photoIn Day 2 of the Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge we will ferret out the best of the best, the sweepstakes winners, a selection from an initial pool of 1000-plus wines submitted to the contest.

A perk for those of us judging was dinner last night at the Kosta Browne Winery at The Barlow in Sebastopol.

Who says dinner in a warehouse can’t be classy? The cellar, done up in lights, makes a great backdrop for an elegant evening.

The winery is typically open by appointment only so few of us have had the opportunity to take a peek at the lush interior, a warehouse gone chic.

Best of all was hearing vintner Michael Browne tell of his story – how he became a pinot fanatic. Interestingly many of the long-time locals had never heard the story.

Browne told us that when he was 18, back in 1987, he began working at Equus Restaurant in Santa Rosa and sommelier Larry Van Aalst was his mentor.

“Larry taught me what to look for in wine from the perspective of a sommelier,” Browne said. “He said focus on pinots because the right pinots are the best in all the world.”

Then it happened, that moment in time that changed everything. In the event now called the Wine Road Barrel Tasting, Browne tasted a William Selyem, Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir.

“It blew me away,” Browne said. “I thought now I know what Larry is talking about and it seared in my brain, like a branding iron, what great pinot noir can be. Since then I’ve been on a quest to capture it.”

Meanwhile others have been on a quest to get a taste of the magic he and Dan Kosta continue to bottle. There are now about 17,000 on the waiting list to get a bottle.

“I know never to relent,” Browne said. “What I’ve learned is you’ll never get there but the journey is friggin’ fun.”