Napa Valley's first black-owned winery has rich history (and sweet zinfandel)

Mandy Velez
Contributing Writer
(Photo: Instagram/Brown Estate)

If you’re looking to visit a winery with lots of zinfandel, strong family roots, and a historically significant Napa Valley story, the Brown Estate should make your list.

Though officially starting a popular wine label of their own as of 1996, The Brown Estate is notable for another reason: It’s the first and only black-owned estate winery in Napa Valley, Calif. Everything from fermentation and aging to bottling happens on the property.

It all started when Bassett and Marcella Brown, affectionately referred to as Mom and Dad, first bought land in the Chiles Valley area of Napa Valley in the 1980s. In 1995, their children got the idea to start a vineyard, and in 1996, the family bottled their first wine: the “Brown Zin” zinfandel.

Now, the operation is a full-fledged family affair.

Siblings Deneen, David, and Coral Brown run the show. Deneen serves as the winery’s president, David the wine grower, and Coral the Director of Brand Management. But as one would suspect, making history isn’t easy.

“There’s an adage in the wine industry: In order to make a small fortune, start with a large fortune. For those who don’t come into this business with a large fortune, traditionally the rule of thumb is that it takes three generations to establish an estate winery,” Deneen tells Yahoo Lifestyle in an email. “In our case, our parents did the work of two generations”

She explains that nearly forty years ago, her parents purchased an abandoned ranch, which is now the family’s nearly 500-acre estate property.

“Our parents transformed the place by building roads, bringing in plumbing, irrigation, and electricity, and planting vineyards. They also lovingly restored a ramshackle 1885 Queen Anne Victorian house,” she says.

For the next 10 years, her parents sold wine to others in the area. When Deneen and her siblings created their own label, they made history. Now, the Browns grow and bottle their wine on site, run events, post to a blog on behalf of the business, and even proudly host proposals. Their wine is even appreciated by celebrities like Tina Knowles and Samuel Jackson.

While proud of their history-making business, Deneen explains that the accomplishment of the first black-owned estate winery in the area didn’t come without sacrifice and mentorship respectfully sought from “industry ‘old heads.’”

Their presence is especially special in Wine Country as the area has been scrutinized in the past for its lack of diversity. According to the July 2016 U.S. census, white people alone made up 84.3 percent of the Napa population. Blacks accounted for just 2.4 percent. Hispanics or latinos accounted for 33.9.

Deneen says the wine business, no matter who you are, is a “hard row to hoe.” But the uphill climb, on top of her parents’ hard work for 10 years before they started their own wine label, only motivates her and her family more.

“Doggedness without doubt is one of the most important pre-qualifications for anyone considering traveling this path” she says. “It also happens to be one of our family’s hallmarks, and it is to honor our parents’ heroic contributions — pioneering, both literally and figuratively — that we stake our claim as Napa Valley’s first black-owned estate winery.”

Cheers to that.

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