Michael Chiarello and Thomas Rivers Brown
When Thomas Rivers brown landed a coveted position at Turley Wine Cellars, as assistant winemaker to Ehren Jordan, he could never have guessed that in just two years he would be put in charge of making Michael Chiarello’s wines. Eleven years later, the 2010 Food & Wine Winemaker of the year is still very hands on in making Chiarello Family Vineyards wine—and loving every drop!
When I first met Michael Chiarello he was already a celebrity, so it took me awhile to feel confident enough to interact with him as a peer. We have achieved that balance over time. Today, he does most of the farming, with some input from me, and I handle everything on the cellar end. It’s a good working relationship, and we have eliminated any responsibility holes that existed.
I developed an interest in wine while I was at the University of Virginia. After I graduated, I waited tables in Virginia and helped wine buyers buy wine—whatever I could do to learn and taste. A trip to visit friends brought me to Napa Valley, and since I already knew I loved wine, it was easy to decide to move out here. At that point, I had no idea if I was going to make wine, market it, or sell it. I just wanted a crack at the wine business. I moved, started knocking on doors, and got a job in a wine shop in Calistoga called All Seasons. It was a great place to meet people since I hosted afternoon tastings, and one of the people I met there was Ehren Jordan, the winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars, who hired me in 1997 as an assistant winemaker.
Michael had just put together a nice estate in St. Helena, and in 1998 he decided to keep his fruit and start making his own wine. Because of Ehren’s many other obligations, he passed the project off to me. I am not sure Michael was happy with the arrangement at first, but to Ehren’s credit, he did me a huge favor and convinced them I did the work anyway and that they would be crazy not to stick with the program and bring me on. Michael said fine and we started working together in late 1999.
Over the past 11 years, I have overseen the development of all of Michael’s wines. The first few years they were made at a couple of different custom-crush spots—which is fine, but you do give up some control when you are in someone else’s facilities. We eventually moved all his wines to Outpost over the course of the ’05–’06 vintage, and the wines got so much better with complete control. With Michael taking over all the farming of the vineyard, we made a bigger push for quality—for which we have seen the dividends in the past few years.
Working with Michael doesn’t actually feel like work. I love walking the vineyards with him—it’s like meeting up with an old friend. I try to eat at Bottega as often as possible. There is a deliciousness to the food that other places, even in Napa Valley, don’t quite capture. Michael understands that food—first and foremost—should taste good.