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The Brilliants’ roshambo

The Brilliants’ roshambo – roshambo winery

Jennifer Rofe

Last month, Wines & Vines visited roshambo winery for a tasting room article. We were so intrigued by this new winery that we decided to pay them a proper visit.

In 1970, Frank Johnson purchased 55 acres of apples and plums in Healdsburg, Calif. But apples and plums take considerable maintenance, so Johnson replanted to grapes and established Frank Johnson Vineyards. He soon earned himself a reputation as an “amiable and fair” grower, and wines made from his grapes began winning awards for Sonoma County wineries. In 1993, Johnson died, leaving his family with his vineyards.

Enter his granddaughter, Naomi Brilliant, who grew up with wine in her family but “thought nothing of grapes or wine” until her grandfather died. “It was a family crossroads,” Naomi says of Johnson’s death. “We thought that we could continue to sell grapes to other wineries, or we could do something else. It was the something else that was exciting.”

So Naomi, a studio art major who was essentially clueless as to what goes into establishing and running a winery, decided to build one with her husband, Tod Brilliant, a religious studies major who had “purchased wine twice in his life.” In 1998, while living in Portland, the couple began their preliminary work, relying on trade magazines and university extension courses to learn the business. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Naomi says.

Flash back to the late 1960s. Tom Johnson, who is Frank’s son and Naomi’s father, was in rural Japan conducting Ph.D. research on children’s culture and games. During his studies, Johnson encountered a young boy named Kazuo Wachi, who introduced Tom to his older sister, Kimie. Johnson married Kimie, and within a few years, they were living in Tokyo with their children, Naomi and Morgan. The siblings used “Jan Ken Pon” (rock paper scissors, known as roshambo), a game widely used in Japan for decision making, to settle arguments.

Flash forward to 1999. The Brilliants have relocated to Healdsburg to work on their winery, and Naomi, faced with the challenge of naming it, decides upon “roshambo”–a name that pays tribute to her Japanese heritage and her father’s academic expertise.

Roshambo winery opened its doors this past March, but it released its first wine, a Sauvignon blanc, in 2000 and a 1999 Chardonnay in 2001. On Aug. 1, 2002, the winery released its first Zinfandel, and in February 2003, roshambo will release its 2001, no-oak Chardonnay.

It’s a fun history for this unconventional winery, and it’s an impressive accomplishment for a young couple (we’re talking somewhere between 28 and 35, although they give no specifics) who didn’t know much about the industry.

But what is most intriguing about roshambo is that the Brilliants are doing naturally what others pay big bucks to achieve and what industry insiders claim is necessary for future growth–they’re appealing to younger consumers by making wine more approachable.

“I would have wine parties in college, and everyone would bring beer!” Naomi says. “My friends weren’t drinking wine–it was a turnoff. So I wanted to make wine more exciting, and it became a challenge. But it’s harder than expected.”

Tod, however, is quick to clarify that the couple is not out to alienate anyone by targeting a young crowd specifically: “We’re shooting for people who don’t appreciate wine, but we want to go beyond that. We want to make sure that the crowd that already drinks wine will enjoy (roshambo), too.”

This approach essentially reflects the Brilliants’ perception of the wine industry, one that they feel isn’t very popular: “We see the industry as very, very tiny and not as aggressive as it should be,” Tod explains. “They keep preaching to the choir. Our vision is to broaden the wine market. It’s a great industry, and it should be more a part of American culture and less of an elite culture.”

Because of who the Brilliants are, they take a different approach to the wine business–one that reflects their personal style.

Just entering the winery, one can sense that the roshambo experience will be atypical of wine country. The Brilliants have created an atmosphere that is intrinsically hip and aesthetically adventuresome–from the modern architecture with high, wood-paneled ceilings and wall-sized windows, to the sparse decor and lack of overwhelming, tourist-trapping retail displays, to the art gallery attached to the tasting room that features captivating and puzzling exhibits.

Admittedly, I was initially intimidated by roshambo’s aura of cool, but the longer I stayed, the more I realized that the atmosphere is less dauntingly hip than relaxed, playful and fun. I envision at roshambo fantastic gatherings of friends listening to live music, exploring art, drinking wine and chillin’ on the patio with the stunning panorama of vineyards as a backdrop.

“Our biggest disadvantage is that people perceive our youthfulness as inexperience,” Tod says.

On the contrary, their youthfulness, originality and bold approach make this winery a must-experience, especially for those intimidated by, curious about or just beginning to explore wine.

“We didn’t really have a template, because none of the other wineries were what we wanted,” Tod says of roshambo’s development. “We take most of our inspiration from outside of the wine industry. That’s where we’re from.

“Our philosophy is always evolving,” Tod continues. “We would rather fail doing things our way than succeed doing things in a boring way. We are very comfortable with this notion.”

The Art In Wine

Essential to the Brilliants’ existence is art and their gallery. “It keeps me sane to talk to other artists and look at stuff,” Naomi says. “If it was just wine, I would kill myself.”

“The gallery is a big part of us,” Tod says, adding that the winery features the artwork of emerging artists with displays changing every two months, and the Brilliants charge no commission on sales. “We want to elicit strong reactions,” Tod says of the art exhibits.

Clearly. Near the tasting room entrance, a display case exhibits orthodonture designed by Frank Johnson, who was also a machinist. Though it may not sound very harrowing, the display can conjure agonizing flashbacks of teenage days spent in a neck-gear harness.

In the winery’s offices, Naomi’s photography lines the walls. What seem like artistic photographs of food reveal upon second glance angel fish garnishing tomato soup, lady bugs dotting vanilla ice cream like sprinkles and a sandwich featuring a rodent as lunchmeat.

The art displayed in the gallery when I first visited roshambo was eccentric, fleshy and somewhat stomach turning. One large wall piece resembled a huge zit, others looked like fibroblasts, or other cell-like formations, and jars containing fake fetal specimens floating in formaldehyde lined a shelf. It sounds gruesome (Naomi says that one patron called it “pornographic”), but I was intrigued and provoked, and I liked roshambo all the more for challenging me. This time, however, the art was more tame–high-tech, individual homeless shelters made from cardboard and Plexiglas. Not a bad idea, I thought.

Production

Roshambo is a small winery, equipped to produce 30,000 cases and currently producing around 18,000, but it features a state-of-the-art gravity flow winemaking facility with its own bottling line and barrel cellars that are partially underground. Not only are all roshambo wines produced on site, but the winery also does some custom crushing. Naomi credits roshambo winemaker Paul Brasset for significantly aiding in roshambo’s evolution. A family friend who Naomi calls “nice, perfect and humble,” Brasset’s credentials include Pezzi King, Clos du Bois and Kenwood, along with more than 20 years of experience working with fruit from Frank Johnson Vineyards.

Roshambo’s main varietals are Zinfandel and Syrah, which they purchase from other vineyards, and Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay, which they source from Frank Johnson Vineyards. However, the winery does house 20 acres of vineyards planted to Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, which are sold to other wineries, and Merlot. Roshambo wines range in price from $14 to $18, but the Brilliants say they would like to produce wines in the $10 to $12 category as well. The wines are available in restaurants and small wine shops, and their national distribution comprises roughly 15 states, including New York and California. Internationally, roshambo wines are currently available in Canada, and the Brilliants are hoping for Japan.

What The Future Holds For Roshambo

“We’re going to go forward with what we’re doing, make great wine and get established,” Tod says of their future plans. “We have top secret things planned for alternate methods of getting our product out there, like nontraditional advertising.” And nontraditional events, such as the international rock, paper, scissors championship, which is currently in development.

“We want to make great wine without selling our souls,” Tod explains. “It’s really hard to do. Our biggest battle every day is maintaining perspective.”

The Brilliants’ biggest plan is to “improve the quality of our wine, increase production and branch out to consumers,” Tod says. “We have top secret rollouts–call it Phase II; we have a Phase III, as well–that have to do with highly secretive industry-shaking events.

Their first rollout: a baby boy, Justice Brilliant, is expected in October.

Roshambo winery can be contacted at 3000 Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA. 95448, phone (707) 431-2051, fax (707) 433-5745 or visit the Web site winery.cc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group