You could hear the sound of rocks crunching beneath the tires of the passenger van as it pulled off the road and into the driveway of the Brown Estate in St. Helena, Calif.
We had just spent 45 minutes winding up narrow two-lane roads from downtown Napa, and we were ready to experience some of the best Zinfandel this world-famous wine region had to offer.
When we stepped off the bus, Sean Baum, tasting room associate, and April Enos, hospitality manager, were both standing there, eager to greet us. Their warm smiles forgave us for holding up the group tour, which included two other parties and was supposed to have started 10 minutes before our arrival.
Directly behind Sean and April stood a monumental barn made of 1859 stone and redwood. The name Brown was attached to the front of the barn in giant gold letters, so there was no mistaking to whom this property belonged.
Slightly to the left, tucked behind a lush, well-manicured landscape, hid a preserved and restored 1885 Queen Anne Victorian-style home, modest in size, with a bright red door and two chimneys made of brick.
April led us to join the rest of the group under a tall tree that provided tons of shade and stood directly in front of the home. It was there that she began the tour with a history lesson on the Browns, a lesson that she has probably recited so many times it feels like her own family’s story.
In the late 1970s, Bassett and Marcela Brown decided they needed to teach their three children, who had grown up in Los Angeles, about honest hard work and agriculture, as they had both learned at early ages growing up in the rural parts of Jamaica and Panama, respectively. By 1981, the Browns purchased a 450-acre walnut orchard, which by then had been neglected for more than 10 years, after falling in love with its “far-flung location” and its two dilapidated structures—the barn and the house.
By this point in the story we had all begun to migrate toward the enchanting Victorian home. Its warm and welcoming appearance had made me impatient to see what was behind that red door. April continued by telling us that the Browns spent years restoring the property: creating roads, installing electricity and plumbing and with the help of their children Deneen, Coral and David, replacing the derelict walnut orchard with about 9 acres of Zinfandel vines, creating their first vineyard. The restoration of the residence earned the Browns an award from the Napa County Historical Society.
I was somewhat disappointed when we walked right past the home and April announced that we would not be entering because it was in fact the Browns’ personal residence. However, that disappointment vanished as soon as we made it to the side of the house and I noticed an old wooden door attached to a wall made of the same 1859 stone. It looked like a secret entrance of sorts and I was anxious to see what was behind it.
April then explained that it took no time at all for the Browns, and the rest of the industry, to realize they had stuck gold with their property’s grapes. The Chiles Valley microclimate is known for its extreme temperature shifts throughout the course of a day, which makes it the perfect condition for cultivating Zinfandel grapes. The Brown family’s fruit soon gained an immense popularity among Zinfandel producers, ultimately being sold to established producers such as Green & Red and T-Vine Cellars.
With all of her might, April opened the heavy wooden door and revealed a subterranean wine cave and fermentation room where dozens of barrels of the Browns’ own label lined the walls.
By 1990 that original vineyard of 9 acres had expanded to 50 acres and was now producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes along with their successful Zinfandel grapes, but still they were only selling the grapes to other producers. It wasn’t until 1995 that groundwork to produce wine under their own label began after the children realized the quality of fruit their land consistently produced warranted more of them than just being growers. The following year, David—who is still currently the label’s lead wine grower—crafted the first vintage of the original Brown Zin with help from then consulting winemaker Duane Dappen.
The wine cave led us to a tasting room where we were greeted once again by Sean, this time next to a wood-topped bar with a bottle of Brown Zin in hand! The room was quaint and charming, made up of cement floors and more of that restored stone. It was dimly lit thanks to a chandelier made of antlers that created a relaxing mood ideal for wine tasting. Behind the bar stood a large modern piece of case furniture, which stored jams, estate information packets, photos and, of course, wine. Although the stools were very close to one another and offered no back support, they were shockingly comfortable and provided perfect impromptu pictures with my group.
This tasting was more than your average tasting. It felt like being invited over to a friend’s house—that just so happened to have a wine cave—to enjoy a few of their favorite wines. Sean poured as April commentated and explained each of the four wines we tasted. The true treat was that each glass of wine was paired with a cracker, cheese and condiment combination worthy of being plated at any award-wining restaurant.
We were all surprised to see David, wineglass in hand, when he walked into the tasting room as we were finishing up. He posed for pictures, cracked a few jokes and chatted with us about some of the obstacles they faced while starting their own label.
Brown Estate may be the first and only African-American-owned estate winery in Napa Valley, but their dedication to the land and the recognition of their own greatness has made their label one of the most successful and critically acclaimed in the entire region.
After my visit I was sure of two things: The Browns are great at making wine and just as great at showing hospitality.
Note: This winery requires an appointment and will not receive drop-ins, so be sure to put in your request on their website as soon as you book your trip because slots fill up quickly.
For more information, visit www.brownestate.com.
Megan Pinckney is a former beauty queen turned lifestyle blogger based in South Carolina.