rhythm in blue Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Rhythm in Blue

Napa Wine Brand is Music to the Ears
— An Interview with the Winemaker of R&B Cellars

Just as with their passion for music — referenced in the artwork of the vibrant blue labels on their wine bottles — love of wine comes across lyrically and resonantly in person with Kevin and Barbara Brown, the husband and wife team behind R&B Cellars. Sitting down with the couple in the living room of their spacious and charming Victorian house in San Francisco's bucolic suburb of Alameda, I spoke with them about R&B's portfolio of wines, their respective styles, and their relative position among California wines. I took keen interest in having Kevin share not only his winemaking experience, but also, given his prior background in wines sales, his perspective on the market as a whole and what he felt were the best approaches for the consumer to make the most out of an oftentimes confusing wine-buying experience.

NM: I hope I'm not overlooking the obvious, but why 'R&B'?

BB: Rhythm and Blues!

KB: All the paintings on the labels — we own all those paintings — were done by a friend of ours, Mimi Stuart. I was at Rosenblum Cellars for a while, for 14 years, and we used to do open houses. They used to have local artists or jewelers or sculptors or whomever come and show their wares and things, and be able to sell them. And so, Mimi was there, at one of these open houses, and I saw these paintings that she called her "musical gems." And some of them are fairly small, but the inspiration for the Reserve Cabernet was the big blue one behind the piano there…

BB: Which is going to turn into the Cab label, in the next bottling.

KB: …that one's called The Lyric of the Vine. And I love them, so I made a deal with her where I bought I think 14 of them; the one big one and all these little guys. What's really cool is that when I called her up to ask her about using her work on our labels, she was totally into it! So, now when she does shows and things like that, if she can, she'll get a case of this or a case of that, so she can have them at her openings to show the wines.

But the other aspect of the R&B: where that came from is, as I said, I was at Rosenblum — Kent Rosenblum is a good friend — and that's where I learned to make wine. I was a hands-on learner; I wasn't somebody who went off to Fresno or Davis and took courses. I mean, I did my reading and the rest of it, but I learned it all by doing, and I did it there [at Rosenblum]. Kent and I actually began R&B together, but we knew we couldn't call it 'Rosenblum and Brown'… because that would be trading on the [already established] Rosenblum name and we didn't want to do that. We wanted it to be something like a fun deal that we were doing on the side. The only thing we made was a Reserve Cab, and we made little bits of it; we made a couple hundred cases.

BB: It was just a really fun side project, you know, that they did. It wasn't our main job or anything. It wasn't until we decided to expand the winery…

KB: …we were doing the '03 vintage…

BB: …the '03 vintage, right. And then we ultimately bought Kent and Kathy [Rosenblum] out. So, R&B is now Rhythm and Blues. But it makes sense, because we're jazz musicians — not R&B musicians, of course, but jazz musicians.


[A consummate virtuoso of a jazz pianist, singer and songwriter, Kevin frequently performs with his wife as crooning chanteuse. Barbara's own musical talent is manifold, as well, being that she played flute professionally for many years, in addition to performing in (and teaching for) numerous choral groups. Music continues to be a salient part of life not only for the couple, but also for their two sons, Ivan and Ryan.]

NM: Apropos, to what extent do you feel a parallel between your musical creativity and your winemaking, and can you talk about the broader strokes of that winemaking style?

KB: As a jazz pianist, whenever I approach a piece… it's always different. Because improvisation is definitely a part of it, or whatever mood I might be in. There's a melody line and there's chord symbols, and I never play it the same way twice. It's always some new harmonic choice or something else going on, playing with the melody in different ways. I think the same thing is true with the wine; each year you're given something a little different. You're given a 'lead sheet' — which is what you work with in jazz; you're given the fruit for the year. It's the lead sheet, that's all it is. So now you've got this fruit and you've got to decide what you're going to do with it. And you may approach it initially with some similar things, like you have a particular protocol. You say, "Well, okay, I know I'm going to go at it this way… I know there's going to be a certain feel to this." There are very few departures from that part of it, so there are some basic protocols. Same thing with this, with the fruit; you have this basic protocol. But then what you do, going forward, you have to let things take their course; you have to be patient; you have to let things develop and evolve. You can't force them to, and you can't manipulate them to. You just have to deal with what you've been given with nature, and make the best piece out of it you can.

NM: What challenges do you face in making your wines?

KB: Well, you're always trying to pick fruit at the right time. There's a lot of wineries that approach the right time to harvest as a function of numbers — What's the sugar level?… What's the total acidity?… What's the pH? — if it's in these parameters, {snap} pick it! But there's a lot more to it, in terms of the physiology of the fruit, where you're talking about how the fruit pulls away from the stem, how much pulp is left on the pedicel, what color are the seeds, how bitter are the seeds, what's the tannin structure, how much raisining or dehydration there is, what are the flavors of just the skins, the pulp of the fruit, how quickly does it dissolve on your tongue, in the mouth. I mean, all of these things… this is what makes it right.

[Our attention naturally went to the wines patiently standing along a neat row on the glass coffee table between us. Barbara proceeded to open the first few of these, as I turned the focus of the discussion on particulars of the R&B wines themselves. The portfolio consists of a Sauvignon Blanc, a Zinfandel, and a Syrah (all in the $11-$12 range); a Cabernet Franc ($24); and a Reserve Cabernet ($65).]

"You have to let things take their course; you have to be patient; you have to let things develop and evolve. You can't force them to, and you can't manipulate them to."

NM: So, why did you settle on using these specific varietals?

KB: Well, the Reserve Cab, because that's what we first started at, and that's what we wanted to do. I mean, for me, there's nothing like a really great Cabernet. People ask me all the time, "Well, which is your favorite," and it really depends on the day and the kind of mood that I'm in. Normally, I'll joke with them by saying, "You're asking me to tell you — in front of my children — which of my kids I like best." Now if one of my kids wasn't here — then I might say something! {laughter} But really what it comes down to is that it totally depends on the mood that you're in, or what you're feeling like on a particular day, and you may decide, "Hey, I'm just in the mood for Syrah today." Or "I don't care, I've had it; I just need crisp and clean, and I want Sauvignon Blanc. What are we having for dinner? — Well, we're having steak — Don't care, wanna drink Sauvignon Blanc; that's what I want." It really should be about what you like, because wine is a very personal, very subjective thing.

BB: But these really are some of our favorite varietals. And Kevin makes them in the fashion that we like.

KB: And it would almost be sacrilegious to spend all that time at Rosenblum and not make Zinfandel. You have to pay tribute to your heritage. But all of these varietals are actually things that we just really wanted to make. I mean, why do we choose Sauvignon Blanc? Everybody says, "Well, don't you make a Chardonnay?" No… don't want to make a Chardonnay…

kevin_brown_flippedBB: Everybody else does!

KB: …because everybody and his brother makes Chardonnay, and the last thing in the world that anybody needs is another Chardonnay — unless you're going to make a really different statement about what you're doing. It's a somewhat crowded field, and there are some folks out there who do make some very good Chardonnays. Although my personal preference is more of a French style, maybe if I could make something that was along the lines of White Burgundy — leaner, crisper, with more minerally tones coming through. Which is exactly where we go with our Sauvignon Blanc, so it's almost in a more Sancerre style, [rather than an] herbaceous, grassy kind of style; or [one with] up-front, almost over-the-top citrus, tropical fruit. I mean, some of those elements are there, but they seem to assimilate into a mineral kind of character, which I think is so attractive in white wine.

NM: So the varietals themselves are ones that you like and wanted to produce. Can you tell me, though, what went into the decisions to produce and release the wines at these vastly different price points?

KB: The Reserve Cabernet was the first thing we made. And when we first released it, it was $75 a bottle. And that's pretty rarefied air, you know, when you think about it. The consumer base that you're appealing to at that level is very, very small. Especially when you're not known. But there's always new people that come to the market — and that's one of the great things about wine drinkers: they have a tendency to want to try 'new' all the time. It's like with people who like to go to new restaurants; they always want to check out what's the new thing, what's the hot thing. Wine drinkers tend to do the same. But when we decided we were going to do the Zinfandel — and we decided to do the Syrah at the same time, then the following year we came out with the Sauvignon Blanc — it was an intentional choice to want to position things in the more everyday price range. Because, having experience with the rarefied and realizing how few people are really going to be looking at your wine, I wanted to do something that allowed us a much broader spectrum. And what I really wanted, is for people to go, "Whoa, this is a fantastic bottle of wine for ten bucks!" Then, by logical extension, go, "Man, if this is this good — the best ten bucks I spent on a bottle of wine — I mean, do I see god when I try the Cabernet?!" {laughter} I think that there's probably too few bottles at ten-to-fifteen dollars that you can really say, "Wow, that's a really good bottle of wine." I mean, there out there, but the old saying is, Ya gotta kiss a few frogs to find a prince!

NM: I would exaggerate that even further! I think that especially when it comes to California wines, when you're looking at the ten dollar price point {shaking head}…

KB: It's hard to find really good stuff out there at that price.

BB: Well, we're now at $11. We started out at $10 [through the 2005 vintage], and it's just the '06 now that we've gone up to $11.

"We're here to be making something that we can sell to people, and that they can say is really good value for the dollar. When you're a new brand, over-delivering is almost de rigueur."

KB: And I think it's a great spot. The other nice thing is for restaurant-by-the-glass; there's a real opportunity to get the right price point so that restaurants will want to be able to take it on. And the reality is, there is the romantic side of what we do, the artistic side… but there's also the business side. The business side of what we do is that we're here to be making something that we can sell to people, and that they can say is really good value for the dollar. When you're a new brand, over-delivering is almost de rigueur. You can't just be like an also-ran; you have to be where people say, "Wow, that's incredible bang for the buck!"

NM: Absolutely! And you only have one chance to make a first impression.

KB: Right. The labels, the packaging: we get a lot of great compliments about that. And that's 80% of the battle. With wine labels, you've got so many all competing on the shelf, that if you have an attractive package, then at least someone could say, "Well, I was thinking of spending ten bucks and I was going to get a Zinfandel and… Wow! This a cool-looking label; I've never seen this one before!" Rather than looking like everybody else.

[This point of the interview presented a perfect opportunity to segue into a more general discussion of market trends and consumer buying behavior. Given Kevin's experience in wine sales — a point of his career that preceded winemaking — I encouraged him to share a few of his more market-oriented speculations and suggestions.]

kevin_grapes_flippedNM: Wine, as with any consumer product, undergoes trends of interest in the marketplace. As a California producer, what do you think 'the next big thing' in California is going to be?

KB: I keep hoping it's going to be Syrah, because I think Syrah has been on the cusp of taking off and has kind of gotten close and fallen each time… because I don't think we've done a very good job of educating the consumer of what they can expect stylistically from Syrah. It runs the gamut. There are a number of different styles — none of which of which you could say are wrong or right, of course; it's just what you like. But when the consumer can buy a Australian Shiraz at $5.99 a bottle, they start getting the impression that that's what Syrah should taste like, and that's what it should cost. The folks that are buying St. Joseph, and other things from the Rhone, are a narrower spectrum of folks than those who are buying the Australian version of it. And it doesn't mean that the Australian version isn't good, it's just that I would look at it almost as more Vin de Pays… although there are also some outstanding producers that make just mammoth, massive Shiraz that are phenomenal. But the American market is the biggest export market for Australia, and we've gotten people used to the idea that this is what Syrah is going to be about. Or basic Côtes du Rhône. And we have not really taken and educated [the American consumer] beyond that, except for that small sector of wine consumers that are a little bit more 'in the know.' But I think as we do a better job of that, you'll see Syrah sales will improve.

The other thing I'd like to see really take off is Zinfandel, for multiple reasons. It's just such a wonderful grape… [with which] we can make so many different styles of wine. It's America's heritage grape, it's something uniquely American — like jazz — so it holds a spot near and dear to my heart, because of that. I would be thrilled to see it become the next Pinot Noir or the next Merlot, the time before… seeing Americans enjoying something that's distinctly American — like baseball. I don't think we've done a good enough job of educating people about that. Because, let's face it: if you go around the wine-drinking world, most everybody is going to go nuts about their local stuff. They're going to talk to you about what their country does best, they're going to talk to you about what their region does best; generally things that are very distinct and are native. We [Americans] tend to be very cosmopolitan [with varietals], and about as distinctive as we get is 'California wines.' Guys, come on! Let's take it to another place, here; we could do more than that! Zinfandel is one of those examples.

NM: Sounds like a great advice for the marketer. Now, what about the other end of that equation; what three pieces of advice would you, as a producer, have for the consumer?

"Wine should be a beverage. You should look at it as something that's healthful, something that's joyful, and something that enhances every meal."

KB: Well, we'll assume that this consumer knows what they're target price category will be. First, I'd recommend to understand that wine is artwork, and that everybody's take on it, everybody's perception, is going to be a little different from everybody else's; that you're not going to find that homogeneous kind of character. Granted, there are the McDonalds of the world out there, in that you know — with any McDonald's you drive into — the burger's going to taste exactly the same. There are some of those wineries out there that work that way. But, I would say, by and large, there's a huge number who have their own personal take, so go with the understanding that [wine] is a personal expression.

Secondly, trust your own palate! If you like something, you like it; and if you don't like something, you don't. And it doesn't matter whether or not it was given 97 points. Understand that wine is an exploration; go and try as many different things as you can. When you go to a tasting [event], don't gravitate to the same names and the same tables; go to some of the guys you've never heard of! And just try it; maybe you'll like it, maybe you don't. But trust yourself. Also, if you decide that you want to follow a wine writer or a wine magazine — because people like guides — try some of the things that they recommend and see if you agree with what they say. If you do, then you could say, "You know what, this magazine is a fairly accurate reflection of what I like, so if they recommend something, then chances are pretty good that I'm going to like it." If you don't like what they say, if you don't like what they're recommending, then that's just not the one for you, and maybe there's another [reviewer or magazine]. But ultimately you can't replace yourself.

Thirdly, make wine fun! Wine should be a beverage. It should be like having a glass of milk, or having a soda, or having a glass of water. You should look at it as something that's healthful, something that's joyful, and something that enhances every meal.

Hearing these wonderful words of advice for the consumer — given in the most disarming and easy going way — amounted to nothing short of music to my ears. And it was all the more reflective of the affable style of both the Browns and their R&B wines.

For more information, contact Kimberly Hathaway PR or visit R&B Cellars online. v