Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Day in Napa: Brown Estate

There are a few precious moments in a wine drinker's life that precipitate a feeling of perfectly elaborated poise, reflection, and exuberance. In my experience such moments often arise in the most unassuming of circumstances - perhaps the unassuming serves to soften cynicism and provide a kind of philosophical carte blanche for an experience. Whatever the reason such moments arise, my recent visit to Brown Estate Vineyards in Napa will now hold a special place in my heart for offering up just such a wink in my otherwise quotidian existence.

Brown Estate is a first generation family winery, built by the children of the original purchasers of the property, which had been abandoned for many decades beforehand. The estate itself is simple, unassuming, and clearly a labour of love. We began our visit with a tour of the property by Celia Brown, coupled with well-furnished stories of how the estate became established and how it transformed into a respected small family winery that occupies the relatively new Chiles Valley AVA. Our discussion eventually moved into the creation of the wine cellar, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful in the valley. The Browns decided not to smooth down the blasted space mainly due to budgetary restrictions. However, the result is a wonderfully asymmetrical and mysterious wine cave that holds about as much personality as the Brown family themselves.

The cellar cleverly moved into the tasting room where Coral Brown was pouring an extensive lineup of absolutely incredible wines and thoughtfully suggested cheese pairings. In stark opposition to most of Napa's either commercial or high-falutin' tasting rooms, Brown opts for dim lighting, pop, R&B, Hip Hop and a friendly chatty vibe. In a land of sun, fruit, and well-heeled boomers, it takes an uncommon integrity to stay authentic not only to one's style, but also to one's soul. And Brown, if nothing else, makes wine with soul.

We started with the 2006 Chardonnay, which was not only full of ripe tropical fruit, and an explosive and expansive mid-palate, but had a character and complexity well beyond almost any other Napa chard I have tasted. This was perhaps due to the fantastic combination of expansive fruit with cutting minerality and a complete dearth of malolactic fermentation. Using only 10% new oak, somehow this wine still maintained very full structure and layering that extended well into the 45+ second finish. Absolutely stunning. Excellent+. $48 at the winery.

The 2007 Napa Valley Zinfandel is Brown's signature and most widely available wine, and is blended from four blocks at their estate. If zinfandel has terroir, then this is it: dried cranberry and cherry on a nose that I could sniff for hours on end. The palate had more cranberry and layered red fruits with asian spices. This stood out due to its very deep layering of flavour and surprising elegance. No residual heat will be found here. The best zinfandel I've had - well at least until the next wine in the tasting! Excellent+. $36 at the winery and private stores.

If zin could be perfect, then the 2007 Chiles Valley Zinfandel would be the instantiation of that perfection. Sitting at 15.7% ABV, you would never guess that with the extreme structure and tannic grip of this wine. Again, there is a nose of dried cranberry - suggesting the uniqueness of this site - but with a depth and length beyond the basic Napa bottling. As Coral explained, the Chiles Valley zin's structured acidity is the result of the unique site, which sees massive temperature drops during ripening season, which keeps the fruit very lively. A beautiful wine, zinfandel or not. Excellent+. $45.

We were fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to also taste the 2002 Chiles Valley Zinfandel alongside the 2007. The 2002 is so unique that in a blind tasting I think it could be mistaken for a Burgundy village wine or a Cru Beaujolais. Astonishingly, this zinfandel had a perfumed nose of flowers, light red berries, and spice. The palate was very much like an old world pinot, with layers of barny funk, spice, strawberrys, and cranberries. Power with finesse, acidity with fruit, this is an incredibly versatile wine. So much so, in fact, that apparently the Valley's chefs have been loving this wine as a superb pairing with a wide variety of foods. This is the kind of wine that makes you question your preconceptions. Excellent+. $38 at the winery.

If Brown's creations were the alpha and omega of zinfandel, they would still deserve a shining gold star in my opinion. However, the next two wines show that this is no simple family operation. Somehow Brown seems to understand wine at a deep level as all of the bottlings I tasted managed to reach directly into what makes wine so special, so unique, and so utterly able to stop you in your tracks. That said, the 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had a rocking nose of ripe black cherry with an almost port-like density, and a very distinct fruit-cake character. On the palate this was dense, dark, brooding and tannic, but also soft enough to drink now. This could also age, and be the better for it. Excellent to Excellent+. $65 at the winery.

I suppose that realizing that they rock at making both zinfandel and cabernet, Brown figured why not blend the two together! The result of that hypothetical motivation is the 2005 Chaos Theory, a blend of zin and cab that has big fruity and peppery flavours up front, but a more cabernet-like structure in the mid and back palate. Very unique, and sure to be loved by both zin and cab afficionados. Excellent to Excellent+. $45.

If all that was not enough, we ended our tasting with the 2006 Arrested Zinfandel, a zinfandel port at 20% abv and about 10% residual sugar fortified with house-made brandy. Yes, this is sweet - but it does not lack in acidity and, accordingly, freshness. Distinctly zin on the nose this was all rich and creamy with clear butterscotch components on the palate. Fresh, alive, and plenty full of flavour, this was very nicely done. However, if I had to choose, I would go for their dry wines over this. Excellent. $48 for the half bottle.

If I can be permitted to indulge in one more philosophical observation, my experience at Brown felt like home on an Odyssean journey through the world of wine. Such moments are rare, and should be cherished. The Brown family should be commended - and please do seek them out if you are ever in Napa. Thanks kindly to the Browns for giving us the opportunity to meet them, taste their wines, and get a glimpse at one of Napa's most singular wineries.


alisha544 said...

Wow. I've been trying to find time to visit the Brown Family Estate and now it seems I need to MAKE time! I've heard nothing but good things about the wines and now my taste buds are in eager overdrive. Your well written review has cranked my desire for a visit into overdrive.

Shea said...

Thanks Alisha. Brown is a very special place and I have no doubt you will love it. Not to mention the Browns themselves are fantastic people!

Anonymous said...

Excellent wine indeed. We were able to purchase Brown wine while visiting Napa Valley last summer. The tasting room experience was unbelievably fun, friendly and catered to detail by our exotic hostess. I didn't see any of the members of the Brown family with the exception of the dog and many photos our the lady showed us.
We have decided we will visit this summer again because we are running out of delicious wine.

Shea said...


I'm glad you are going back. My only hope is that one day we will see some more of their wines make it out of the winery into stores. But their production is so small!

dynegyg said...

The Brown Family and Estate is amazing...it was a great tour and the wine was excellent. We were lucky enough to visit with some Brown Members and Coral was our host...The experience was so wonderful that we became Members as well. We have told everyone that will listen that they have to go the the Brown Estate when they get to Napa.

Shea said...


It certainly is an amazing experience to taste with the Browns and experience their winery.