Saturday, May 12, 2007

Kosta Browne: An Unworthy Cult

Kosta Browne is one of the latest California wineries to achieve so-called "cult" status among wine collectors. The boutique Sebastopol producer of pinot noir has followed the now familiar formula of limited production, single-vineyard designation, mailing distribution (and the resultant waiting list), and strong word of mouth to develop a fiercely loyal fan base as well as hype verging on hysterics. Throw in Jim Laube's stratospheric scores for the 2004 vintage in Wine Spectator (six wines between 95 and 98 points), and a cult wine is born -- complete with eye-popping prices on the secondary market.

So are these wines worth the hype (and high prices)? For me, the answer is a resounding no -- though after tasting through two of their 2004 offerings, I think I can understand the hysteria. Kosta Browne aims to produce ultra ripe, highly concentrated, fruit-powered wines (with resulting alcohol levels pushing and exceedingly 15%) that have resonated with a younger generation of pinot lovers. These are wine drinkers who have come to pinot noir not from Burgundy, but from California cabernet and other New World wines. And as Joe Davis of Arcadian has observed, they have found in this fruit-driven style of California pinot a new delivery system for their favored hedonistic qualities. Yet what I found in the glass tasting these wines from Kosta Browne was a perversion of pinot noir -- thick, syrupy wines that, while boasting an impressive array of exuberant fruit flavors, offer little complexity and sustained drinking pleasure and ultimately prove quite tiresome to consume.

I recently drank the 2004 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir - Russian River Valley (15.2% alc., WS 96) over dinner at Palena, and it, not surprisingly, overwhelmed even the heartier courses on the menu. The nose was ripe and expressive of dark cherry and cola, with noticeable alcohol, yet nevertheless had what Michael Broadbent has called the unique "Pinot grape aroma." On the palate, the wine was sappy and rich, dominated by sweet, concentrated fruit. It boasted a plush, opulent mouth feel, but the wine was weighed down by a heaviness that became wearying as the evening progressed and gave it an increasingly monolithic quality. To be fair, the wine had commendable structure that held it all together until the disjointed finish, when the alcoholic heat back came to the fore. I had trouble finishing my half of the bottle, not from the alcohol, but from palate fatigue -- it was just too syrupy to enjoy with the meal and offered little complexity and evolution in the glass to sustain my interest over the evening.

I tasted the 2004 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir - Sonoma Coast (14.7% alc., WS 95) last winter and the wine, I suspect, was in a closed phase. It was dominated by sweet red cherry fruit and noticeable heat on the palate but after the first glass yielded little more than the outlines of the big, underlying raw material. I shall reserve final judgment until I taste it again next year, but I hold out hope that the brighter red fruits will render it sleeker than the RRV.

Ironically, my favorite wine from the Kosta Browne stable was their least ambitious -- the 2005 Rose of Pinot Noir - Russian River Valley. It is the perfect wine for summer sipping, elegant and refreshing, with lovely strawberry and cream flavors. It is a shame I could only beg one bottle of this offering from the winery and would gladly trade in my remaining bottles of the RRV and SC for more of the Rose.

I understand, and even subscribe to, Parker's mantra that wine is a beverage of pleasure, and I appreciate a sense of fun and play in my wines when done right -- like the Kosta Browne Rose. But I cannot understand the cultish desire for the ripest fruit, higher levels of extraction and concentration, greater intensity of flavors, and more sheer power in pinot noir when these qualities are so far removed from the historic strengths of the varietal. If you love New World wine and want these qualities, go chase Screaming Eagle or Hillside Select -- superlative wines deserving of their cult status. But please leave Pinot Noir alone.

1 comment:

ScottS said...

I bet you like Sea Smoke as well!

I've not yet tried the KB, but at $40 for the appellation wines and more than a few people who aren't fruit sluts enjoying these wines, there seems to be some there there. Big bold wines can have balance, finesse, and lightness on the palate, and Laube (not known for his consistency, I grant you) isn't as prone to bigger is better scoring when it comes to Pinot.

Now, it may be that the KB wines are on the edge and bottle evolution has ended up hurting the wines and causing them to be out of balance. The mixed reaction to the 05s could mean that they need more time, or that different conditions called for a lighter touch.

Maybe KB is an undeserved cult but comparing a $40-80 bottle of unquestionably great fruit (in an inappropriate, to your taste, style) to Screagle at $500 is a bit much. If point chasing fools bid up KB to the point of absurdity, hopefully that means less money is being thrown at the more worthy wines for us to buy.