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Kosta Browne Winery founders to step down from Sebastopol winery

Michael Browne, left and Dan Kosta of Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol, Friday September 5, 2008 at their winery warehouse, at the old Vacu-Dry plant on Highway 116. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2008

BILL SWINDELL,

Founders Dan Kosta and Michael Browne are leaving their namesake Sebastopol winery, stepping down from operations as part of a new chapter for Kosta Browne Winery.

The winery, launched 20 years ago when the pair pooled tips from their jobs at a Santa Rosa restaurant, ultimately became a pinot noir powerhouse that has garnered worldwide acclaim.

It has been under the controlling ownership of J.W. Childs Associates of Boston since January 2015. Childs acquired its stake from the Healdsburg-based The Vincraft Group, which bought its interest in 2009 for an estimated $40 million.

As part of the new changes, the winery will add a new appointment-only tasting room in the spring at its location at The Barlow center in an effort to reach wine club members and many consumers unable to get past a yearslong waiting list and sample the wine.

The company does 85 percent of its business directly to consumers; the waiting list to buy it is as long as three years.

“We want the wines to be scarce, but we also want the hospitality to be generous,” said Scott Becker, president and chief executive officer.

Becker said the transition has been an evolution as Browne handed off winemaking duties to Nico Cueva in 2015, shortly after Childs took over.

The company has been aggressive in building its brand over the past two years, buying the 64-acre Cerise Vineyards in Anderson Valley, its first outside of Sonoma County, and installing concrete tanks for its small-lot wines, giving them a smoother texture and broader mouth feel.

Kosta handled the sales and marketing side while their other partner, Chris Costello, who joined in 2001, focused on the financial side and was crucial in finding capital to grow the business.

The winery has received the top winning bid for the past three years at the Sonoma County Barrel Auction, a reflection of the pinot noir boom fueled in the aftermath of the 2004 movie “Sideways,” which has made the varietal the most expensive locally at $3,669 per average ton.

The winery produces about 30,000 cases annually and Becker said he wants to make the wine more accessible in the marketplace and cut down on the waiting list.

“I don’t think we can take that (list) for granted, especially as we see Baby Boomers age out to Generation X,” he said from China, where he was looking for new business opportunities.

For example, it is exploring how to deliver more wine to the Texas grocery store H-E-B Grocery, which has successfully bid on and landed Kosta Browne lot at the Sonoma County auction the last two years; the 2017 bid was $250 per bottle.

“We’re going to try to respect the past and understand and chart the course for the future and how the world is changing,” Becker said.

In an interview, the self-taught Browne said he will still retain a minority stake in Kosta Browne, but will get to return to making small-lot wine by focusing solely on his family label, Cirq. The high-end pinot noir sells for $125 bottle.

While he noted that $125 per bottle was too pricey for him, Browne said “there’s plenty of people who will” buy it.

“I’m going to try to craft something at the highest level you can,” he said.