Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Trip to Brown Estate in Chiles Valley: Napa's Only Black Owned Winery (Now Officially Organically Farmed) Features Historic Buildings and Fine Zinfandels

Last week I took a trip to visit two Napa wineries that recently certified their vineyards as organic, under CCOF certification. One was Sinegal Estate in St. Helena and the other was Brown Estate up in a rural area above Napa's valley - Chiles Valley.

Brown Estate is unique in many ways. The most notable, for most people, is that it is the only winery in Napa owned and run by a black family. While that's of interest, I found the historic aspect of the property also quite compelling - and of course, there's the wines, numero uno, which are, as Eric Asimov of the New York Times put it, "elegant, balanced and pure."

The Brown family got its start here when Bassett Brown, a black doctor from Pasadena and a native of Jamaica,  and his wife Marcela Abrahams Brown (originally from Panama) purchased the property as a family farm and rural getaway for the family in 1980.

"It was so run down then," said Coral Brown, one of the three offspring of Bassett and Marcela, as she gave me a private tour of the grounds and family residence. "Would you believe there were 250,000 bats in this house when we first bought the place?"

Coral and her two siblings now run the winery.

The 1885 Queen Anne Victorian residence; a Romanian stone worker
later added the elaborate chimneys

The family lovingly restored the 1885 Queen Anne Victorian house when she herself was in school at Cal in Berkeley. Since I live in an historic 1927 house in Oakland (and have done a lot to restore it, too), we knew all the same sources - Omega Salvage, and other spots - to get vintage hardware and trim.

In 1985, the Browns planted their first Zinfandel vineyard - nine acres. Today they have 50 acres, all farmed and now certified organic (as of 2016) with the help of vineyard consultant Molly Soper. "We never used anything harmful here, ever," said Brown, "because we live here."

In the era when they were growers, they sold grapes to neighboring wineries (including Nichelini and Red and Green), as well as Cabernet to Grgich Hills (which no longer buys outside fruit, as it is 100% estate).

The stone foundations of the barn date back to 1859
In the mid 1990's the second generation of Browns decided to begin making their own wine from the property, producing a few thousand cases at a custom crush facility, before restoring the historic 1859 barn and making it into a winery in 2002.

"We were able to preserve the original wood on two faces of the building," Brown told me.

A few years, they added wine caves, famously dynamiting out the underground spaces (after drilling through granite proved untenable).

The Napa Historic Society presented them with a preservation award for their historic renovations to the house and encouraged them to pursue efforts to restore the barn as well.

Which brings up what I liked best about visiting their estate - the rural, historic character of the place. Often, wineries will preserve the old and also add the new. What's lovely about a visit to this place is that only the old is visible. There's no brand new production building that has to blend into the landscape. It's all old school. And rural, too - which adds a level of relaxedness to the setting.

And then of course there are the wines - and the beautifully composed nibbles paired with them.

Hospitality and Education Coordinator April Enos with estate proprietor Coral Brown,
one of the three Brown siblings who run the winery
Pairing nibble included such delectables as bacon jam,
Sonoma mission fig jam and Saint Agur Blue cheese
I was invited to join a group tour of the wine caves and a tasting, and the group that I accompanied was the board of a national organization of commercial realtors of color; most were from the NYC area. They were enthusiastic about supporting other professionals of color, and talked about how to include Brown Estate wines in upcoming events.

Brown Estate is known for Zinfandel. Zinfandel advocate and pioneer Larry Turley was an early fan and booster. And the Chronicle has featured them on its top 100 wines list for years.

Sited as it is in Chiles Valley, the region is known to locals as "the cool valley," Brown explained, saying the local microclimate had temperature swings of as much as 60 degrees, making for better acidity and therefore greater balance in the wine.

We tasted through three single vineyard designate Zinfandels - Rosemary's Block, Mickey's Block and Chiles Valley (all priced at $55).

While the Browns sell 80% of their wine through their wine club and tasting rooms (they just opened a second tasting room in downtown Napa), they also have two wines that are sold via distribution - a red blend they call Chaos Theory and a Napa Zinfandel.

The fee for tasting and touring at the estate is $100 per person; the tasting fee at the downtown Napa tasting room is $60 per person.

The tasting also featured, as an added treat, a dessert wine named "Duppy Conquerer," which means "ghost buster" in Jamaican Patois.

For those who are looking for a taste of Old Napa, far away from the crowds, in a relaxed rural setting, Brown Estate deserves to be on your radar screen.

You'll find redwood trees and chairs to relax in - there are even a few welcoming picnic tables (for scheduled special events only) in the shade. You can also stroll over to visit the resident goats, or just sit a spell and bask in the glow of a beautiful Zinfandel.

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