Winter 2015
Coral Brown '85: Cultivating a Brand

Cultivating a Brand

by Mel Malmberg

Walk into any wine store and ask if they carry Brown Estate. Eyes light up, lips smack contemplatively and proprietors say things like, “That's a great wine,” and “I really love those guys.” If you are lucky enough to get a bottle, marked with a scarab that symbolizes the farmers' reverence for the cycle of life, savor it.

While you are sipping, cruise the Brown Estate website, with its mellow, sunlit depictions of a bucolic lifestyle, its witty observations about food and family, its stunning BE Paper newsletter. Check out the Twitter feed (@brownestate)— where the first-ever wine hashtag (#brownzin) was born. And toast Coral Brown '85, director of brand management, daughter, sister and mother. She's got a great life, and she knows it.

Brown Estate Winery is a family affair, and it all began the same year that Brown started at Prep, which she remembers as “a really good experience. It was great to be one of the few girls. I loved the academics, did track and swimming and learned to get along with boys!” While she was busy making a little history at Prep, her parents purchased a remote ranch in Napa Valley. Pioneering runs in the Brown family, along with a strong work ethic.

“It was weekends, summers, vacations at the ranch,” remembers Brown. “As kids (she has a brother and a sister), we hated this ‘characterbuilding exercise' that lasted through high school and college.”

Cultivating a Brand

She remembers her parents' excitement when they bought the nearly derelict property, tucked away in a remote part of the just-takingoff Napa Valley. It had only two structures, an 1859 barn and an 1885 house, on 500 acres. The realtor shook hands with the beaming couple and left them with these parting words, “Congratulations. Too bad this land isn't suitable for wine grapes.”

Brown went to Berkeley, majored in psychology and went on to medical school, all the while working alongside her family in Napa. They renovated the old house (which had a resident population of 250,000 bats), discovered and developed water sources, learned the secrets of their land and figured out that, against the odds, the ranch was a great place to grow grapes—primarily Zinfandel, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah.

Brown dropped out of medical school and joined the family business in the early ‘90s, discovering the “incredibly supportive” fraternity of grape growers. She plunged enthusiastically into the winemakers' lifestyle, learning as she went, studying the winemaking process, participating in the ZAP Zinfandel festival and making contacts in the food world.

Cultivating a Brand

At first, the Browns sold their grapes to established winemakers, but in 1996 they crushed their first Napa Valley Zinfandel under their own label. A rave review in Wine Spectator in 1997 gave the family the confidence to create Brown Estate Wines. Coral's brother, David, is the winegrower, her sister, Deneen, is company president and her parents lend a hand but are still Angelenos, working in her father's medical practice. Coral, in charge of the Estate and director of brand management, now lives in the old house with her fiancé and two children (Ian, 22, and Tillie, 17).

“My job in a nutshell, is the look, the vibe, the taste,” she says. “I do all of the pairings—at restaurants and on the ranch—that are essential to the Brown Estate experience.”

Brown manages a staff that includes a resident chef, a homesteading consultant and tasting-room workers. She travels the US, Japan, Korea and China to host tastings and winemaker dinners and to meet with retailers and restaurateurs. She's also in charge of the wine club (which boasts some Flintridge Prep alumni members, including Caroline DeWitt '85 and Laura Pandya ‘00) and makes sure every visitor to the winery is greeted with a hug.

She is passionate about wine and family, and, for Brown, they are intertwined.

“Every visitor leaves with a connection to us,” she explains. “They understand our passion a little better, and hopefully, they start to share it, with us and with their own network.”

A big part of the BE brand management takes place on social media. An introduction to Twitter co-founder Evan Williams that coincided with the economic downturn led Brown Estate to invent the first wine hashtag (#brownzin), in 2009. This push has brought young people into the fold of those who appreciate the wine, the food and the overall aesthetic of Brown Estate, as well as the warm, authentic, rustic-yet-elegant lifestyle the family has created. The old barn now boasts a tasting room and kitchen downstairs and offices above, and the 7,000-square-foot cave, reached through a “hobbit door,” is a coveted party venue.

“Working creatively with my family every day is so rewarding.” — Coral Brown '85

Napa Valley is all about great food, great vintages and great stories, and Brown Estate fits right in. The BE website declares that “Wine is an elixir of social engagement,” and Brown feels that every time she shares a bottle of wine, she shares her family's story.

Brown continues to build the brand through word of mouth. Tastings are by reservation only. She posts on social media daily, sometimes about the ranch, sometimes about politics and culture. Brown's current adventures include living more off the land with a huge kitchen garden, chickens and goats and working toward having the winery certified organic.

“Working creatively with my family every day is so rewarding,” she says, just before she sits down to a staff lunch of short ribs (and a glass of wine) in the BE tasting-room kitchen. “This isn't our hobby, it's our livelihood. I feel really fortunate that the work I love makes people happy.”