Berger: An example of low wine prices, high quality


Almost all winemakers say, “I love making wine” and almost all add variations on the same theme: “But I hate selling it.”

Making wine is interesting. It entails working with grape growers, yeast suppliers, making decisions on barrels, corks, label designs, blends, and delving into lots of esoteric and diverse subjects. It’s complex work that defines an art form calling for creativity, an understanding of soil, history and chemistry.

Making wine is a calling.

But selling wine creates headaches and requires a financial mind, which is something I rarely find in top winemakers. The best winemakers I have known usually aren’t very good business people.

Which is why making wine is often easier as an employee for a large wine company where salaried individuals are theoretically left to make all the decisions as to quality and volume, which is almost never the case!

In most large wine companies, months before harvest, some marketing person tells the winemakers, “We’ll need 30,000 cases of chardonnay this year,” and they know that if they hit that number, the resulting wine will be a shell of what it would be if just half that amount had been made.

In general, the more you make of anything, the less control you have over the quality.

But perhaps more daunting than selling wine is pricing it. It’s one thing to appreciate the quality of one’s own wines, but trying to translate that into a valid price for each wine is tricky, even devilish.

Which was my first thought when I tasted through a lineup of the wines of Byron Kosuge. I asked myself, “Why are these wines so reasonably priced?” The only thing I could come up with is this: Selling wine is so hard that Byron decided in his first solo venture to offer nothing but good values.

Kosuge (koh-soogy), who has been a winemaker for 30 years, had one of the best jobs in the industry as chief winemaker for Saintsbury in Napa Valley’s Carneros region, where he crafted numerous great wines.

He left Saintsbury nearly a decade ago to consult for several high-end wine brands in both Napa and Sonoma, and after many successes decided to make wine on his own.

His secret: From his many years in the industry, he got to know numerous small, exceptional vineyardists, some of whom were too small for giant wine companies to deal with.

Also, the style of wines Byron makes is decidedly restrained. By using oak sparingly, and by harvesting fruit earlier than many wineries (with great acidity levels), and by crafting wines of perfect balance, he wouldn’t be making flashy wines.

So moderate price points made sense. One classic example of the Kosuge style is his 2015 B. Kosuge Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($35). The native yeast fermentation gave the wine a gorgeous Puligny-Montrachet-like citrusy aroma that shows evidence of the vineyard location, east of the Petaluma River facing into the teeth of marine breezes that slow the ripening of the fruit. This is simply a great wine at a fair price. (On first tasting it, I thought the price would be about $50.)

I also loved Byron’s top pinot noir, the 2014 Hirsch Vineyard Sonoma Coast, with the spiced fruit of pomegranate and plum, impressive breadth, and cellar potential. It was aged in used French oak (not new), so the wood plays almost no role in the dramatic mid-palate.

If this wine had been made by a more well-known winery, the price would be $20 more than the $56 Kosuge is asking. Only 50 cases were produced.

Even more exotic is the 2015 B. Kosuge Pinot Noir called The Habitat, from Paul Sloan’s superb, very cool Sebastopol-area Barlow Homestead Vineyard ($45). The aroma displays rosemary and pine along with traces of other dried herbs, and the wine’s youth shows in how it opens up with a half hour of swirling. Only 75 cases were made.

Again, the price is about $20 less than it would be for any other vineyard-designated pinot noir of comparable production.

Wine of the Week: 2016 B. Kosuge Gamay Noir, Carneros ($16): What a delightful medium-weight red wine! Byron found a superb Gamay vineyard in El Dorado County, bought cuttings, and grafted them in Carneros in 2014. The dark cherry and faint peppery note in the aroma of this spicy wine leads to a fruit-driven mid-palate and modest tannins. It’s like a super-Beaujolais and needs no aging.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter.