Those who don’t bow to Byron Kent Brown don’t respect the history of Santa Barbara wine country.
Ken Brown, as he’s more commonly known, was the founding winemaker of Zaca Mesa Winery in 1977, designing the winery, testing which grape varietals worked in this climate, planting the county’s first syrah vines, and hiring, among other would-be luminaries, Jim Clendenen (of Au Bon Climat), Bob Lindquist (of Qupé), and Adam Tolmach (of The Ojai Vineyard). In 1984, he started Byron Winery in the Santa Maria Valley, which he smartly sold to the Mondavi family in 1990, and then stayed onboard to experiment with the grape-growing techniques that now dominate the regional winescape. In 2003, to settle down a bit and get back to more intimate winemaking, he and his wife, Deborah Brown, founded Ken Brown Wines, which he now runs from a tasting room on Highway 246 in Buellton.
In anticipation of his starring role at the upcoming Food & Wine Safari Supper Club on July 23 at The Biltmore — $110 for a five-course, wine-paired meal prepared by Four Seasons chefs Alessandro Cartumini and Grant Macdonald — I met Brown at his tasting room to talk about his past and taste wines of the present. Here are some of my favorite Ken Brown thoughts and memories.
On college at the University of Oregon: Brown was “too active in the frat life,” so he did his last two years of business and finance studies at Linfield College.
On diving into Napa and Sonoma wines in the ’70s: “I got to know almost every winemaker,” said Brown, who spent eight years after college working in the “real world” for IBM and his real estate developer dad in Sacramento before going to Fresno State to study wine as a grad student in 1974. “I was a real nerd.”
On studying both winemaking and grape growing at Fresno State: “I felt I had to go out the back door and sneak between the two buildings,” said Brown, whose blending of the two fields was rare. “It was so strange.”
On working with first-growth grapes at Zaca Mesa and Firestone: “My job was to see whether they had commercial potential. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I think we’ve proved the point.”
On which grapes worked — and which didn’t: “The riesling, chardonnay, and pinot noir were all showing well in the first year. The cab was terrible.”
On that pinot then and pinot now: “In the old Wine Spectator, it would have ranked as one of the best, but if we were making that pinot now, no one would ever come here.”
On his expectations of the region way back when: In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Brown would have a monthly potluck with pioneers like Richard Sanford, Michael Benedict, Tony Austin, Rick Longoria, Fred Brander, and others. “We were just blown away by how good the wines were turning out,” he recalled, “but I don’t think any of us visualized how big the wine industry would get.”
On working for Zaca Mesa owner Marshall Ream of ARCO Oil and his board of directors: “His cronies were all the presidents and CEOs of the major oil companies,” said Brown, who recalled the group being called the “dream board” by a magazine one year. “But they were major power brokers with huge egos.” Brown wanted the first phase of the winery to be the last phase; they wanted to grow and grow.
On selling Byron Winery to the Mondavis in 1990: “That was my very best wine-selling day.”
On their nearly decade-long grape-growing experiment: “I wanted to make decisions based on reality rather than wishful thinking,” said Brown, who planted 17 acres of varying clones, rootstocks, trellis systems, orientations, and other variables. “Almost all of the vineyards in Santa Barbara County are planted in one direction because of the research we did.”
On splitting off from Byron to start Ken Brown Wines: “It was very friendly.”
On blending the Santa Maria Valley with Sta. Rita Hills fruit: “They’re really different, but it’s like hand-in-glove,” said Brown, who produces both single vineyard pinots as well as a county blend of these two regions, among chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, syrah, and vin gris. “There’s so much synergy.”
On his choice to become a winemaker: “If I was still in real estate, I don’t think I’d be as excited about waking up every morning.”
Ken Brown Wines tasting room is open Thursday-Monday, 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and is located at 157 West Highway 246 in Buellton. Call (805) 688-9400 or visit kenbrownwines.com. He’ll be featured at the upcoming Food & Wine Safari Supper Club on Wednesday, July 23, at the Four Seasons Biltmore. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (805) 698-3426 for tickets.