“Our parents really wanted us to go to medical school”

Deneen Brown on how her family came to run the first black-owned winery in Napa Valley. 

“Our parents really wanted us to go to medical school”

Illustration: Loveis Wise

Thirty-eight years ago, my parents were seeking a farm property, and friends told them of a forsaken ghost ranch in a remote corner of Napa Valley. They had to push their way through heavy brush and cross a rickety little bridge to reach the abandoned homestead, which held a house built in 1885. As they looked around, my mom, who’s Panamanian, got a chill. She turned to my dad and said, “Papi, this is it.”

At the time, we were growing up in Southern California, where our parents operated a medical clinic; my dad, who’s Jamaican, is a physician, and my mom ran the business side. Whenever we were on break from school, while my friends were going to their family beach houses and ski cabins, my parents would drive us up to the ranch to work. My sister, brother and I spent a lot of time clearing brush, scrubbing floors and even shooing bats out of the house. It was not glamorous! The property was so remote there weren’t any local kids to play with, so we ended up bonding with each other as a family and with the land.

Our parents really wanted us to go to medical school—their intention when they bought the property was not that we would ever make wine. They just wanted us to experience farm life as they had as kids back in their homelands. They planted 12 acres of vineyards in 1984 and another 40 acres in 1990, but only because grapes were the obvious crop to plant in the area.

In the wine industry, they say that it takes three generations to start an estate winery: The first acquires the land, the second plants the vineyards, the third builds the winery. My parents basically did the work of two generations, and they sold grapes to established winemakers for almost 10 years. My brother eventually took over the farming and got to know the producers who were working with our fruit. One of them told him our grapes were held aside—not blended with any other fruit—to be bottled as a stand-alone wine for The White House. That’s when we knew we had something special on our hands, and I got the idea: We should make our own wine.

My brother was able to apprentice with different winemakers and do a lot of experimenting. In 1996, we made our first vintage of zinfandel, and I remember being at a restaurant and seeing a server open a bottle for other customers—I had to go outside and scream a little. When we started, there was no thought in our minds about being the first or only black-owned anything. We just wanted to make the best wines possible. The internet was not what it is today, so for years, most of the people drinking our wine didn’t know what we looked like. That “discovery” was part of the adventure during tours at Brown Estate.

My parents, who are now 80 years old, are proud of us and the work they started. In 2009, Daniel Shanks, who runs food and beverage at The White House, requested our chardonnay to be served at the Obamas’ holiday dinner. At that point we said, “Wow, we did it!”

Deneen Brown is the president of Brown Estate, Napa Valley’s first and only black-owned winery; brownestate.com