The Fermenator

Winemaker/brewer Kristop Brown
finds love in a one-celled organism

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Kristop Brown getting a whiff of the microbial action in his wine

Photography by Roy Gumpel

Don’t tell his wife, Jade, about it, but Kristop Brown’s having an affair. The young, gifted winemaker, sporting sandyblonde locks, a beard and aviator sunglasses, dashes off in his silver Mazda for a morning assignation. Another rendezvous follows at a spot across the river. And later still he slips into the hills for yet another appointment. It all seems so exotic, maybe even illicit. Until you realize that the object of his affection is…yeast. Brown makes wine and consults for four different wineries in the Hudson Valley, specifically Clinton Vineyards, Robibero Family Vineyards, and Glorie Farm Winery, and is a partner and head brewer for the recently launched Yard Owl Craft Brewery in New Paltz. “I have really become so interested in yeast. The beer guys are tight with yeast. It’s a living, breathing thing. They reuse it. They reshape it. Wine guys don’t do that as much. It’s not the same thing. But I am bringing a little of that back with me,” insists Brown, a Rutgers grad with a degree in forestry who went back to school to study chemistry.

TAPPING POTENTIAL

As most bakers already know, yeast is a living thing. What looks like a beige-gray mass of pudding is actually thousands of hungry microbes feverishly looking for sugar to digest. Unleashed on grape juice (or sweet water made from boiled corn), yeast will magically transform these liquids into wine or beer by converting the sugars to alcohol. Different families of microbial yeast do different things and produce wildly different results. Using some will highlight the flavors in red grapes or white grapes, reduce acid or add certain flavor profiles. Use the right little army of these microbes, and you have created art. The wrong army, and you have just destroyed a season’s worth of growing. Brown is committed to averting disaster and consistently creating such yeast-borne art, and needless to say, his schedule is hectic.

“Jade would prefer I had one job. Nine-to-five. So she knew where I was and I would be home more regularly,” Brown admits. Jade has had a successful career as a social worker, and with Kristop, has two children, the youngest of whom just started kindergarten this year. “It would be nice to work for just one place and have complete control. But it’s pretty cool what I have. It’s unique, and it has a lot of upside. I work with a lot of good people.”

Brown has made great wines in the valley for years. His cabernet francs with different wineries have bordered on spectacular, and his whites are usually lean and elegant.

Brown only becomes more impressive as you get to know him. He’s worked at a number of renowned places throughout the valley and elsewhere. His experience begins at Millbrook Vineyards, in Dutchess County, considered by many to be a shining star in the region. He started there in the tasting room in 2002, at the age of 27, and then gravitated toward the work of Millbrook Vineyards winemaker John Graziano. Brown, at this time, was admittedly a cellar rat, doing this and that, washing barrels and scrubbing tanks. But he had been bitten by the winemaking bug. He loved it.

Then he took a job with Benmarl Winery, in Marlboro, on the other side of the river. Eric Miller, one of the most prolific and accomplished winemakers on the East Coast, had founded the powerhouse Chaddsford Winery, in Brandywine, Pennsylvania, and then returned home to his father’s winery, Benmarl, after his father had taken ill, to restore the winemaking program. Benmarl posted an ad in the newspaper, and Brown responded, moving over to Marlboro on January 1, 2004.

“He was such a kid then…working in a coffee shop with long hair in a ponytail and looking like an old hippie from our days!” remembers Eric’s wife, Lee Miller.

“I interviewed the smiling, bearded young man with a ponytail for the cellar master position at Benmarl Vineyards in about 2003. I didn’t care that his only winery experience was behind the tasting bar. He had three out of three of the qualifications I was looking for: a formal background in chemistry and biology, enthusiasm and a guileless curiosity about wine,” Eric fondly says. What makes Brown unique is his understanding of both the growing cycles in the vineyard as well as his applied knowledge of chemistry in the cellar. His background from Rutgers taught him the value of growing things. And like all winemakers, Brown believes that all great wine is made in the vineyard. His studies in chemistry taught him how to make and preserve the resulting wine and therefore celebrate the ontogeny of what happens right there on the vine.

“My favorite part of winemaking believe it or not is working in the vineyard. This is where the wine is made. I finally understand the French philosophy of the vigneron, which means “winegrower,” says Brown. If he is not growing it, he is working very closely year round with the people who are. Walking the rows of vines, talking with the men and women who are touching the vines. But he likes working the land himself.

“I learned a lot from Eric,” says Brown. “He was my mentor.”

From the outset, Brown dedicated himself to whatever work his mentor gave him. Upon his arrival at Benmarl, “All of the equipment was old, out of date and, in some cases, hardly working,” recalls Miller. “The lab was minimal. The cellar had not been cleaned well for at least 15 years. First he cleaned and cleaned and cleaned the cellar. But no complaints! He got it! I showed him how to spray, open the canopy, monitor ripeness, order supplies and prep the cellar. In fact, I was a little worried that he was not attacking me with romantic questions about actually dealing with the grapes, juice and wine. But he pounced on me the first day of crush and required a complete explanation of what I needed him to do at every step from then on. Benmarl won an award for Brown’s first vintage.”

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“In the wine industry we kinda make the yeast
and throw it at the wine, and say, ‘Bam!
Now go to work!’ And then we throw it out.
Beer guys re-cultivate. They create a house yeast.
It’s fascinating.”

To be sure, Brown is quick to credit Miller’s early influence on him. “Eric’s methods impressed me. I still use many of the things he taught me today. But I’ve added a few things of my own as well,” Brown smiles.

Accomplished Valley winemaker Steve Casscles, who also trained under Miller and who is now at Hudson-Chatham, remembers Brown working for Miller and living in a small apartment at the winery.

While at Benmarl, Brown put more and more time in learning and honing his craft as assistant winemaker and producing a lineup of very palatable wines.

Brown saw a lot of changes at Benmarl, the biggest one being the sale from the Miller family to the Spacarelli family. That’s when he was named head winemaker. Brown also started taking more chemistry courses at SUNY Ulster, where he ultimately received his degree, , where h, to boost his knowledge. Brown worked hard at Benmarl and gained a reputation quickly as a young and up-andcoming winemaker, scoring a chest full of medals. Taking what he had learned from Miller, Brown raised the quality of the entire wine list at Benmarl, working alongside Matthew Spaccarelli, now GM at Benmarl. These two bearded young men in their Birkenstocks looked like escapees from Woodstock. Both attended concerts and parties and went fishing and camping. They were having fun and making great wine. In fact, it was at this point that Brown gained a serious reputation for cultivating cabernet franc and baco noir.

But by 2010, Brown was looking to do something else. He had been making notable wines at Benmarl for five-and-a-half years. In February of that year Brown looked west and headed to Washington State with his wife and two children. He took a job at the prestigious Long Shadows Winery in Walla Walla. This was an excellent experience for Brown, coming from the relatively small Benmarl. Long Shadows is a big facility, that houses numerous independent wineries that function under one roof. Brown oversaw crushes, worked in the lab, and made wines with a host of celebrity winemakers, including Michel Rolland, Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, John Duval and many others.

“I learned a great deal out there. But I also saw that we were doing many of the same things in the Valley as they were at this giant, multimillion dollar winery. It was big business. But many of the practices were the same.” Eventually the Brown family grew homesick for the Hudson Valley, and they returned in early 2011.

However, there was no longer a job at Benmarl, and friend and colleague Matthew Spaccarelli took to the proverbial grapevine to spread the word that Brown was back in town. By March 2011 Brown began working part time at Robibero Winery, then a young, emerging winery. Then he started helping Doug and Mary Ellen Glorie at Glorie Farm Winery. And then Brown’s journeyman approach to winemaking took off from there.

Brown presently works with the young duo of Ryan Selby and Tiffany Robibero at Robibero. He helped make the first estate wines they made from their 2013 vintage. “Kristop is not only our winemaker but a part of our family,” Tiffany and Ryan say. “He is a paramount part of our success. He taught us how to grow grapes and make wine, as well as received numerous accolades for our wines.” Brown and Selby are the core winemaking team at Robibero, and the two often joke and refer to themselves as the Walter White and Jesse Pinkman of winemaking, referring to the meth-cooking duo in the television series Breaking Bad. The two young men, the brawny Selby in his Oakleys and the shaggy Brown in his aviators, planted Robibero’s new vineyard, and have worked together training it, cropping it and making wine from it. The atmosphere is lighthearted and playful but always efficient and professional.

Phyllis Feder, owner of Clinton Vineyards, where Brown started making wine in 2013, is equally effusive, saying, “He is a very special person—talented, sincere and a real gentleman. I regard it as a privilege to have him in my winemaking orbit.” Feder continues to gush emphatically, “I am always delighted to see him here. He’s young and has a great future (actually his past is terrific!), attractive and there is a quality of old-world gentility about him. He has impeccable manners and is oh so charming and professional. I strongly believe that, with the level of winemaking talent he has, the quality and then acceptance of wines from the Hudson Valley will gain greater heights.”

Brown is committed and extremely hands on, and has wrought beautiful results with Glorie’s estate cabernet franc, making it one of the best in the Hudson Valley. “At Glorie Farm Winery we grow 13 different varieties of grapes. Nearly all of these are used to produce our estate wines. It takes considerable skill to deal with this diverse array of grapes. Kristop enthusiastically accepts the challenge and produces clean, authentic, customer-friendly wine products year after year,” says Doug Glorie.

STRANGE BREW

The most interesting offer Brown received was when an old friend called with an idea. James Walsh, who with his wife, Michelle, owns the popular and well-established Mudd Puddle coffeehouse and café in New Paltz, reached out and proposed starting a small craft brewery.

They released their first beer—Farm House Ale—in March 2013. Brown is presently head brewer at the little micro-batch brewery with the growing reputation. He loves the freedom. He can make whatever he wants and loves the new tools (yeasts, wort, hops) he gets to work with. A soon-to-be Kickstarter initiative is underway to help finance the next level of growth for the burgeoning business.

Brown finds the beer world invigorating. “In the wine industry we kinda make the yeast and throw it at the wine and say, ‘Bam! Now go to work!’ And then we throw it out. Beer guys re-cultivate. They create a house yeast. It’s fascinating,” says Brown. In brewing, the effects of the interaction of yeast and wort range widely. There are top-fermenting yeasts. Bottom-fermenting yeasts. Some finish cloudy, some finish clear. Some make beer sour, or sweet or malty.

There is much more variation. But the wine side has kicked in, too. “I recently used Champagne yeast to make a Belgian-styled, bottleconditioned beer. We left the yeast right in the bottle,” says Brown, who substituted the wine yeast for a more traditional Belgian yeast. There exists a myriad of other similarities between the two local libations. “Wine is a lot like beer. I like Belgian beers. Saison yeast is like red wine yeast. I’m attracted to that. Saison is my favorite to make. It’s fun. It’s intense. In beer there’s more tools to work with. There’s more ways to influence complexity, too.” Brown says they plan to use wine barrels in the future. Winemakers, Brown admits, seem a little bit old-fashioned. They see yeast in a very traditionalist way. Winemakers tend to use yeast in the same way as they have for years. Where in craft beer, the trend right now is toward experimentation and the breaking of boundaries.”

“I’m kind of disappointed in mainstream wine. It seems to have gone down the drain. It seems to me it’s drinking sweeter than ever,” he says of inexpensive wines that have flooded the market. But he notes that he’s seeing a lot of good-quality dry wine in the Hudson Valley to be hopeful about. “It’s immensely different. There are many more wineries doing it right than when I was just starting. They have busy tasting rooms and they are in stores and they are in restaurants. They are getting it done!” Brown notes that best practices that other wine industries use are more prevalent than they were in the valley five or even six years ago.

Asked about where he sees the region going, Brown remarks, “I think cabernet franc has a real future in the region. I didn’t at first. I made it, but I was resistant. Now, people come in asking for it. I like Vidal [a hybrid white grape of the vinifera variety] and Cayuga, from the Finger Lake Region,” he says somewhat sheepishly. “They make a great blend,” he says with a smile, referring to Robibero’s 87 North white table wine. “It’s very good to drink.” And of course, he still has a sweet spot for baco noir. “It’s amazing here. I’d like to see more of it.” He refers to the Hudson Valley grape-growing station, where he points to the success of syrah in those experimental vineyards, although he acknowledges that those plantings would need to be as near the river as possible. “And I really like pinot gris. We could grow it here. Why not?”

But it all comes back to the yeast. Whether he’s working the vines, or sticking his face into a steaming cauldron of boiling mash, he is considering what yeast, what little army he will call upon to create yet another fermented masterpiece.

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