and sulfur, it can get a bit funky.” The fruit came from the
Baranoff vineyard near Sebastopol and goes into The Habitat blend: Tart and bright. Indeed a bit funky but really good fruit and depth.

Byron then pulled a couple of bottles that were not quite ready to be released and intimated that he is obsessed with having the wine being fresh and lively, and as a result, he has started to pick earlier, at lower sugar levels, since he is not looking for 14% alcohol. The problem, he added, is the wines need more time initially in the bottle to develop and settle down a bit.
IMG_24812012 B. Kosuge The Shop Carneros Pinot Noir: Retail $33. Byron likes to release The Shop in the fall when it is a bit more open, and this was certainly a bit dumb initially out of the bottle. Oaky on the nose even though only 25% new oak. Still pretty darn good. 89-91 Points.

IMG_24822012 B. Kosuge Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: Retail $54. There are two vineyards that if I see it on the label, I will buy without feeling the need to taste it first. Hirsch is one (the other, Clos Pepe). More expressive fruit with that wonderful Hirsch nose of dark fruits and a hint of pine. Big and bold while still being balanced, Incredible. 92-94 Points.

I sit here trying to wrap up this post, but sentence after sentence fails to capture a visit with Byron. After perusing his website (which has wonderful insight to Byron and his wines), I found this quote (I hope he does not mind me using it):

I could never be a “rock star” winemaker. I’m much too ordinary for all that. I don’t have a fancy winery, I haven’t made wine in Burgundy, I don’t appear in the society pages. I’m most comfortable knocking around in the vineyard or the cellar, trying to improve my craft, and turning out modest amounts of interesting, expressive, and, hopefully, memorable wine. The kind of wine I want to drink myself.

–Byron Kosuge

 

I think this perfectly encapsulates Byron–except for one thing:

He is a rock star winemaker.

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About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
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15 Responses to Tales From: Santa Rosa and Byron Kosuge

  1. I love Byron’s quote about himself! Seems like a cool guy.

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  2. I love Pinot Noir and being from the Sonoma Coast – I take full advantage of it! Have not heard of him and will seek his wines out. He is one of the “reluctant rockstars” of wine – like Kurt Cobain 🙂 Thanks for the post and sad you moved! I always assumed you were in the “hood.” Come back soon. Cheers!

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    • I used to live in Marin, but alas, I moved East to follow my heart (and get married).

      Yeah, that was sappy–not very Philly-like.

      You should really give his wines a try–some of our faves….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Will definitely see him out! Thx for the tip – love knowing about winemakers I have yet to discover. We lived in RI for 4 years and loved it! Newport and Little Compton are gorgeous and have interesting varietals growing in that region. I miss going to Martha’s Vineyard every summer. Have an incredible time out there! xo

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  3. I’m going to have to look for these wines! Thanks for the tip!

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  4. Sounds like such a great experience! The barrel wine tasting seems like it’s a lot of fun and something that you don’t come across too often.

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  5. aFrankAngle says:

    Love Pinot Noir … and last year I had the opportunity to taste 4 outstanding ones from Patz & Hall. Have you been to the area north of Santa Barbara? (Area of the Sideways movie)

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  6. This is a lovely piece; a little tribute to your mate Byron.

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