Brown Estate, whose entire line of vintages is vegan-friendly, is the first Black-owned winery in California. In this post, we explore their amazingly interesting history and pair 3 of their fabulous wines with delicious plant-based recipes.
[Shortly before this post was written, the area where Brown Estate is located was evacuated due to the wildfires raging through Napa Valley. They have been posting updates on their Instagram account, and we highly recommend you follow them there for more. As of the publish date, Brown Estate’s IG reports that the team, structures, and vineyards are currently safe. Our hearts are with them right now!]
Brown Estate is the first Black-owned winery in California, and the story of this historic winery is as interesting as their wine is delicious (it’s also vegan-friendly!).
In 1980, Drs. Bassett and Marcela Brown stood in the middle of their recent purchase of 450 acres of derelict land in the St. Helena area of California’s Napa Valley and must have wondered “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
The land had been neglected over a decade. Two dilapidated buildings, a stone-and-redwood barn and a Queen Anne Victorian house, remained as relics to the second half of the 19th century and the end of the California gold rush. But like an artist seeing their vision in an empty canvas, the Browns saw their masterpiece in the wilds of the land around them.
After cutting in roads (yes, you read that right) and bringing in plumbing and electricity, the Browns got to work renovating and restoring the old Queen Anne. This labor of love garnered the couple an award from the Napa Valley Historical Society.
It was shortly after this they began working on their next labor of love: planting and selling zinfandel grapes. Though becoming a vineyard was not their initial intention, their 10 acres of produce quickly became a popular favorite among the local wineries. And thus was born Brown Estate Vineyards.
From Vine to Bottle
In 1995, the Browns’ children (Deneen, David, and Coral) decided they wanted to start bottling their zinfandel under their own label. I loved coming across what Dr. Marcela Brown said of their children’s decision: it seemed right the next generation would move the grapes from vine to bottle.
Brown Estate debuted their first two vintages (1996 and ‘97) in January 2000. These two vintages had both received scores of 90+, Brown had recently finished the crush and bottling of their promising 1998 vintage, and they were riding high on a highly celebrated opening.
Most new businesses experience some bumps or hiccups along the way; six months after their debut, Brown experienced a literal conflagration.
That June a devastating fire in the storage facility Brown Estate used destroyed all remaining 1996 and 1997 vintages and the entire 1998 line with the exception of 16 bottles. Two were sent to Robert Parker, Jr (respected wine critic) who gave it a score of 90+, but only for “academic” purposes, since no one would be drinking it.
What could have been devastation to most others became inspiration for the Brown family. Remember the aforementioned derelict 1859 stone-and-redwood barn? In 2002, it saw new life as Brown’s production facility and tasting room. And it is GORGEOUS.
The Wine Cave
But where to store all that wine after its crush? Enter the Brown Estate “wine cave.”
This subterranean storeroom just off the renovated barn proved too difficult to be cut (hillside is granite), so the cave was blasted with precise dynamite detonations for an entire year.
A daunting process indeed, but Brown Estate now has one of if not the most uniquely designed wine caves in the country and quite the story to tell over a glass at their newer (2017) tasting-room property “Brown Downtown,” located at First and Coombs in downtown Napa.[Please note: The Brown Downtown location is currently doing curb-side pickup only. The tasting room is closed due to social restrictions and public health/safety concerns (2020). You can keep an eye on their Instagram for reopening updates.]
Sustainability in Winemaking
Something I truly found admirable was the deference the Brown family displays for the land and the wildlife around them. They only grow their grapes in varietal pockets spread out over approximately 10% of their total 450 acres.
The team takes great effort not to disturb the wildlife around their growing areas. They respect the fact that they are the new kids in town and Mother Nature gets first dibs.
One of my favorite posts I came across is this one about the desire for the winery to remain a smaller part of the larger organism of nature they depend on. There’s also a very funny anecdote about a cabernet sauvignon-eating, scat-leaving black bear in it.
Though still specializing in and widely beloved for their zinfandel, Brown Estate has branched out from its origins. Today, they provide a wide variety of absolutely delicious wines. We recently sampled three of Brown Estate’s wines alongside some fantastic food and wanted to share the experience with all of you!
Brown Estate Wine + Food Pairings
While we are by no means experts, we have a lot of fun learning about food/wine pairings. We thought it would be cool to try our hand at pairing these wines with a few recipes we’ve been wanting to try.
Below, you’ll find the links to these recipes (AND the wines!). You’ll also find a little paragraph of what we thought when we tasted them!
Betelgeuse Rosé + Vegan Fried Chicken Sandwich
Made from pinot noir grapes, Brown Estate’s website describes the taste of their Betelgeuse Rose as, “Light, easygoing… juicy. Silky smooth texture, long finish.” Both their Betelgeuse wines are made for easy drinking, perfect for those who are new to wine and looking for something manageable but not boring (because these certainly are not that!).
I love pairing a good wine with a meal you normally wouldn’t think to pair with wine, and this Vegan Fried Chicken Sandwich from Ghetto Vegans is DIVINE. Made with oyster mushrooms as the stand-in for chicken, it’s definitely a game-changer.
Rose and fried (vegan) chicken has quickly become one of our favorite wine pairings. The Betelgeuse rose is the PERFECT picnic wine, so I thought this would be a good blending. And I happen to think that was correct!
The wine danced with the fresh zingy taste of the coleslaw and added just a touch of fruity flavor to the whole experience. It would be the perfect pairing for an outside lunch date situation!
Betelgeuse Sauvignon Blanc + Elote Avocado Dip
Like the Betelgeuse rose, the Betelgeuse sauvignon blanc is also very light, crisp, and easy to drink. But again, it is far from boring. Made with 75% sauvignon blanc grapes and 25% vermentino, Brown’s site describes the taste as “Lean, light-bodied, gentle acidity.”
We’ve been on a mission lately to find more white wines that appease T (who notoriously “hates” white wine) and thought this could be the perfect bridge for him. It was! This wine is great for those who might need a subtle (but again, far from boring) introduction to white wine!
We have been DYING to try this Elote Avocado Dip since we featured Gabrielle Reyes (One Great Vegan) in a previous post, and when I read the description for this sauvignon blanc, I knew it was time to give it a try. OGV’s recipe is so easy to make, and we got to make it alongside her in the kitchen while watching her “musical cooking experience”.
As a general rule, sauvignon blanc pairs well with most green things as well as citrus. The creamy guac and zesty lime juice in this recipe (along with that topping of heavenly vegan feta cheese) almost guaranteed this pairing would be delicious. And it was.
While the wine could honestly be perfect on its own, when you pair it with this dip, the flavors in the wine really start to come alive. It was an experience.
Chaos Theory Red Blend + Vegan Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Gravy
Friends, this is truly the good stuff. Along with being a great wine, Chaos Theory has such an awesome story and philosophy to it.
From the Brown Estate website: “Chaos Theory began as a one-off blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel that David created” in 2004. “Over the years this proprietary blend has become a shape-shifter, each vintage its own unique blend. Such is our journey through the world of wine — a constant adventure that reminds us year in and year out that no matter how random or chaotic things may seem, amidst the mayhem there is reason, if not always rhyme.”
I mean…could there be a more perfect wine to drink in 2020?!
The particular vintage of Chaos Theory we tried (2018) is made with 50% Napa Valley petite sirah grapes, 40% Napa Valley merlot grapes, and 10% Sierra Foothills zinfandel grapes. It’s a medium-bodied red wine with silky smooth tannins and a well-balanced acidity.
But most importantly: It. Is. Delicious.
We paired this red blend with the Vegan Salisbury Steak from Chef Joya’s new e-cookbook. It’s a recipe we’ve wanted to try since posting our review of her cookbook, and I’m so glad we finally did because it is everything we hoped it would be! We used Beyond Beef for the base of the steaks which turned out fantastic.
We made a little date night out of this pairing and highly recommend that! The Chaos Theory blend mingles with this vegan steak beautifully. Another match made in heaven: That buttery mushroom gravy! We barely spoke a word until our plates (and glasses) were empty.
Our Overall Opinion
All-in-all, we HIGHLY recommend you give Brown Estate wines a try. They really have something for everyone.
Buy some, try some. Get it for a friend as a gift. Ask for it from a friend as a gift. Gift it to yourself, friend – you deserve it!
You can purchase Brown Estate wines on their website, and they offer free shipping on orders over $75, so stock up! They also offer 3 wine club options AND just released their sparkling wine, The Duppy Conqueror which we cannot wait to try.
Forty years after its inception, Brown Estate shows no signs of slowing. They are getting ready for, I believe, their 25th crush this fall. (Crush-to-vintage mathematics can be confusing.)
Sadly, Dr. Bassett Brown passed away in April of 2019 and will miss witnessing this milestone event in person. We’d like to dedicate this post to his memory.
According to an email excerpt from the company on Barnivore.com, Dr. Brown was himself vegan for 20+ years. His legacy and his love of nature and wine will live on not only through his children but through the gift he has given all of us in Brown Estate vineyard and winery.
And make sure, when you pour your first glass of Brown Estate wine, you lift it in thanks to Drs. Bassett and Marcela Brown and their visionary vineyard. Cheers!