Twenty years ago, Bassett Brown had an idea for a family project: He would buy a ranch where his family could spend time together working on the property.
Brown's first thought was that he would return to his homeland, Jamaica, in search of a suitable piece of land. He had visions of owning a fruit orchard and using that fruit to make juice. When that didn't work out, friends told Brown about Chiles Valley -- an area east of Rutherford that is included within the Napa Valley appellation -- where a 450-acre property was up for sale.
When he purchased the land, in 1981, Brown didn't figure that his idea for a family activity would turn out to be a full-fledged family business -- running a vineyard and then starting a winery. But the result of his idea is the wonderfully rich and polished Brown Estate Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley 1997 (91 points, $22), the family's second release. Only 700 cases were made of the wine, which will be in stores in February.
Bassett, a family physician with a practice in Los Angeles, and his wife, Marcela, a Panama native, worked on their new property with their three children, Deneen, Coral and David. "We were dragged up to the ranch during summers and vacations," recalled Deneen, now 35. "Back then, it was being 'dragged.'"
The family analyzed the soil, did some research, talked to their neighbors and decided what to grow. Ten acres of hillside Zinfandel were planted in 1985, followed in 1990 by 40 more acres of vines, primarily Zinfandel, along with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Before long, the Browns were selling grapes to Grgich Hills Cellar, Green & Red Vineyard and D-Cubed Cellars.
The Browns were so impressed with what D-Cubed winemaker Duane Dappen did with their grapes that when they decided, in 1994, to make wine under their own label, they hired Dappen as their winemaker.
Up until then, the ranch had still been mainly a weekend project, but the family became more deeply involved in the business. Deneen and David, 29, now live in a renovated Victorian house on the Chiles Valley property. Laughing when asked what her title is, Deneen explained that she does everything from frost protection to marketing to paperwork. David manages the vineyard, and Coral, 32, is thinking of entering the winemaking side of the business.
Bassett wasn't alone in getting his children excited about their Chiles Valley venture. Marcela used to whip up glorious dinners for the family, challenging them to guess the seasonings that she used in her cooking. Testing their palate memories later became more formalized, with white tablecloths and Riedel glasses, as the Browns held blind wine tastings among themselves. Marcela is credited with having the best palate in the family, but Deneen and David got the Zinfandel bug together. "I think we tasted every 1994 and 1995 California Zinfandel we could get our hands on," claimed Deneen.
The Browns plan to increase their wine production, starting with the planting of an additional 50 acres of vines, most likely Zinfandel. Now when the family meets at the vineyard, it's the kids who are "dragging" Bassett and Marcela along, much to the delight of the proud parents.