From Vine to Glass: Browne Family Wines Founder Michael Browne Shares His Journey Fulfilling a Dream to Own a Winery

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May 9 2024, Published 2:49 a.m. ET

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The journey of wine is a long one – after planting the vine, it can take up to three years until grapes can be harvested. The grapes are then crushed/pressed, fermented, aged, and bottled. The process can take a couple of years, depending on the varietal of the wine. As it is a process that cannot be rushed, winemaking is definitely not for the impatient.

The same can be said for the journey of Michael Browne, Founder of Browne Family Wines. He has been through many different stages of life to reach his dream of having a family-owned winery. His story serves as an inspiration for people who want to follow their passion and break into the world of wine.

According to Michael, his profession is encompassed by three things – craftsmanship, artistry, and showmanship – all of which have contributed to his wine journey. As a child, Michael would spend hours watching his father do woodworking and other crafts. This inspired Michael to transform wood into furniture and works of art, before selling them. This instilled in him an appreciation for fine craftsmanship as well as entrepreneurship. When he was in 7th grade, he made hat clips and sold them to his classmates, turning a decent profit.

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At the age of 13, Michael began working in the restaurant world, first starting at a Chinese restaurant, cutting onions and bussing tables. He later became a waiter at the best hotel restaurant in his hometown, where he learned about fine dining and wine. He also worked at several fine dining restaurants in Seattle, San Francisco, Marin County, and Santa Rosa, California. As well as some early stints in restaurants across Los Angeles. He enjoyed the artistry of fancy cooking and presentation methods, such as cooking delicious dishes in the back of the house and flambéing with showmanship in the front of the house. He also worked as a pastry chef, as well as a sommelier, which awakened his interest in wine.

Aside from working in restaurants, Michael also became a circus performer, where he honed his talent for showmanship. He was a fire-eater, unicyclist, and trapeze/highwire artist, coincidentally following in the footsteps of his great grandfather, who was a professional circus clown in the 1940s, he performed in the Wenatchee Youth Circus from the age of 12 to 18.

One day in 1997, Michael decided to pursue his dream of becoming a winemaker. Just three months into his relationship with his wife, Sarah, he asked her if she would move back with him to Sonoma, where he would work again as a sommelier while learning winemaking. She agreed, and thus began Michael’s winemaking days, and his relationship with his lovely wife.

While working at a restaurant, Michael volunteered at several wineries to learn the craft, initially in unpaid internship roles before eventually moving up. While making wine, the grapes’ red pigment would stick to Michael’s hands and turn black due to oxidation, making them very hard to wash off, and requiring harsh chemicals such as bleach. Because he worked as a restaurant sommelier, Michael at first felt that he absolutely needed to remove the stains. However, he realized that these were the marks of a winemaker, and he was proud of them. So, he’d talk to the customers and mention that these were caused by making wine, creating additional rapport with them and demonstrating that their sommelier was genuinely interested in wine to the point that he was making wine himself.

Eventually, Michael and his colleague Dan Kosta, and the chef at John Ash & Co, Jeffery Madura, saved up enough money to buy some equipment and some Pinot Noir grapes and began making their first wine, which would eventually be known as Kosta Browne Wine. Unfortunately, not everything was smooth sailing. The first batch of grapes they bought was mixed with another type of grape, which could not be used to make Pinot Noir, so around 15% had to be thrown out. While the first vintage turned out well, some of the following ones didn’t work out.

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Another mishap came when an error on the shipping spreadsheet caused half of Kosta Browne’s customers to receive twice the amount they ordered, while the other half received nothing. This was a major embarrassment to the brand, and Michael and his partners decided to be upfront with the customers who didn’t receive anything, they launched a campaign to make it right, hand-signing over 2500 personal letters to each customer. A business author learned about this and included it in her book as a spot-on example of good customer service.

Despite these challenges, Michael refused to be discouraged.

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“I believe in the old saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’,” Michael says. “I always take it as an opportunity for learning. There’s another old saying that wise men know that they know nothing. I make sure to learn as much as I can from my failures as well as conversations with other people. Having mentors is also important, and I’m fortunate to have had several mentors in various areas, such as business and winemaking.”

As the years went by, Kosta Browne began receiving attention for its quality, culminating in 2011, when its 2009 vintage Pinot Noir was recognized by Wine Spectator as the #1 Wine of the Year out of 17,000 wines. The only Pinot Noir to ever receive that accolade. While this cemented Kosta Browne as a huge success, Michael was still set on having a family-owned winery. Soon after the major win, he sold his stake in Kosta Browne and bought a winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. He restored the estate’s 5,000-square-foot house to include a wine-tasting room and guest rooms with a wonderful view of the valley.

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Today, Browne Family Wines produces two brands, the first of which is CIRQ, a high-quality Pinot Noir made from grapes grown exclusively in the Russian River Valley. CIRQ is inspired by Michael’s days as a circus performer, with the back labels resembling classic circus tickets and playbills. This is the “ringmaster” of the Browne Family Wines collection.

Meanwhile, CHEV, which offers Pinot Noir and Chardonnay made from grapes grown in Oregon and California, is a craftsman’s wine, echoing the days when Michael would watch his father create various works of art in his workshop. The name of the brand comes from Michael’s affinity for classic cars, another example of great craftsmanship.

As for his advice to young people who would like to pursue their passion in winemaking, Michael says it would be greatly beneficial for them to first volunteer as an intern at wineries, which will allow them to learn directly from the masters. This also places them in a prime position for any paid roles that may open up in the future. He also advises them to learn everything they can under the mentorship of experts before venturing out on their own.

Michael concludes: “I believe that wine is something that we humans have control in, but are not in control of. We don't have control of the vintage, and Mother Nature has the final say. This is how I learned to be patient and live life on life's terms. If I tried to live life on my own terms, I would get nothing done because I don't have full control. You can never fully know what's beyond the corner. You never know who you're going to meet who might add some pleasure and sparkle to your life, and that's happened to me so many times. Wine has brought me closer to so many people in a beautiful way, and I hold these people near and dear to my heart. Wine, if not abused, is a magical thing that brings people together, which is why it's been part of human civilization for thousands of years.”


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