Thomas Brown talks To-Kalon

Through the years of begetting wines with whopping ratings, being the subject of hotly contested trademark lawsuits between Napa elites, and general industry fireworks, the To-Kalon vineyard in Oakville has become ensconced in legend and skyrocketed in value. All of this certainly adds to the drama of opening a bottle made from To-Kalon fruit, but strip it away and the character and quality of the wine in the glass holds its own merit, all vineyard drama aside.

Schrader Beckstoffer To-Kalon wines are perhaps the most sought-after coming from the vineyard, with 20 wines holding 100-point ratings from Robert Parker. We had the opportunity to speak to famed winemaker Thomas Brown about these wines, of which we are offering a selection in our Important Rare and Fine Wine Auction.

Born and raised in Sumter, South Carolina, Thomas Brown became interested in wine by spending time with the wine-collecting father of a college girlfriend. He followed his interest West after he graduated from the University of Virginia, where he met Fred Schrader at an informal tasting group while he was working as Ehren Jordan's assistant winemaker at Turley. Schrader recognized Brown's talent and hired him to craft the first vintage of Schrader in 2000, making Schrader the very first of Brown's now-extensive list of blue chip clients. Brown has made the Schrader wines with his Assistant Winemaker, John Giannini, almost since the very beginning, and he attributes the quality of the wine in large part to this consistency.

Schrader receives fruit from 16 acres of the Beckstoffer To-Kalon vineyard, the largest parcel of any of its buyers. With the exception of Old Sparky, a yearly blending of the best barrels of Beckstoffer To-Kalon, bottled only in magnums, of which we have two in our auction (2008 and 2011), the Schrader To-Kalon wines are bottled by vineyard block, which Brown says allows him to highlight the distinct characteristics of the grapes in those different blocks. In this way, the Schrader wines can be tasted as a kind of case study of the famous vineyard.

Brown notes that some think that climate change may make California too hot to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, but so far his experience is that the slightly hotter temperatures in recent years have allowed for constant ripening of the fruit during the growing season. According to Brown, 2012-2016 has been an unprecedented run of strong vintages, each in its own way.

2015 was an exceptionally hot year, and temperatures were ideal for ripening, but a late spring rain meant that Brown only had half his normal crop of To-Kalon grapes to work with. We are offering both the 2015 Beckstoffer To-Kalon RBS and the 2015 Beckstoffer To-Kalon CCS in our auction. 2014 and 2016, by contrast, had more moderate weather and are therefore less marked by the vintage. Brown calls the wines from these years "transparent", in that they are demonstrative of varietal characteristic and the attributes of the growing site. From 2014 we are offering the Beckstoffer To-Kalon CCS.

Though Fred Schrader retired from the wine industry and sold the label last year, Brown will stay on as the winemaker. And because the buyer is a majority owner of the Mondavi portion of the To-Kalon vineyard, it's possible that Brown may have even more To-Kalon fruit to work with in the future. The story of Schrader and To-Kalon continues to be written.

Content produced by the Leland Little editorial team