Winemaker Ken Brown: Veteran Still On His Game
It seems that in our eagerness to discover the latest new cult producer of Pinot Noir, we often overlook the
veterans whose reputation has been firmly established through years of accomplished winemaking. I am
talking about icons such as Ken Brown, a pioneering original in Santa Barbara County who continues to craft
some of California’s most captivating wines.
Byron Kent “Ken” Brown is a third generation California native who was born in Sacramento. Winemaking was
not on his radar as he grew up and attended college, opting instead for a career in the burgeoning computer
industry at IBM as well as working for his father who was a real estate developer. It was a visit to a Napa Valley
winery that drew his attention to wine and he began making wine at home.
In 1974, he enrolled in the California State University at Fresno’s viticulture and enology program. His interest
in viticulture was noteworthy since most winemakers of the time spent little time in vineyards. This unique but
now widely embraced adjunct to winemaking was to prove invaluable in his later success. Ken always
considered himself a winegrower, that is, an equal combination of viticulturist and winemaker.
After graduation, Ken became the founding winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos in 1977 where he
designed and equipped the new winery. The original Zaca Mesa property was bought in 1972 by a group of
friends who started planting a vineyard in 1973. It was at Zaca Mesa that Ken planted the first Syrah in Santa
Barbara County in 1978.
In 1984, realizing the potential of Santa Barbara County and in particular the Santa Maria Valley to produce fine
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Ken left Zaca Mesa and along with partners, founded Byron Winery in the Santa
Maria Valley on the site of the original Nielson Vineyard. This vineyard was Santa Barbara’s first commercial
vineyard established in 1974 by pioneer Uriel Nielson. The first Byron Pinot Noir was released in 1984 from
purchased grapes (Tepusquet Vineyard 1973 plantings and Sierra Madre 1974 plantings).
The success of Byron prompted the Robert Mondavi Corporation to invest heavily in the Santa Maria Valley
eventually acquiring 600 acres of Santa Maria Valley land that included 175 acres of vineyards. Mondavi
bought Tepusquet Vineyard in 1988, the adjacent 118-acre Nielson Vineyard in 1989, and acquired Byron
Winery in 1990. Ken Brown’s 20,000-case Byron Winery was producing some of the best Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay in the state, but he lacked the capital to grow the winery. Matt Kramer said, (New California Wine,
2004), “Byron Chardonnay has long been, and remains, one of the benchmark bottlings in Santa Maria Valley.”
Mondavi’s buyout allowed him to stay on as winemaker and the winery’s production was expanded to more
than 50,000 cases. While at Byron, Ken worked with many Santa Barbara County vineyards, but mainly
sourced Pinot Noir from Nielson Vineyard, Tepusquet Vineyard and Sanford & Benedict Vineyard.
In his time at Byron under Mondavi ownership, Ken directed the construction of a modern, gravity flow winery in
1996, and conducted a number of experimental vineyard programs. He eventually tired of the corporate winery
milieu, and left in 2003 to start his own modest eponymous label. Ken Volk purchased the Byron winemaking
facility and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards. The Byron label passed through several owners including
Constellation Brands, Legacy Estates Group, and Jackson Family Wines who is the current proprietor.
Ken downsized considerably, with he and his spouse Deborah producing a modest 2,000-2,500 cases of
carefully handcrafted wine under the Ken Brown Wines label. He occupied a shared warehouse facility in Lompoc beginning in 2005, and then moved to Terravant Wine Center in Buellton in 2008 where Ken consults
for a number of other larger labels.
Ken’s accomplishments are varied and he has left his mark on many current wineries in Santa Barbara County.
A partial listing of his achievements include the following:
• Ken was one of the first vintners to realize the potential of Santa Barbara County to produce world-class Pinot
Noir and Chardonnay.
• Ken was the first to introduce Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Syrah to Santa Barbara County.
• Ken was one of the first Santa Maria Valley vineyard owners to experiment with various vineyard spacing
• Ken mentored a number of respected winemakers including Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Bob Lindquist
of Qupé Wine Cellars, Chuck Carlson of Curtis Winery, Lane Tanner of the former Lane Tanner Winery, Adam
Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard, Clay Brock of Wild Horse Winery, and Mike Sinor of Sinor-LaVallee and
• Ken was the founding winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery and Byron Winery.
• Ken has crafted wines from some of Santa Barbara County’s most prestigious vineyards including Bien
Nacido, Clos Pepe, Cargassachi, Garey, La Encantada, Nielson, Radian, Rancho La Vina, Rio Vista, Rita’s
Crown, Sanford & Benedict, and Sierra Madre. Ken knows the lay of Santa Barbara County vineyard land.
Varietals offered by Ken Brown Wines include Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Since
Ken has many long time associations with growers, he has access to desirable select blocks within vineyards.
He buys fruit by acreage contracts so his name is attached to certain rows of vines. His sensibly priced wines
are offered through retail channels and the website at www.kenbrownwines.com. Wine tasting is available
Friday-Sunday from 11:00 to 4:00 or by appointment at the Terravant Wine Center tasting room located at 70
Industrial Way in Buellton (805-688-4482).
Despite Ken’s status as a winemaker emeritus, he regularly attends events to pour his wines and patiently
points out vineyard source details that he considers highly relevant to understanding his wines. He is modest,
unpretentious, informative and beyond reproach as a professional. There is no need to seek out the latest Pinot
Noir rave offering overpriced and over hyped wines, for we are blessed to have an easily accessible veteran
who is still on his game.
Acknowledgements go to the following reference sources used in this article: North American Pinot Noir (John Haeger, 2004), Salud! The
Rise of Santa Barbara’s Wine Industry, (Victor W. Geraci, 2004), and www.winefactor.com.
2012 Ken Brown Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir
656 cases, pH 3.71, TA 0.56, $35. Magnums available. Sourced from
Rio Vista Vineyard, Garey Vineyard, Nielson Vineyard, Sierra Madre
Vineyard and Buena Terra Vineyard. 53% from Santa Maria Valley
and 47% from Sta. Rita Hills.
Moderately light reddish-purple color
in the glass. Pleasing aromas of black cherries, ripe berries and
echoes of oak. Very tasty black cherry core with hints of red hard candy and
spice and an earthy undertone. A very approachable mid weight offering with
mild tannins and a silky mouth feel. Almost weightless. You won’t find a better
AVA blend in the marketplace.
2011 Ken Brown Nielson Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir
14.1% alc., pH 3.66, TA 0.53, 231 cases,
$42. A new vineyard designate from Ken. Sourced from a replanted block (2000) under the direction of Ken
Brown in collaboration with the Mondavi family who owned the property at the time. High-density spacing of
Dijon clone 115.
Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. Uplifting aromatics of dark cherries and spice with
a hint of seasoned oak. Satisfying charge of earth-kissed black cherry fruit on the mid palate with a hint of
dried herbs in the background. The tannins are suede-like and dry, the balance is spot on and the finish is
replete with black cherry goodness. Nothing is out of place. An excellent cellar candidate.
2011 Ken Brown Nielson Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay
14.2% alc., pH 3.33, TA 0.63, 138 cases, $38. Sourced
from replanted vines using cuttings from the original old vines
including Wente clone. Ken has worked with this vineyard for more
than 30 years. Whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented, 75%
malolactic fermentation, aged sur lie 10 months in 17% new French
Light golden yellow color and clear in the glass. I was
enchanted with the nose that offered aromas of tropical fruits, pear,
buttered brioche and slate. Delicious compliment of lemon, baked pear and
apple flavors with the slightest hint of complimentary French oak. The wine
really brings you to attention on entry and holds on for a satisfying, acid-driven finish. Very soft in the mouth
and appealing now, but has the balance for a long life in the cellar.
2011 Ken Brown Rita’s Crown Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay
14.3% alc., pH 3.37, TA 0.64, 67
cases, $42. Inaugural bottling from this vineyard, one of the newest in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA (planted in 2007).
One of the highest planted vineyards at 600 to 950 feet in the AVA. Soils are sandy loam with ancient seashell
deposits. Dijon clone 76. Whole cluster pressed, 100% barrel fermented with 70% malolactic fermentation,
and aged sur lie for 11 months in 17% new French oak barrels.
Light golden yellow color and clear in the
glass. Attractive aromas of white peach, lemon curd and iron are replicated on the palate. The French oak is
beautifully integrated offering the slightest hint of vanilla and toast. The wine is smoothly textured in the mouth
and slightly viscous, with vibrant underlying acidity and some persistence of juicy green apple on the finish.