A Return to Brown Estate: Catharsis and Wonder

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The difficulties of expressing the emotional resonance I felt upon my return to Brown Estate last weekend finally evaporated in the midst of a somewhat tragic event. Just two days ago I discovered that almost 200 bottles that I had been collecting for over four years had been heavily damaged by a Vancouver heat wave that broke all historical heat records for the city. But, why did such a sad occurrence precipitate clarity in articulating my second visit to Brown? I think I can best express this with reference to two words: catharsis and wonder.

If we think briefly of tragedy as a classic poetic form we encounter two things: pity and fear. I have received an outpouring of pity for my recent loss and I do not doubt that other collectors also fear the possibility of the same happening to their collection. The Browns have a unique experience with these feelings given that years ago they lost a huge number of their old wines in a warehouse fire. What a tragic event such as this gives rise to is myriad and great. However, I think the ancient Greeks were on to something when they suggested that tragedy gave rise to feelings of catharsis and to an experience of wonder.

Although in English Catharsis tends to evoke one notion, in ancient Greek it (Κάθαρσις) can have two meanings. First, catharsis can mean to purge. Purging is something we’ve all experienced with horror films or roller coasters that make us confront fear and then feel relief when that brief encounter has elapsed. On the other hand catharsis can also mean to purify. Purification is different than purgation because it leaves part of the feeling behind, while jettisoning the baser elements.

As I followed Deneen Brown and watched Sean and Graham’s initial reactions to the wonderful wine cave that really epitomizes what Brown is all about I realize now that I was experiencing catharsis in the second sense. Much about wine can be distorted and even avaricious: obscene prices, access only to the wealthy, hoarding and gloating. However, the Browns understand that wine is also organic, it is an expression of time and of memory and these ideas become physical when you step into the most beautiful wine cave in Napa Valley. Somehow the Browns distill this unpredictable and asymmetrical essence of wine into a purer form that expresses itself in not only their wines but also their personalities.

The 2007 Brown Estate Chardonnay was also pure with its rich expressive nose of pineapple, guava and slightly laced mineral notes. Unlike the 2006, which was more austere, the 2007 blankets you with creamy tropical fruit, wonderful floral notes, and clean minerality. Like a Napa chardonnay with the finesse and structure of a Chablis, this is one of my favourite chards in the valley. Excellent. $48.

As I think of how years of time and effort have culminated in a tragic moment with the loss of my cellar, I also recall how wine can be the sudden, unexpected appearance of something beautiful and how it is this appearance that produces wonder when consuming a glass of wine. If we think of the stress and trauma that wine grapes experience during their lives perhaps we can understand how the wonder offered by a truly beautiful glass of wine can arise from a tragic life. And, while I do not suggest that the loss of something so fleeting as a wine cellar is truly tragic compared to what the world has to offer, I do think it puts into perspective why all us wine geeks and drinkers take pleasure and wonder in truly magnificent wine. This is something the Browns understand, as they prefer to produce more challenging expressions of the grapes we have come to love.

Particularly, their 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon had a savory nose of wood, softened by blackcurrant, plum and fig. The palate was wonderfully structured, especially the mid-palate, which was very uplifting. Cedar, chocolate, black fruits and solid youthful tannins make this an absolutely gorgeous wine. Excellent to Excellent+.

The current release 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon also had a wonderful nose, but it was surprisingly extremely different. I love how the Browns let the year truly express itself and are not afraid of extreme variation in style and flavour from year to year. To me this is a more wizened expression of the art of wine making and one that more wineries need to understand. With a palate with lots of wood, forest floor, and raspberry fruit there is tremendous structure to the mid-palate on this wine and it will pair amazingly well with subtle red meats. Excellent.

There is one more ‘lesson’ to be learned from the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy, and that is its concern not with conferring glory, but with bestowing the gift of wonder. As much as wine can be about status and power, it can even more strongly be about time. Wine can produce pause, moment, and temporal articulation and it is these elements that the Browns concentrate on when they put together a wine like the 2006 Chaos Theory, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel that belies easy description and instead challenges the palate to place the wine in line with similar memories: pepper, asian spices, caramel and cranberry on the nose lead into a palate with asian 5-spice, cloves, and a much more tannic and austere structure than you would expect from Zinfandel. The fruit notes include cranberry from the zin and crushed blackberry from the cab. A challenging wine that many will adore. Very Good+ to Excellent. $45.

I failed to mention the inspired cheese pairings that Coral Brown offers with each of the wines, which serve to highlight some of their most interesting elements. It is clear that Coral understands that the expressive capacity of wine is best served in company with food, just as our best experiences with wine are those which remind us of special moments and good friends. I suppose, then, that with catharsis and wonder tragedy metamorphosizes into narrative, which, in a sense, is a form of memory.

When I drink a great glass of wine I nearly always recall Proust’s passage on the Madeleine cookie that leads into the reminiscent narrative of Swann’s Way. Perhaps Proust says it best: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”

It is just such an exquisite pleasure that I experienced when tasting Brown’s Zinfandels, which are truly the heart of the Estate. The workhorse 2007 Napa Zinfandel had a cranberry, earthy, and asian spiced nose that opened into a full palate of fruit punch sour cranberry, and a distinct rose-like floral element. This is surprisingly elegant and tart for Zinfandel with great structure and balance. Very Good+ to Excellent. $36.

But lest the workhorse get all the glory, the very special 2007 Westside Zinfandel had a pinot-like barny and earthy nose with mushrooms and dried red fruits providing a quizzical pause. The intense mid-palate acidity was also leathery and had plenty of dried strawberry, cranberry and baking spices. A wonderful up front zinfandel. Excellent. $48.

But, even with the 2007’s lovely olfactory presence the 2006 Westside Zinfandel was even more elegant and integrated. A nose of flowers, cranberry and strawberry pie, the palate was pure silky strawberry fruit with a nutty edge. And, best of all there are incredible layers of spice – almost as if your most lush spices had fallen into the zin and mulled it into perfection. Stunning. Excellent+.

Ridiculously, we also took a tour of Brown’s barrel aging wines and without revealing too much I can attest that there are many many special treats and surprises that the winery will be releasing in due time, including an insanely good red blend that I won’t talk about too much more.

A tasting experience at Brown is anything but a public relations message. The Browns are some of the most authentic people I have met not only in the wine business but, honestly, in life generally. This, coupled with the fact that it is not hard to write superlative reviews for their outstanding wines (which are amazingly all good) make Brown Estate pretty much a premier destination for me in Napa and I will be making a point to visit them every time I take a trip down to California. These guys are rare for the wine industry and deserve your attention.

Lest I forget, we were treated to one last taste before heading back down into the main Valley to attend the Grand Napa Tasting: a 2006 Chiles Valley Zinfandel, which had a huge spicy nose with touches of red fruits. The palate was replete with baking spice, and dry-fried savory Indian spices like cumin and mustard seed. And yes there is still that distinctive cranberry note on the palate, which I have come to associate with the Chiles Valley as a unique AVA in Napa. Excellent.

In conclusion, my visits at Brown Estate have helped me progress from the tragedy of my lost cellar to the wonder that such tragedy can produce. If it weren’t for these types of stories and the memories that go along with them, wine would be but a hollow shell in want of meaning. Thanks to Brown for reminding me of this most important detail of our fleeting passions.


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