Don’t let anyone tell you that the road to a good Zin isn’t paved with winding roads, held together by the calm of mountains and grassy hilltops. Stepping onto the grounds of Brown Estate, located in the most serene, quiet parts of Chiles Valley, a sense of family is immediate. The atmosphere, welcoming and gracious.
Black owned and longstanding thanks in small part to the production of it’s first vintage Zinfandel under their inaugural label in 1996, the legacy of the Brown Estate land, bought and refurbished back in 1980, was meant to be a working playground for the three children who grew up cultivating the fields, before burgeoning into a more plush source of livelihood years later. Resurrected by the Brown parents who’s initial intention began as a groundwork for discipline and humble dispositions, more so a family project than family business, siblings Coral Brown, Deneen Brown and David Brown have since earned their keep.
“We all slowly started becoming more attached to the property,” says David Brown, lead winegrower of the estate. “Not only were we coming of age and realizing that it was a special place by itself, but we also realized that it was a place where we could design and make our own destiny.”
The estate easily stands apart from the rest of the high-trafficked wineries that eclipse the vastness of Napa Valley. The historic land’s noticeable allure and charm is in it’s remarkable attention to detail, an initiative Coral Brown, the estate’s Director of Brand Management takes pride in. Meticulous and rooted in a constant flow of hospitality, an initial tour of the grounds is your first hint as to how the run of show is truly a family affair.
As a general rule, when it comes to wine estates, the experience should extend far beyond the labels of accented bottles. Arrive at a place, if you can, where the tensions of city living ease away as you linger on the people, the stories and wine pairings that hardly cease long after glass number five of someone’s favorite vintage. In other words, make your way to the hills for a “sense of place rather than palate.”
And make no mistake, heading up to the hills of Napa Valley is more than a happenstance sort of journey. You must love the art of harvesting wine, it’s history and the gutter need to cultivate a sacred space. If this sort of feeling wanes, or lost completely on someone who cares far less for wine, or the laborious task of resting barrel to barrel, you may still be saved. Chiles Valley is also where your mindset will indefinitely change course.
In our one-on-one, David Brown helps us break down family philosophies and explains the crux of how a family is able to carry on a legacy that is rich on land and principle.
Bevel Code: How long has the Brown Estate been in the winemaking business?
David: Our parents discovered the property in 1980—I was about 10 years old at the time—and, after many years of searching for a kind of country place to get away, they found this place and instantly fell in love. They started the restoration of the house so we would have a place to stay when we came up here. And the property was a good size property at the time; I think it was around 350 acres. We’ve added to it, so now the estate is around 500 acres, which is really great because when you have a big property, it’s liberating ‘cause you get to roam around and hike and explore and you don’t have to worry about trespassing (laughs).
But the first vineyard was planted in 1985 when my folks decided to plant Zinfandel. They did some research and talked to other farmers in the area. There’s a unique microclimate here and the Zinfandel does particularly well. So they planted the initial 10 acres, then five years after that, they planted an additional 40 acres, which was more Zinfandel, primary Zinfandel but a little bit of chardonnay and a little bit of Cab Sauv. They put in irrigation systems, water systems, power, ‘cause none of that was there, so they did a lot of infrastructure work. That laid the groundwork for the second generation. My parents sent me up here kind of as a punishment for not doing well in school, and they said, “Okay, well, we’re gonna put you to work.” And it took them about a year to realize that their punishment failed.
BC: Fill us in. What’s been your most memorable moment on the estate over the years?
David: Favorite memory, hmm…well, from the early days, one of my most vivid memories is my folks would wake us up at 4:00 in the morning in LA and get us all loaded into the car. They had to leave at 4:00 in the morning, and we would drive from Pasadena up here. They had this diesel Mercedes so they could make it without stopping with one tank (laughs).
BC: I love your parents. That’s pretty thoughtful of them…
David: But we would always be on the red light when we were getting low on diesel— It’s like we were just about out of diesel when we’d get here, so it was always nerve-wracking like, “Are we gonna make it? Are we gonna run out of diesel?” And so we’d come up here, the house wasn’t finished or furnished and it was cold. We’d come up here in the winter time The heat wasn’t installed or whatever, so we would all be sleeping in sleeping bags around the fireplace to try and stay warm. That’s one of my memories that I always remember, you know.
BC: Is there a family philosophy that you adapt in your approach to wine making? Has it changed over the years?
David: I think there’s a lot of what I would call my parent’s philosophy that’s kind of been instilled in us from an early age. The attention to detail, the work ethic. But also, my parents handed down to us this idea of being great stewards of the land and taking care of the land, not polluting the land and making sure that we preserve the forest and the wildlife. That was what they wanted to do and they explained their philosophy about that to us early on, so we all understood that we weren’t ever gonna use chemical herbicides on the property. And even to this day, we’re farming organically. That’s something that is definitely part of the philosophy and something that my parents really believed in before it was fashionable.
BC: What was the biggest change you’ve noticed in winemaking over the past 10 years?
David: Well, from when I started, I would say there’s been a real transformation. When I started farming, quality and quantity were synonymous. Most ranches here were selling their fruit to a larger winery and there weren’t that many wineries as there are now. There was this paradigm shift where farmers started producing wine. When I started, the growers and the winemakers were always at odds because the growers wanted to produce as much fruit as possible and the wineries and winemakers, all they cared about was the quality of the fruit, so it was like they were just at odds. But as more winegrowers started making wine and more wineries started farming more, the objectives became the same objective. Everybody, all they care about now is quality. We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in quality over the years because you don’t have that kind of conflict of interest; it’s been eliminated for the most part.
BC: What separates Brown Estate from most other wineries here, is the fact that you’re Black-owned. How can other wineries, particularly family-owned ones, begin to connect with outside communities and get them more involved in learning more about wine?
David: That’s a pretty difficult and complicated question. My belief is that the process of making wine kind of encompasses every aspect of your life, so when you’re engaged in this endeavor to produce the highest quality wine possible, it impacts every other aspect of your life. The process kind of sucks everything out of you. For me, I feel like if you’re a small family winery, if you make an amazing product and you can stand by that product and be proud of what you’re doing and not cut corners, then that’s the best thing you can do because the clientele, the people, the communities, are gonna find you and then they’ll be able to understand what you’re doing. I think if you spend too much time trying to reach out, then that detracts from the quality of the wine.
BC: So what’s in your glass at dinner most nights and why? I know you’re partial to the wine that you produce here, but what’s your favorite?
David: Well, you know… I like to try and branch out, but sometimes I go for something like Chaos Theory, just because it’s easy. You don’t need to think too much about it. So if I’m drinking a wine that we produce, Chaos Theory is something that I’ll just gravitate towards for every day—
BC: When you say it’s “easy,” what does that mean?
David: Well, it’s not too— You don’t have to have a lot of ceremony and circumstance. It’s just like, oh, grab a bottle and open it up and instant gratification (laughs).
BC: I understand. It gets to the point, basically.
David: Yeah. But again, I think that’s one of the things we try to do and sometimes we’re more successful than other times, is keep trying other wines from around the globe. That’s one of the things to keep your palette from getting too accustomed to what we know so well already.
BC: So two generations from now, what do you hope the Brown Estate to look like? What are your hopes for it to look like in like?
David: Well, you know, I have become very superstitious about making predictions, but (laughs)—
BC: Well, do you want it to live that far ahead, how far?
David: Absolutely. I would love for the winery to continue to do what we’ve been doing, and I probably wouldn’t feel that way except for the fact that there’s so many examples of family wineries around the world who have been able to keep those wine brands in the family for many, many generations. So it’s doable, but I think we’re still working on it.
BC: What do you feel has made the Brown Estate a better winery year after year?
David: As the winemaker, my philosophy is to treat every vintage like it’s my first. So I think one of the most difficult challenges is resisting the temptation to fall into a routine, because Mother Nature is not routine at all. It’s just natural to say, “Okay, well, we tried this technique and it worked out really well, so let’s do that again next year,” but oftentimes it’s not gonna work out. So I try to stay very open-minded.
Of course, there are some aspects of the business, especially on the farming side, where we do routine things every year as just part of cultural practice, but on the winemaking side I don’t take notes. I try to be totally creative about the process every year, and I think that that yields better results than just saying, “Okay, this is how we do it” and just robotically do that every year. We’re rethinking the entire process every year.
BC: Is it more of like an innate feeling when it comes to the process of making wine or is it an instance where you pull influences from other parts of the world or different wineries?
David: It’s a combination, for sure. I’ll definitely draw inspiration from other wines. I’ll taste something and I’ll say, “Wow, this is kind of changing my thinking,” and then, you know, it will have subliminal impact on how I make decisions, but I don’t like to take notes.
You know, if you make a wine that is amazing and everybody loves it, it’s really, really tempting to go and look back and see what you did to try and re-engineer that wine, so I try more than anything to not do that.
BC: That’s a good philosophy, too. So what is one aspect of the Brown Estate that you wish folks would know more about? A lot of these estates are in remote areas. I was explaining to folks in the city that you actually exist and they were completely shocked.
David: Well, I think the biggest misconception about Brown Estate has to do with the climate because there’s this widely-held misconception that it’s hotter here and that zinfandel does well in the heat, and that’s not true. You know, Chiles Valley as a whole and especially at Brown Estate is a cooler climate and the zinfandels express a unique sense of balance because of that cooler climate. I’ve heard it so many times— people’ll say, “Where are you guys located?” and we’ll say, “Chiles Valley” and they’ll say, “Oh, it’s hot out there!” (Laughs) No. But you wouldn’t know that unless you lived here.
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