It was a sad day in late November 2011 when I came across a very short news item online about the passing of winemaker Greg Brown, the founder of Calistoga-based T-Vine Cellars. Only 55, it was a bit of a shock, but not entirely. No cause of death was given, but reading between the lines I could only guess, Brown had died of a broken heart.
A guitar-playing dreamer with soulful charisma and outdoorsy good looks who had in his youth dreamed of being the next James Taylor or Jackson Browne, Greg Brown eventually found his calling in winemaking, But he also suffered a life-changing tragedy. Did his sadness overpower his success?
After graduating from Chico State in California, Brown worked for Bank of America, handling corporate loans to high-tech companies, but it was never his calling. After making a little money, he fell in love with wine, collecting vintages (at one point, he had amassed a 1,500-bottle cellar) and visiting as many wine regions as he could.
Lured by Napa Valley’s Cain Cellars
Having done some lending to wineries, Brown was lured into the wine world by the winemaker from Napa Valley’s Cain Cellars, who joked that Brown should come work harvest that year. Brown quit his finance job the next day and showed up at Cain two days later. As he told me during a 2005 interview for Savor Magazine, “I was leaning out over the high-dive and just needed somebody to tap me.”
Tap him they did. Brown spent three years at Cain making $7 an hour as a cellar rat, and he took the opportunity to learn every aspect of winemaking. It was also where he met his mentor, Tony Soter, the founder of Etude, who was at the time consulting for Cain.
By the time Brown was ready to set out on his own in 1991 with the iconoclastic aim of making small-lot, old-vine Napa Valley Grenache, Soter put Brown together with local, third-generation grower Jim Frediani, who just happened to be growing Grenache nobody else wanted to buy.
“I remember everyone saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Brown said in that same 2005 interview. “Not only do you want to be a one-man operation, where you make [the wine], sell it and deliver it, but you want to start with Grenache. There weren’t really any teachers on how to do it by yourself at that time. I just figured why not.”
Starting out on his own
With $15,000 in his own seed money, Brown started buying Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon from Frediani, who later began planting vineyards with Brown’s wines in mind. In 1992, he made 10 barrels of Grenache at Etude, picking the fruit overripe and using almost no new oak (he couldn’t afford it) — decisions that informed his winemaking for years to come.
He named his small wine operation T-Vine. The ‘T’ represented the trinity of body, mind and spirit, which he saw as his raison d’etre for getting in the wine industry.
His second year he added Syrah from Contra Costa, Zinfandel from Napa Valley’s Brown Estate (no relation), and Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma Valley’s Monte Rosso.
He tried hard to give people a taste of the vineyards he was working with to, as he put it, get the joy that he got in the vineyard into the bottle. He wanted to stay away from the abrasive nature of wine, “the Darth Vader black side of wine,” he told me, adding, “I go to the light, I like juicy, fine grain, good acidity.”
Whatever he was making, Brown was always extremely tactile and emotional about wine, saying things like, “If you don’t walk by a fermentation tank and run your hands along the tank and feel the life that’s inside it, you’re not in tune with what’s going on.”
Or, in his regular newsletters about his wines, telling folks, “Feel this moment, savor this breath, remember this tear, welcome this laughter, this is your precious life.”
A life-changing time
Brown’s admonition to cling to life was coming from his firsthand experience with death. In October 2000, just as harvest was ending, his wife, Yvonne, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. They had been together 13 years and, as Brown put it at the time, “I like to share her story because her life was perfect.”
The 5-foot-11, blue-eyed blonde was a fly-fishing guide, women’s weight trainer, aerobics instructor and massage therapist. Brown described her as the most unconditionally loving person he had ever met, “marinating” him in love for 12 years, which gave him the ability to achieve his dreams in the wine industry.
At the time of her diagnosis she was given a 50-50 chance of making it to the end of the year, her cancer having already spread throughout her body.
Two days after the invasive surgery that gave her the grim diagnosis, Brown was shoveling out tanks when he saw his wife. There she was, atop the forklift smiling; there, as she had always been, to help.
“I remember I went back in the tank and just wept,” Brown recalled. “This buddy of mine had a bottle of that vintage and started crying a couple days afterward. He couldn’t express why other than he said he was in rapture. I told him the story. He just said, ‘That’s it, I feel your spirit.’”
I think Brown never recovered. He tried. He sold T-Vine in 2009 to a trio of friends and fellow winemakers (Jim Regusci, Chuck Easley and James Harder) and traveled the world, trying to find solace in yoga and other adventures of the body and mind. But I think he couldn’t let go, I think he knew he never would, based on a few of the last things he said to me back in 2005.
“I hope in my life that I can love the way Yvonne loved me because quite frankly I didn’t have the capacity, she was a master,” he described. “Once you get pushed to a higher level of love, that door shuts, you can’t go back. I don’t think it’s possible.”
Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.
Photo: Greg Brown. Credit: Courtesy of Scott Brown