Inside Napa Valley’s Premier Black-Owned Winery: Brown Estate

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  • Published on August 9, 2023
  • In Culture

As one of a handful of Black owned vineyards in Napa Valley, Brown Estate wines makes a distinctive mark.

It may be unnecessary to pre-game before BottleRock, a wine and music lovers three-day festival in Napa Valley, however, if you’re looking to start off the weekend with something luxe, book a wine tasting at Brown Downtown Napa.

Brown Estate wine’s elegantly designed outpost, awash in navy with brushed gold and marble accents, sits on the second floor above bustle of Napa’s city center. It is one of the few Black-owned wineries in California, which produces 84 percent of wine in the U.S. Massive light fills the loft-like space that easily accommodates two bars, three cozy sofas and one family style dining table. Entering the space, guests are greeted by a large quote courtesy of an Earth, Wind & Fire lyric, “As Long As You keep Your Head to the Sky.”

A sampling of Brown Estate wines: 2019 Petite Sirah, Chaos Theory and their non-vintage Duppy Port, which includes the Duppy Conqueror image. Credit: Cori Murray Courtesy of Cori Murray

On the day of my group’s visit, our host Halle Lewis welcomes us for our afternoon tasting. (Walk ins are accepted but reservations are highly encouraged. Thankfully we locked ours in as guests of Marriott Bonvoy Bevy American Express Card.) We settled into the long bar overlooking the corner of Coombs and 1st Street. Lewis walks us through two of their offerings, a flight of all reds or a flight of varietals, including their Betelgeuse rosé and flagship red blend, Chaos Theory.

Since everyone in my group are first-timers, we opt for the mix of reds and whites paired with an exquisite cheese board. But first, to cleanse our palates, Lewis gives us glasses of a crisp Blanc de Blancs (sparkling wine) known as Duppy Conqueror.

“Dr. Bassett Brown, our founder, is originally from Jamaica, and his brother would tell the three kids that now run the Brown estate ghost stories, or ‘duppy’ stories,” she says. “But [they would] end on the fact that the Duppy Conqueror would save the day. He was a source of good energy and [fighting] evil and the brothers taught them to be duppy conquerors in their own lives.” Lewis also notes that the bottle’s label was created by that same brother and the image looms large as a signature piece of art in the space.

Our host continues the thoughtful introduction to the Brown Estate family history and their wine production as she pours samples of their Betelgeuse (named for a star in the constellation Orion and not the 1988 film) sauvignon blanc and Howell Mountain zinfandel. Throughout wine country, most estates offer tours of their vineyards but the Brown family has decided to close their St. Helena estate, where their family lives about 30 minutes from downtown Napa. Dr. Brown passed away in 2019 and his children, David, Coral and Deneen run the business, including their emerging second label House of Brown. Their mother, Marcela Brown, is still a presence and contributes by making home-made jams served only at the downtown outpost. Her Flor-de Jamaica hibiscus jam was a delicious pairing for our selection of artisanal cheeses and cured meats.

Brown Downtown Napa’s artisanal cheese board includes a sample of the owners homemade hibiscus jam, Flor-de Jamaica. Credit: Cori Murray Courtesy of Cori Murray

As Lewis fills the last glass with a splash of Chaos Theory, we are encouraged to take in the cultural offerings proudly on display: a table of carefully curated art, food and historical books and memoirs, ranging from “Afro Surf” by Mami Wata to “Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party” by Stephen Shames and Erika Huggins; Brown merchandise of woven totes, tees, hats and sweatshirts; and of course, bottles for purchase and shipping. Before I leave, I purchased two orders of wine to send back east – my mother wanted their Eastside Zin – and a hoodie emblazoned with Brown’s logo. That evening at BottleRock, I wore my sweatshirt in support of Brown taking up space as a premier Black-owned winery. While in the Marriott Bonvoy American Express VIP Suite, a well-dressed couple noticed my sweatshirt, smiled widely and said, “We love Brown too.”

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