Do you know the Sonoma County winemakers behind these iconic brands?

Meet 4 winemakers whose names are less-recognized than their high-profile brands.|

There are winemakers in Sonoma County who toil out of the limelight. Their names don’t grace the iconic brands they’re crafting wines for, but they don’t care. They’re passionate about playing a role in these revered labels that create what many consider cult pinot noirs.

Here are four of them, winemakers whose names are less-recognized than their high-profile brands: Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell, Julien Howsepian of Kosta Browne, Heidi von der Mehden of Merry Edwards and Greg Morthole of Davis Bynum.

The winemakers are drawn to these high-profile brands because their flagship is pinot noir, and the finicky grape is known to make sublime wines. This varietal continues to be a darling of Sonoma County, according to local wine experts like vintner Daryl Groom, organizer of the annual Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge who said, “I feel Sonoma County makes pinot noir better than anywhere else in the world.”

The winemakers share their excitement, concerns and winemaking strategy in adapting to the vision of the founders who sold their namesake brands to others.

Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell

“I was super excited and also very nervous,” said Heredia of working at Healdsburg’s Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery. “I knew all about Gary’s history and the style of wines that had been produced over the years.” Heredia said what made her uniquely qualified to take the reins as winemaker was her reverence for the label.

“It was my humble approach and my absolute respect for the brand,” she said. “I didn’t come in trying to make my own style. My goal was to make wines that are true to the brand and, most importantly, expressive of place.”

Founder/winemaker Gary Farrell sold his brand to the multinational company Allied Domecq in 2004, yet remained as winemaker for 18 months. The winery went through a couple more ownership changes before it was purchased by investor Bill Price in 2011. Heredia came on as the brand’s winemaker in May 2012.

“My approach in my first vintage of Gary Farrell was very cautious,” Heredia said. “I knew that the brand had a long list of vineyard-designated wines from these iconic vineyards, and I was nervous about coming in as a new winemaker who had never worked with these grapes before.”

Her modus operandi, Heredia said, was to make only subtle changes she was confident would improve the wines and bring more site expression.

During a trip to Burgundy in 2000, Heredia said, she tasted an “epiphany wine” — a bottle of Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru from Domain Denis Mortet — and realized her calling was to become a winemaker.

“I had never tasted such a special wine before, a wine with so much complexity, texture and expression of place,” she said.

Farrell said he couldn’t be happier with the current owner, management and winemaking team at the winery.

“The wines have flourished,” Farrell said. “I’m especially pleased Theresa is not only crafting exceptional wine but wines that are stylistically similar to (and respectful of) wines the brand became known for decades ago.”

Farrell, now 70, said letting go of his label wasn’t difficult after 22 years of building it. He was able to retire young, at 52, and spend time on other passions — travel, golf and classic cars.

“It was actually an easy decision to sell,” Farrell said, “and one I’ve never regretted.”

Julien Howsepian of Kosta Browne

Howsepian said he was a natural to carry on the legacy of the Kosta Browne brand as its winemaker.

“I had a passion to stay connected with an identity,” he said. “But I also had the willingness to stay open-minded and a desire to continue pushing the boundaries of what Kosta Browne can do. For the better part of two decades, founders Dan Kosta and Michael Browne were devoted to the brand, from humble beginnings to pinot noir stardom.”

Overnight success came to the duo in 2011, when a bottling of the Kosta Browne, 2009 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast snagged the coveted No. 1 spot on the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines list.

Kosta and Browne created their label in 1997 with one barrel of pinot noir. To finance their enterprise, they pooled their tips from working at Santa Rosa’s John Ash Restaurant, where Kosta was wine director.

The founders sold their brand in 2009 to the Texas Pacific Group, headed by Bill Price, and again in 2014 to another private equity group, J.W. Childs. With each of these transactions, Kosta and Browne stayed on as partners. However, after they sold their namesake brand to Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards in 2018, they moved on.

Kosta has launched a new brand, Covene, while Browne is the vintner and winemaker of the label Cirq.

Moving on, Kosta said, isn’t difficult when you find the right match to carry the brand forward.

“You pick the proper buyer of a brand not because they’re the highest bidder but because of who is going to be the best steward of the brand,” Kosta said. “If the wine is going to be a legacy, it has to be in the right hands … and I think the people at Duckhorn are very good stewards.”

Howsepian began as an intern at Kosta Browne in 2012 and rose in the ranks to winemaker in 2019. He earned a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis in 2008.

“I’ve always felt that Kosta Browne is a winery bigger than any one individual, so leaving my imprint or setting out to recreate the wheel would be a self-fulfilling stunt that could leave Kosta Browne’s reputation in peril,” he said. “However, being the competitive type, and constantly striving for improvement, I have only wanted to make things better for our team and the wine.”

His focus, Howsepian said, has been on logistics — working efficiently, reducing waste and raising the bar in wine quality. And that pinot noir is part of the attraction, too.

“I humbly believe Kosta Browne is one of the greatest American pinot noir producers,” he said. “So the opportunity to make wine here was a dream come true.”

Heidi von der Mehden of Merry Edwards

Working alongside vintner Merry Edwards for years, von der Mehden said, she didn’t give much thought to filling her shoes someday.

Edwards hired von der Mehden as associate winemaker in 2015 and promoted her to winemaker in 2018, a year before Champagne Louis Roederer purchased the winery.

“My biggest concern now is making wines that Merry would respect and enjoy, so I can honor her name and her brand,” von der Mehden said.

The winemaker earned a degree in chemistry from Santa Clara University in 1997 and then joined the Peace Corps, teaching high school students chemistry in Tanzania. In 2000, she came home to Sonoma County, where she grew up, to bottle grapes. Her credits include Kenwood Vineyards, Mauritson Winery and Arrowood Winery.

“I wanted to make pinot noir, and my first choice of place was the Russian River Valley,” von der Mehden said. “I knew Merry was one of the most respected winemakers in the Russian River Valley and that she made beautiful wines.”

After selling her brand in 2019, Edwards remained at the winery until 2020, mentoring von der Mehden for five years.

“Merry chose me to be her successor,” von der Mehden said. “She must have seen something in me that gave her the confidence to turn the winemaking over to me.”

Greg Morthole of Davis Bynum

The late Davis Bynum once said, “any idiot can make wine, but he has to be a tireless idiot. Winemaking takes enormous work and attention.”

In 2007, the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter retired from winemaking and sold his brand to Tom Klein of Healdburg’s Rodney Strong Vineyards. Morthole became the winemaker of Davis Bynum in 2010. He had joined Rodney Strong in 2005.

“While I didn’t aspire to follow in Davis’ footsteps exactly,” Morthole said, “I did want to reflect his sensibility in the wines, which I think were on a different level of sophistication than many in the marketplace today.”

Bynum wasn’t a fan of high-alcohol wines, preferring elegance and good acidity, Morthole said.

“Over the last 13 vintages, I’ve changed my winemaking to reflect that, generally by picking earlier, but also through tinkering with winemaking practices to create wines with softer tannins and more supple fruit tones to make pinots’ lovely savory character,” Morthole said.

Morthole and Bynum went to lunch regularly for about five years before Bynum died in 2017. The winemaker said Bynum reminded him of his grandparents — kind, polite and interesting.

Considered by many to be the father of Russian River Valley pinot noir, Bynum was one of the first to recognize the region as promising for pinot noir. A milestone for Bynum was producing the Russian River Valley’s first vineyard-designated pinot noir in 1973.

Morthole said he likes to finesse pinot noir with Bynum’s vision in mind.

“Davis had a rich history as a local pinot noir pioneer who inspired many legendary winemakers like Gary Farrell, Bob Cabral and many more,” Morthole said. “He was incredibly humble and soft-spoken, but there was a lot of depth and passion about the wines beneath his calm demeanor.”

You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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