Napa Winery Project Finally Opens

Thomas Rivers Brown will be making wine while 200 guests sleep next door.
© Elusa | Thomas Rivers Brown will be making wine while 200 guests sleep next door.
It's been a long time coming for Thomas Rivers Brown's latest venture, but the Calistoga winery is up and running.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 10-Sep-2021

An interesting new high-end winery is opening in Calistoga in northern Napa Valley: it's a full working winery with a highly respected winemaker on the same grounds as a brand-new luxury hotel.

The Four Seasons hotel isn't open yet but the winery, called Elusa, is. Not only that, the winery has already made vintages of wine going back to 2012, when the project was first proposed.

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The winemaker is Thomas Rivers Brown, a very popular man every year with buyers of the most expensive Napa Valley wines at Premiere Napa Valley. Brown gives instant credibility to any winery project.

"It's a full working winery with 18 fermenters. There's a barrel hall," Brown told Wine-Searcher. "So many of these things have a cheesy quality to them. But this will be the real thing. If you're a guest there you'll be welcome to walk down on the crushpad and check it out. You've got 200 bedded guests on property every day. Most wineries would kill for this."

For Napa Cab lovers, to learn that Brown has quietly worked on this project for nine years and already has library wines to sell is big news.

"We started in 2012, and since 2014 we've been purchasing fruit from the best vineyards of Calistoga," Brown told Wine-Searcher. "Wineries need a story. We don't want to just have wines from all over, Pinots from the Sonoma Coast or Willamette Valley or whatever. We're super excited to explore the Calistoga AVA which is still a little underserved. The focus is going to be on Calistoga. What does Calistoga do best? There's a lot of old vines of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah and Charbono here."

Don't fret, Elusa is going to make plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon. Elusa has an estate vineyard, and beyond that, Brown has lined up vineyard sources in different parts of the appellation. For hillside fruit he's looking at nearby Diamond Mountain.

But he's also fascinated by vineyards like Vince Tofanelli's, from which he's getting some dry-farmed, head-pruned Sauvignon Blanc.

"I've known Vince since I moved to Napa Valley," said Brown who came to the valley in 1996 from his native South Carolina. "He has a block planted in the '30s and a block planted in the '50s. He would rather be run over by a truck than pull that Zinfandel out. They're an old school Italian family and they're not going to plant all Cabernet and they're not going to irrigate."

A light touch

That style fits with Brown's winemaking style, which is so minimalist that he says it worries some clients. It hasn't narrowed his list though: Brown currently makes or consults on wine for 40 different wineries, including Schrader Cellars, Round Pond Estate, Pulido-Walker and Revana. He also has his own Calistoga winery, Rivers-Marie, with his wife Genevieve Marie Welsh.

"Sometimes this confuses clients," Brown said. "We tell them the story about how we make the wine and it's the most boring short story you can imagine. They wonder what they're paying us for."

And it's not a small amount of pay. In 2018, Wine Spectator reported that he makes $700,000 a year from Schrader alone; a newer client started at $20,000 per year but rose to $150,000 as the wines came in and started getting attention.

"It's as little intervention as possible in the cellar and maximum effort in the vineyard," Brown said. "I think you get more of a site signature if you keep your hands off the wine. We just don't do anything we don't have to do. That's a little shocking to people."

Brown's winemaking philosophy is generally to let the site speak, but he is careful to manage tannins in the vineyards because he likes to make wines that are pleasurable on release. He also likes wines that are "intellectually interesting", both to make and to drink. While he is best-known for Cabernet, at home he likes to drink Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Grenache and white wines, and he prefers wines with moderate alcohol.

"I'm not a one-glass a night kind of guy. I'm more of a one-bottle a night kind of guy," Brown said.

He has high standards for his finished products, which is why he dumped the entire 2020 vintage of his own Rivers-Marie wine.

"We brought a lot of fruit in and we evaluated it and we determined that it was smoke-tainted and we got rid of it all," Brown said. "If it's smoky, it's flawed and you can't bottle it. With Rivers-Marie, we probably lost $5 million in revenue by throwing out all that fruit, but it was important for the reputation of the brand. But I think we'd see half the valley go out of business if we lost two consecutive vintages like that."

Visitors to the new Elusa Winery, or the Four Seasons and its restaurant and bar, might have a good chance of seeing Brown, even at harvest season.

"I think I'll be there a lot. The resort is only about two miles from my house," Brown said. "I'm happy to trade a residency for gym and pool access. I told them I want a permanent seat at the bar. I am so happy this place is open. Calistoga is in dire need of another high-end restaurant. I just think the general overall niceness of the whole experience is great for Calistoga."

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