The history behind Napa Valley’s first black-owned estate winery


In this morning’s “Hidden History,” we’re heading to the North Bay with a look at local pioneers in the wine-making business.

“Pictured above is Dr. Brown and Mrs. Brown and Muhammad Ali checking out Mrs. Brown at a party,” said wine educator Halle Lewis. 

And over the years, that’s the kind of company Bassett Brown and his wife Marcela have kept. 

Not bad for a man from Jamaica and a woman from Panama. 

In 1980, soon after the couple bought an abandoned ranch in Saint Helena, they transformed the property into the beauty it is today, putting their hearts and souls into growing and selling grapes to local winemakers. 

Blazing a trail and setting the standard for aspiring black wine connoisseurs in the Napa Valley.

“Being a black-owned winery and being family-owned… and just starting from the bottom and making their way up, now having two, two businesses to run, I think is the allure, and just people wanting to support them,” said Lewis. 

Dr. and Mrs. Brown have since retired, staying mainly at their estate and vineyard in Saint Helena. 

The family business is now in the hands of their children. 

Originally, Lewis says the Browns wished their kids would become doctors, but the trio had other plans, and it looks like they made the right choice. 

In 1996, they officially launched the Brown label, and 20 years later, the Browns produced their 20th vintage. 

To date, the elder Browns mainly keep to themselves, occasionally hosting some members at the estate — boasting a wine cave. 

Almost two years ago, the family opened Brown Downtown — a second-floor wine tasting room in the heart of Napa at the corner of Coombs and First Streets. 

Here, the Brown label and its reputation continue to grow, the family specializing in Zinfandel and attracting people from all walks of life, inspiring young professional to dream big. 

“For many black people, we’ve either been excluded from many businesses or, you know, um, career paths. So, it’s important for us to have representation in every area, and to understand we can do anything that we want,” said visitor Chynna Steele-Johnson. 

And if you’re really good at what you do — word of mouth travels fast. 

“We  heard about it through some friends and relatives about this being here, and we’re actually celebrating our 38th wedding anniversary. So, we said, hey, let’s go check that winery out, you know, African American winery,” said visitor Anita Thrower. 

“I think it’s a perfect example of what we as a people have been able to do, uh, with what we were afforded with,” said visitor Arnold Thrower. 

A valley treasure — the product of heart and determination, generationally sustained by a deep sense of family.



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