Brown Estate Vineyards is rustic elegance; exclusive, understated, in one word, outstanding.
Not traditionally a fan of Zinfandel, I’ll admit to having initially low expectations. After all, who is Brown? I’ve never heard of their wines, never seen their label, never read of the beautiful Chiles Valley.
But it’s unequivocal; I have seen the proverbial light – and it is Brown. Having read extensively about Napa and Sonoma and now spent the past week touring wineries, I’ve experienced a myriad of different opportunities. This was exceptional in a multitude of ways.
Following the winding route 128 up into the hills from Rutherford, Napa we actually drove past the gated entrance and had to come back to get buzzed through the unassuming and un-Napa-like entrance. One does not just drop into Brown; one makes an appointment and arrives on time – and it is worth every bit of the effort made.
We joined a tour with two lively companions from Connecticut led by the knowledgeable and affably professional Jona. Brown has 450 acres only 50 of which are planted with Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Syrah. Farming in the area since the 1980s, the Brown family has been growing grapes since 1995.
When they lost their entire 1998 vintage stored offsite to a fire, they decided to bring all the winemaking to the beautiful property nestled at approximately 1100 feet (300 metres or so). The storage area, initiated by the handyman who helped them renovate the property, has been blasted out of the hillside and does double duty as cask storage and classy entertainment venue. The tour takes you in one end of the cave through an unassuming wooden door and out the other end into the renovated barn constructed in 1856.
All the Brown wines are estate grown and bottled. While a banner year may see production at over 7,000 cases, an average year will yield approximately 5,000. Most are available only online or at the winery itself. A few selected restaurants do carry their wares, but they are precious and a challenge to find.
We started the tour following leader Jona each holding a glass of the 2011 Chardonnay. Crisp, clear, elegant with medium plus acidity, it underwent natural MLF and saw wood for 12 months. Hence the creamy applesauce and yoghurt with lemon and lacings of caramel. While they specialize in Zinfandel, they did plant Chardonnay at one point, precisely because Mrs. Brown wanted some white wine. Voila!
The tasting of the four estate reds followed. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was strawberry preserves with raspberry, pomegranate, sausage and a red liquorice aroma. The silky tannins slipped by, barely noticeable. Paired perfectly with the ‘Ewephoria’ gouda, Gipson’s golden honeycomb and a water cracker, I wondered how it could get better. But it did.
The 2009 Recluse Zinfandel is aged lovingly for 30 months in oak and emerges at an astounding 14.9% abv, but is gorgeously integrated on every point – balance, structure, fruit, tannin, acidity. Smokey with red fruit and velvety tea leaf tannins, it emotes cloves and ginger. The pairing of San Joaquin Gold cheese with a fruit and nut crostini and pear mostarda was inspired, especially the baking spice with the mustard.
My absolute favourite was the 2011 Rosemary’s Block Zinfandel. The Queen herself may have to show up at our door to make me open up one of the bottles I bought. Again 14.9% abv, but you would never know it. Black cherry and Damson plum with mouthwatering acidity, it saw 12 months of ageing and was outstanding with the pairing; Domaine du Village triple cream cheese and an Almondina cracker. We actually went out and bought this cheese in Calistoga on the way back to Geyserville later. Deeply elegant – regal – the surprise in this glass was it continued to open up over the course of the hour to show intense creamed dark clover honey and brown Demerara sugar. The tannins, there but barely noticeable. Drinks beautifully.
Preceded by dark chocolate covered espresso beans, the 2011 Mickey’s Block Zinfandel followed. As Jona mentioned, this is almost the ‘yin to Rosemary’s yang’. Fuller and richer, 15.2% abv, medium plus almost high acidity with a hit that while sweet, was not cloying. Ripe raspberries, cranberries and red plums accompanied by creamy, pungent Gabriel Coulet Roquefort and a red wine snap.
We enjoyed some Chaos Theory – a beautiful blend of mostly Zin with 35% Cab Sav and some Petite Syrah on top. Easy to see why this is their flagship wine; ripe red fruit and black tea leaves. Drink now and enjoy. And finished off with the crowning glory – the 19.5% abv Duppy Conqueror, arrested and made port style. I wish I’d taken more notes on the Duppy, but by this point although I am normally assiduous about tasting notes, the only thing I have recorded is, ‘Drink more of this.” Let’s just say there was not a lot of spitting going on. I followed my own advice; spit if you must. It was too good.
Thank heavens the Drs. Brown did not heed the real estate agent who when selling them the property commented it was too bad they wouldn’t be able to grow grapes. If you have a chance to visit Brown Estate Vineyards, do so. If you find their wines, buy them. My mission, and yes I choose to accept it, is to get them distributed in BC – at least to my house.