GOOD MORNING PRAGOBOTS! We hope you’re enjoying your weekend.
We conclude our series on African American Winemakers with…
THE BROWN FAMILY
Brown Estate Vineyards
Napa Valley, California
Brown Estate Vineyards, believed to be the first and only Black-owned estate winery in California’s Napa Valley (USA), is best known as one of that region’s most well-regarded zinfandel producers. In addition to zinfandel, Brown Estate produces cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and petite sirah.
Founded in 1995 by siblings Deneen, David & Coral Brown, Brown Estate produced its first Napa Valley zinfandel in 1996 after the family had been farming grapes – and selling them to established winemakers (including Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills Estate) – for more than ten years.
In 1980, parents Bassett Brown (originally from Jamaica) and Marcela Abrahams Brown (originally from Panama) acquired 450 acres (1.8 km2) in the Chiles Valley AVA of the Napa Valley after being informed by local family friends that the property was for sale. Abandoned for some ten years prior, the land and its two structures – an 1859 stone and redwood barn and an 1885 Queen Anne Victorian home – were derelict. The senior Browns cut roads and brought in plumbing and electricity, ultimately earning an award from the Napa County Historical Society for their restoration of the residence structure. In 1985 they planted their first vineyard on the property, approximately nine acres of zinfandel. The Chiles Valley microclimate, characterized by extreme temperature shifts throughout the course of each day, proved perfectly suited to cultivating zinfandel grapes, and the Brown family’s fruit soon gained tremendous popularity among zinfandel producers such as Green & Red and T-Vine Cellars, both of whom purchased Brown Estate fruit for many years. As well, the Browns sold cabernet sauvignon to the famed Mike Grgich. It was through a series of apprenticeships with winemakers who were working with his fruit that David Brown – who by then had been farming his family’s vineyards for five years – began learning the art and science of winemaking.
In the mid-1990s, as a result of rising demand for their fruit, Deneen and David, then both residing on the vineyard property, made the decision to produce wine under their own label. Because they had no winery facility on site, they secured a custom crush contract with Rombauer Vineyards in Saint Helena, and for six years they produced their wines at the Rombauer facility. On January 29, 2000, Brown Estate debuted their first two vintages of Napa Valley zinfandel, 1996 and 1997, at the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco. ZAP is the largest single varietal wine tasting event in the world, and the Brown offerings were very well received by the trade and public alike, thereby establishing Brown Estate as a winery to watch in the arena of Napa Valley zinfandel. Simultaneously, in the January 31, 2000 issue of the Wine Spectator, the 1997 Brown Estate zinfandel received a score of 91 points.
Then, in June 2000, tragedy struck when a fire broke out at the warehouse facility where Brown’s wine library and recently bottled 1998 vintage were stored. With the exception of sixteen bottles – two that went to Robert M. Parker, Jr. for review, two that went to Christie’s for auction, and twelve that the Browns had stored at home – all of their 1998 zinfandel was destroyed, as were the remaining cases of their first two vintages. The lost 1998 vintage left the Browns out of the zinfandel market for one whole year, a devastating setback that was mitigated only by the kindness of restaurant and retail accounts who held space on their wine lists and shelves for the next vintage of Brown zin. In order to bridge that gap, the Browns accelerated the release of their 1999 Napa Valley zinfandel, which they showed at ZAP in 2001. The previous month, in December 2000, Parker, the most influential wine critic in the world, gave the Brown 1998 zinfandel a score of 90, noting that his review was “of academic interest only” since all of the wine had perished in the fire. The loss of the 1998 vintage has kept Brown Estate’s Napa Valley zinfandel bottlings on a perennially early release schedule.
Winery and cave construction
Meanwhile, the Browns and their small production of a few thousand cases slowly were being squeezed out of the Rombauer facility. In order to continue their now quite promising winemaking endeavor, they were compelled to establish a winery facility on their own property. The location of the old stone and redwood barn, still in its derelict state – doorless, windowless, and with a dirt floor – all but demanded development of an adjacent subterranean wine cave. Winery construction began in Summer of 2002 and by September of that year, the old barn had a new lease on life as Brown Estate’s on-site wine production facility. Brown then became a full-fledged estate winery. Soon production began increasing, and eventually the barrel room in the lower level of the barn was filled to capacity, transforming the wine cave from notion to necessity. Excavation commenced in April 2004, and because the host hillside was solid granite, drilling alone was inadequate. For one solid year, muffled explosions rocked the Brown Estate property as one of the most unique wine caves in the Napa Valley literally was designed by dynamite.
In Fall 2010, the Brown family celebrated their 30th year in the Napa Valley, and Brown Estate’s 15th crush. The family posted the following message on their Website to commemorate these occasions:
- “This year we celebrate our thirtieth year in the Napa Valley, and Brown Estate’s fifteenth crush. We thank all of you, with all of our hearts, for your continued enjoyment of our wines and your truly stupendous support of our once little endeavor. Each time you open and share a bottle of Brown Estate, you wrap your arms around us. It is an embrace that we cherish, a gesture that gives meaning to all of the passion and commitment we put into what we do. Thank you for making us a part of your lives, and for being a part of ours. Now onward & upward! The sky’s the limit!”
In November 2010, the Browns released the world’s first hashtagged wine, their 2009 Napa Valley Zinfandel. Subsequent vintages of this wine continue to bear the #brownzin hashtag, an homage to Twitter, which has been a source of inspiration and support as Brown Estate has built its reputation as a wine industry leader in the realm of social media.
*FUN FACT* Brown Estate’s 2006 Chardonnay Napa Valley was served at the President Obama’s Senior Staff holiday party on Dec. 21, 2009!
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We hope you’ve enjoyed our series on African American winemakers. To learn more, check out the Association of African American Vintners.
Also, check out the fabulous sistas at Divas Uncorked for great info on wines and starting your own wine club. Cheers!