Brown Estate: of Anchors and Zinfandel

Lately I have spent much of my free time reflecting on change. How is it that after years of pursuing knowledge and stumbling upon experience that we somehow remain the same person? Is any trace of our former selves left within us after time passes? If so, how do we know?

It seems to me that change gains its significance from the anchors we drop at important ports of call throughout our life. Whether it is a particular belief, an achievement that lay the ground for what was to come, or a significant person, these anchors also serve as lookout points from which we can survey from where we have come and how we have changed.

In my world of wine experiences, Brown Estate in California’s Napa Valley is one of these anchors. My first visit there a mere year and a half ago fostered my now deep seated philosophy that wine is about how personality, belief and passion marry with time and place. If I am missing any of these components, then my experience with a wine isn’t quite complete.

Personality, belief and passion are rarely separable. This is something I understand each time I return to Brown Estate. On this, my third visit, I had the opportunity to think back on where my life was a mere year and a half earlier and how much I have changed both personally and professionally in this time. Driving up to the unassuming gate of the estate, my body also viscerally recalled the warmth this winery has managed to create in my heart. It was this uncontrolled immediate response that made me realize I had found the perfect place to look out and survey what had come before.

And now I understand why I felt what I did. While wine is objective in many ways, it is also deeply embedded in human experience. Any attempt to remove it from this experience will fail before it even begins. Wine is also cultural, and one’s choices of what one drinks have implications that are both immediately human and more broadly cultural.

If this is true, wine can be both a home and the possibility for a new voyage. It is exactly the kind of Odyssean voyage I wrote about after my first visit to Brown that draws one to what one loves best at the same time as it creates new experiences. On a human scale Brown is both a place to which I can return and a site of constantly evolving experiences. Culturally, Brown represents what I want wine to become in North America: an embedded part of our deepest beliefs and our greatest passions that only makes sense when shared.

Coral Brown beautifully summed up what I think is a core belief of the estate when she told me “Never give up an opportunity to taste something new; your palate never forgets.” This core belief expresses itself in the Brown’s approach to wine, which is counter to most of the dominant trends in California these days. This is, simply, that each wine has its own personality and its own experiences that make it what it is – no makeup and no apology required. When Coral poured their 2005 Chaos Theory (a co-fermented zinfandel and cabernet blend) she described the wine as a long term relationship where each person had so altered the other that they created a single harmonious blend. She contrasted this to the 2007 Chaos Theory (which was not co-fermented, but blended after fermentation), which she called a meeting of two passionate lovers, with each grape pushing to express its intensity.

Wine again became personality when Coral introduced me to her mother and father, who live on the estate, after pouring a glass of their supple and intellectual 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon. Her father, a man as subtle as the wine I was drinking, was also the most intriguing and thoughtful person I’ve met on a winery visit. A physician, he spends a tremendous amount of his time thinking of the deep issues involved in providing health care to those who have the hardest time accessing it, whether for financial or other reasons. I found my conversation with him both inspiring and humbling.

This is not Napa. The Browns are not ex-silicon valley CEOs with money to burn and a ‘passion’ for prestige wine making. Rather, the two senior Browns purchased the estate and its Abraham Lincoln era house as a get-away home and not as a winery. It was the children – Coral, Deneen and David – who decided to start growing grapes and sharing their story through the wines they make.

They also happened upon what I think is one of the great zinfandel terroirs in the whole of California. The mistake most critics make with the Chiles Valley AVA (where Brown is located) is to treat it as a single monolithic terroir. This is simply wrong. The AVA is quite large and there are huge microclimate differences within the region.

What makes Brown so special is that it is the last place moving inland from the San Pablo Bay where the fog penetrates before burning off. This makes Brown’s vineyards the coolest in the entire AVA, and some of the coolest in all of California. This means their Zins are far from ordinary and have much zippier acidity and consequently superior balance to almost any other expression of the grape I have tasted.

Zinfandel is the perfect grape for the Browns – it is sensuous, exuberant and full of life. However, in the hands of the Browns it is also elegant, balanced and extremely pure. The wines are also extremely true to and expressive of vintage. The 2008 Napa Valley Zinfandel possesses an unparalleled delicacy of aromatic expression that reflects the colder and wetter growing season. The Browns had to throw away a significant portion of their grapes, but the resulting wines are elegant, pretty and lively in the mouth. Their 2008s will prove to be the most food friendly and versatile of their wines just as the 2007s were, while less versatile, bolder and more intense.

The 2008 Westside Zinfandel offers darker fruits and a handful of freshly crushed cloves when inhaled. The wine is richer than the Napa Valley Zin, and quite dense. However, it is very well balanced and is long and expressive despite the characteristically high alcohol of Zinfandel.

But the most emblematic wine I tasted is also the one most unlike anything else they make. In 2002, when the Browns were first starting to make and bottle their own wines, they had not yet completed a temperature controlled winery in which to ferment their juice. It so happened that while the zinfandel was fermenting outside in tank, the temperature was so low outside that David Brown could not get the fermentation to a high enough temperature. They feared the worst and assumed the wines were worthless.

Several years later they opened a bottle and discovered that not only had the wine aged gracefully, but it was also one of the most unique expressions of Zinfandel they had ever tasted. The 2002 Napa Valley Zinfandel had a nose not unlike a richer Beaujolais cru, with crushed rocks and flowers. The low fermentation temperature somehow held back the richness of the Zinfandel while giving it prettier and softer aromatics than one would expect. It is a singular wine that speaks of time, accident, place, personality, belief, and passion. All in a single bottle of wine from an ugly duckling vintage.

Incidentally, while writing this article I opened the one bottle of 2002 Chiles Valley Zinfandel I had saved back from when I first visited the Browns. It is still drinking well, despite seeing a bit of heat shock in last summer’s heat wave in Vancouver. The pretty aromatics have started to mellow and I am now noticing more baking spices and cherry fruit. But the wine retains such an extremely delicate texture that is simply, and extraordinarily, singular.

It is with such wines of passion, power, sensuality, complexity and true vintage expression that Brown estate has become an anchor in my journey through wine. As I drift away from the heavy and fruity wines of Napa, I remain beholden with the people and the wines of Brown Estate. Somehow, amongst the morass of what Napa has become, the Browns have created an enclave for authenticity, honesty, and utter attentiveness to the personality and terroir they have been blessed with. I am fortunate that they have become an anchor and a lookout from which I can better understand how much I have changed and how much more I have to explore.

Comments

  1. Brown Estate says:

    It doesn’t get much better than this as far as we’re concerned. Thank you for seeing us as you do, and for sharing your experience of Brown Estate.

  2. Bill Wamsley says:

    Great insights into a very good winery. You might feel the same way if you happen to stop by Boyd Vineyards next time you’re in Napa and meet Stan and Joan Boyd. 4042 Big Ranch Rd. Something very special about what they’re doing there, and extremely nice people! (www.boydwine.com)

  3. What a wonderfully written piece. I couldn’t agree with you more about your impressions of the Browns and the wines they produce. It’s truly an example of “love what do” and wonderful results are sure to follow. Thanks to this piece, I discovered your blog. I’m happily a new subscriber.

  4. Shea says:

    Thanks for all the positive comments. It’s easy to write well when your subject is so fascinating.

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