Do you know the Sonoma County winemakers behind these iconic 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.