For Tulip Hill Winery president Kristi Brown, one day per year is usually better than every other—and it’s not even a holiday.
It’s the day when winery staff, family, friends and wine consultants meet to blend Tulip Hill’s wine.
“A fun day is a blending day,” Kristi Brown says. “You sniff them all, taste them, look at their color. One might have a great bouquet, another nice color, another fruit or acid or finish or tannin.”
Ten to 15 people sit around the table, tasting. Each blend may take four or five—or maybe 10 attempts. Each time, the mix shifts incrementally. They’ll try 3 percent petite sirah, instead of 2, Brown explains, or 11 percent merlot instead of 9.
She thinks back to earlier days, when the blending partiers would watch winery founder Robert Henderson “Budge” Brown Sr., Kristi’s father. They’d know when a mix of varietals hit the mark.
“He’d get this glimmer in his eyes,” says Kristi Brown, “and we’d know: That’s the one.”
Budge Brown, perhaps best known as the founder of Manteca Waterslides water park and the inventor of the fiberglass waterslide tube, died when his plane crashed in May 2011 in the Eldorado National Forest in Amador County.
“My dad influenced and affected a lot of people,” Kristi Brown tells me. “So many people from so many phases of his life.”
The Tulip Hill tasting room has been open in The River in Rancho Mirage since 2002. Kristi Brown considers the Coachella Valley an ideal location to feature her father’s wine—which is made from grapes grown outside of Tracy, a six-hour drive north. She and her partner, Sara Hammond, the winery’s marketing specialist and wine-club coordinator, moved to the area from Orange County.
“When we first started checking the desert out, 11 years ago,” Kristi Brown says, “you had this valley full of amazing restaurants with incredible wine lists. Obviously, there’s a consumer here who loves that lifestyle. But nothing was going on in terms of wine.”
At that time, the Coachella Valley boasted a couple of wine shops and grocery stores with wide selections—and that was it. Eventually, larger bottle shops opened, a couple with wine bars cordoned off from the rest of the shopping area.
But 11 years ago, the Tulip Hill tasting room became the sole winery tasting room in the Palm Springs area. It still is.
“We really are the only one,” Kristi Brown says.
The weather—not counting sizzling-hot summer months—is what drew Brown to the area. She soon fell in love with the desert and the people. Many Palm Springs-area residents are transplants, she’s noticed, from all around the United States, Canada—the world.
“People are here because they want to be here,” she says. “And everyone seems relatively happy.”
Jimmy Boegle and I are the only people in the winery around noon on a Saturday (although it soon starts getting busier). We start by tasting whites, as we light-heartedly joke about shopping for excellent “breakfast wines.” Sales associate Jean Pond (pictured) doesn’t miss a beat, pouring us a crisp 2009 sauvignon blanc.
“This would go well with fruit and lighter cheeses,” she suggests, pairing morning foods on the fly. “But I’d have to have truffle scrambled eggs.”
The wine is crisp, fruit-forward—a perfect day-starter. With sangria in mind, Boegle buys a bottle, and also picks up a case of the 2010 Trace sauvignon blanc, a sister-label steal, for $49.99. Tulip Hill bottles wine under three labels that include its value brand Trace, and its distribution label Tulip Hill Cellar Select.
Pond has been pouring wine at the Tulip Hill tasting room for six years. She raves about the Mount Oso vineyards near Tracy. Grapes are grown at low elevations, from zero to 500 feet above sea level. The vineyards receive only about 8 or 9 inches of rainfall each year.
Vineyard manager Jeff Brown irrigates using water from more than 100 feet below the ground, “stressing (the vines) to create small tight berries with amazing flavor,” as the winery’s website notes.
Boegle and I work our way through a half-dozen distinctive wines, including the complex 2008 Tracy Hills Mirage ($22), a merlot-syrah blend that combines flavors of fruit, earth and spice.
Many of Tulip Hill’s most-intriguing wines are creatively named blends like Sangiovignon, a cab-sangiovese blend ($25); Nerovignon, a blend of cab with the Italian varietal Nero d’Avola ($28); and a tasty-licious Cabepulciano ($32)—45 percent montepulciano and 55 percent cabernet sauvignon.
I buy the latter bottle, receiving a Wine Club discount that knocks a few dollars off the price. Being a Tulip Mania Wine Club member means invitations to wine-release parties, pairing events and winemakers’ dinners, as well as complimentary tastings at the Rancho Mirage tasting room.
About 600 locals are in Tulip Hill’s wine club, Pond says, which now totals about 1,200 members. Tulip Hill ships its wine to members across the nation.
“If you live in Minnesota and you want California wine, well, you can’t buy our wines anywhere else,” Pond says.
The Browns started growing grapes in the 1980s. For years, their grapes were sold to other California wineries. Budge and his wife, Arlene, shared a dream of making their own wine, though—and in 2001, the Browns decided it was time.
Tulip Hill was born.
“My dad was one of these really great guys, a visionary, an entrepreneur and an inventor,” Kristi Brown says. “He was always going 100 miles per hour.”
Budge Brown loved wine—and he was generous with it. When Kristi Brown would drive home to Manteca during her years at the University of California at Santa Barbara, her father would take her downstairs into his wine room.
“It was nothing glamorous,” she says. “Don’t conjure up the wine cellars of today.”
Her father would start pulling out bottles, assembling a case for her to take back to college.
She’d return to Santa Barbara with some mighty fine wine. “I’d go back to my college buddies,” she recalls, “and while most people were drinking Boone’s Farm or whatever, we were drinking some quality California reds—Silver Oak and Groth and all these great wines.”
Kristi Brown has fond memories of drinking wine with her father in Napa, under a big oak tree in the rolling Pope Valley. “He obviously enjoyed drinking the fruit of his labor,” she says.
After his wife died of breast cancer, Budge Brown established the Cleavage Creek Winery in Napa, donating a percentage of its profits to the Bastyr Integrative Oncology Research Clinic.
Family friend Ronn Wiegand, a master sommelier and wine consultant, calls Cleavage Creek a testament to Brown’s character. The Cleavage Creek labels featured photos of breast-cancer survivors.
“How audacious was that?” Wiegand says.
Ten percent of the gross sales from every bottle went to the Bastyr University clinic, which Budge Brown had visited and approved.
“This was vintage Budge,” Wiegand says. “He wanted those donations to have an impact on finding a cure for breast cancer—and as quick a one as possible.”
Wiegand met Budge Brown at an evening wine-appreciation class that Wiegand was teaching at Napa Valley College. Brown asked Wiegand to taste Tulip Hill’s syrah, a wine that went on to win several wine competitions.
“I was enthusiastic, very impressed by the wine,” Wiegand says. “Over the years, we became friends. I enjoyed his enthusiasm for the wine industry and his think-outside-the-box mentality.”
After Budge Brown’s death, the family sold the Cleavage Creek Winery. The family retains the Tulip Hill brand, the Mount Oso vineyards outside of Tracy and the Rancho Mirage tasting room. Budge’s son Jeff grows grapes. Kristi runs the business.
Wiegand participates once or twice a year as a consultant and says he’s enjoyed many blending events with the Brown family and friends.
Kristi Brown credits Wiegand with having an uncanny palate. Though she was an English major in college, she’s learned plenty about wine from working with experts like Wiegand.
“Over the years, you begin to train your own palate and learn those pearls of wisdom he passes along,” she says.
What does the future hold for Tulip Hill?
“After 11 years at The River, we’re pretty content where we’re at,” Kristi Brown says. “We have a nice loyal following in the desert.”
Tulip Hill Winery’s tasting room is located at 71800 Highway 111, No. A125 (at The River), in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call 760-568-5678, or visit tuliphillwinery.com.