What began as a small grape-growing venture back in the 1980s and became a family-run winemaking business in the '90s is now a fully matured operation with a stylish new Catherine Kwong–designed tasting room in the heart of Downtown Napa. Meet Brown Estate, the Valley's first Black–owned estate wine label.
"It's downtown, so it's a different experience from driving up the winding hills to the winery," says Kwong, the San Francisco design darling known for her residential interiors with a fashionable sensibility. The designer says she fell in love with the tasting room space: The second-floor industrial interior—housed in the old Napa Register building (there from 1905–1965), which suffered some damage in the 2014 earthquake—has high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and steel beams.
Recognizing those cool loft vibes from her days working in New York, Kwong worked with the architectural bones she'd been given. Location-appropriate cold-rolled steel and fluted glass dividers were added throughout to provide some intimacy in the open space, and the original black shutters were saved, lending a moody ambiance. Upon entering, you might feel like you're dropping into a speakeasy of yore, except that every detail was conceived for coziness—the Brown family wants you to feel at home.
Now helmed by three siblings—sisters Deneen and Coral Brown and their winemaker brother David—Brown Estate is the two-generation culmination of an investment made by parents Bassett and Marcela Brown back in 1980. The couple purchased the tract of land in the eastern hills of Napa Valley and planted zinfandel vines, the fruit of which they sold off to winemakers. In 1996, their kids decided to move the winemaking in-house. "It's natural for the second generation to take it from vine to bottle," Deneen explains, talking passionately about the legacy left by her parents. Today, Brown is the only black-owned estate winery in the Napa Valley—a fact of which the family is both proud of and also nonchalant. The focus here is on the family.
The team wanted a place where "everyone is welcome and wine is not so stressful," even for newcomers to the tasting experience, says Deneen, who gushes about Kwong's work. "We absolutely love the way we feel when we're in a space designed by Catherine," she says. Beyond the sexy, dark colors and distinct layout, which includes two bars, bench seating, and a lounge, the decor also gives a meaningful nod to the family. Taking pride of place behind the tasting bar is a drawing by the Browns' Uncle Buntin, who's described as a "mystical figure," a wanderer, and a "dashing guitar-slinging charmer." He left the drawing at the estate years ago with no explanation.
The piece, called Duppy Conqueror (it loosely translates to "ghost buster" in Patwah) harkens back to the family's Jamaican roots. Kwong notes that the piece, the original of which is displayed at the Napa estate, "encapsulates a little part of how important their family history is to them, and what that lends to the wine itself, and what that lends to the wine tasting experience." The Browns hope that the artwork will inspire visitors, especially the less experienced, to call up their own inner conquerors and taste their wine with ease.
// Brown Estate, 1005 Coombs St., 2nd Floor (Napa), brownestate.com