The tasting room at Brown Downtown.
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With its exposed brick and rich textures, the recently opened Brown Downtown tasting room was designed by San Francisco–based Catherine Kwong.
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Guests can order food pairings with their tasting.
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Letter blocks are arranged to create custom messages.
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Family photos line the walls—including a shot of Bassett and Marcela Brown with Muhammad Ali taken in the late 1960s in Los Angeles.
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Bassett and Marcela Brown just wanted a place where their kids could dig in the dirt. In 1980 they were immigrants (from Jamaica and Panama, respectively) living in Pasadena and running a community medical clinic when they decided to purchase 384 acres of untamed land in the Napa Valley. “They found this abandoned ghost ranch and brought in access roads, power lines, irrigation systems…they were fearless,” says Deneen Brown, one of the couple’s three children, all of whom ended up getting their hands plenty dirty as the family learned how to grow its own food, build fences, and dig reservoirs. “It was a counterbalance to our life in L.A. We would spend our summers running up and down St. Helena and getting into trouble.” The family started growing grapes and selling them to local wineries.
The rest of the year they remained in Southern California, and all three children went off to college with their sights set on white-collar careers. But eventually the call of Napa Valley drew them back. By 1996, the three Brown siblings had decided to start making their own wines under the Brown Estate label. Deneen is the winery’s president; her younger brother, David, who studied chemistry, is the winegrower; and her younger sister, Coral, writes all the tasting notes and creates food and wine pairings for guests.
The family’s myriad interests have most recently coalesced at Brown Downtown, the winery’s new tasting room in downtown Napa. Opened in April, it has already become a destination thanks to Brown Estate’s award-winning zinfandels (which previously could be sampled only by appointment at the winery) and the exquisite interiors by San Francisco–based design darling Catherine Kwong, whom the Browns discovered through her lauded Decorator Showcase creations. The family’s city-meets-country upbringing is represented here with an aesthetic that reads like a Tribeca loft and a vibe that is purely wine country casual. “Wine should not be stressful. That’s one of the Brown Estate classic taglines,” Deneen says.
Brown is the first and only black-owned estate winery in Napa Valley, and the diversity found in its tasting rooms is a point of pride for the family. “People comment on it all the time—it’s really diverse in every way, from our staff to the clientele,” Deneen says. But it’s the Brown siblings’ connection to the land, born of their parents’ wish for their children to understand the bounty that comes from the ground, that binds them to their community. “We’re all just farmers: If it’s raining on me, it’s raining on you.”
Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco