Speaking Easy
Catherine Kwong Designs Napa’s Brown Downtown

By Kendra Boutell
Photography by Aubrie Pick

At Napa's wine tasting room, Brown Downtown, a large triptych sketch portrays the story of the "Duppy Conqueror." Inspired by Bob Marley's song about the duppy, malevolent spirits who haunt humans, the art reflects Bassett Brown's Jamaican heritage. Brown, his wife Marcela, and their three grown children operate Brown Estate Vineyards.. The recently completed speakeasy-styled tasting room highlights their signature Zinfandels, along with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo and specialty wines.

Located discreetly upstairs in the historic Napa Register Building, the loft like space includes 20-foot-high ceilings and two exterior brick walls with large arched windows. To create the elegant, sexy venue, the Browns envisioned, they hired San Francisco designer, Catherine Kwong. Attracted to her tailored yet evocative style, the family discovered Kwong's work at the 2012 San Francisco Decorator Showcase. The designer selected a moody midnight color palette to compliment the 1905 era architecture. She delineated the floor plan into a reception desk with four tasting areas including two bars, a lounge, and communal dining table.

At the entrance, the ancient philosopher Atticus' quote “I hope to arrive to my death, late, in love, and a little drunk” greets visitors. Kwong chose C2 Paint, Espionage, an indigo shade, for the walls and stained the wide planked wood floor ebony. She juxtaposed the window shutters horizontal slats with vertically fluted-glass in the steel divider screens. The bars on opposing walls feature paneled millwork cases and countertops of white marble with black veining. For seating Kwong sourced locally, installing Fyrn's minimalistic Stemn barstools in a charcoal wood finish. While a trio of antiqued metal lanterns illuminates one bar, the triptych depicting the Caribbean ghost buster hangs behind the other.

The lounge area mixes Eoos' visually open Crosshatch Chair with custom channel back sofas and oval coffee tables. Across from the conversation grouping, Kwong centered a sawhorse dining table on Madeline Weinrib's black and white Sugar wool flatweave rug. The table flanked with simple benches invites patrons to linger while sipping Brown Estate's 2015 Chiles Valley Zin. Brown Downtown pairs the deep, dark, and decadent wine with Cotswold Cheddar and matriarch Marcela Brown's hand cut marmalade. Brown Downtown Napa | 1005 Coombs Street, Napa 707/963.2435

Decoding The Grape
Southern California Vineyards and Wineries

By Ken Friedenreich

If variety is its spice, then contrast is the sizzle on life’s red meat. Nowhere does this axiom hold more dramatically than in southern California, where the 11 counties south and east of Santa Barbara contain around 200 of the state’s vineyards and wineries.

Fashion and funk compete with the audacity of motorcycles skirting the HOV lanes of its freeways, and we envy their swift temerity as they speed past slow moving cars and trucks.

There is exuberance in the edginess of the whole place. It’s not unfriendly, but we require armor, the kind with designer labels moving like banners at Agincourt or Gettysburg.

On our re-calibration of the region’s wine, the lesser known place of origin forth Golden State's bumper crop of things to do after Disneyland, is the surprising scale of accommodations restoring the weary after a day of meeting winemakers, barrel tasting, schmoozing and recalling the wines.

We followed our grape trail from Temecula into the older settlements of the Rancho towns and the Forbidden Planet landscape of Ramona. You have to remind yourself that San Diego center is less than 30 miles away. But we were not still looking for the Rat Pack at the bar; we were looking for Pope Alexander VI and the other Borgia's. Like them or not, they were interesting and knew how to live large. So, too, did we, at the Royal Del Mar Resort operated by the Fairmont group of upscale properties. This one is off the charts.

This is a Renaissance palazzo with four heated pools, authentic and reinventions of Bourbon period furniture, all set within 400 acres of parkland, with service a court retainer was bred to appreciate. The snob appeal, however, puts no one off. There is élan everywhere and sprezzatura by the kilo. With a five star restaurant on the property to match the overall response to the place (the Addison), the wine cellars impose as one expects. With so many amenities, inspirited by the Breakers at Palm Beach and the architecture of Addison Mizner, you can't go wrong except by having to leave.

Ross Rizzo, winemaker and family proprietor at Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo encapsulates the disparity between accepted lore and what probably happened. A Rizzo uncle came a-hunting in a patch of old Spanish land grant vines, long neglected. Uncle Rizzo bagged some critters, of course, but he also bagged the property. Operating since 1889, this compound is an object lesson in traditional dry farming that also produces avocados, dates, olives, as well as wine varietals. It’s nice to be on property that retains the best of pre-industrial agriculture, a part remnant of the mission tide.

Ready cash for the old Spanish land grant property came from the proximity of Tijuana, the happiest place on earth during prohibition in California.

In addition to estate grown Syrah and Zinfandel, Rizzo purveys a Chablis (Chenin Blanc and Colombard) a Rosso (Barbara and Mouvedre) and an Alberino, this latter a Spanish varietal with increasing traction in our domestic wine scene. There’s also Port and a library of goodies, too. All this happens in a rancho compound of low slung buildings that exude the mission past.

More than other places, Woof n’ Rose is about as far from the resort ambience we endured than any other wine destination. This hill country hosts armies of boulders in hillside redoubts. The tasting room has the grace of an abandoned taco wagon, with wine barrels apparently holding the landscape in one place. Two dogs provide the woof; the roses are the very red kind. And like the Cabernet Franc, they are superior. I remain partial to small output wineries as they seem closer to the point of wine--to express the varietal and place, of course, but also the artistry and insolence of people who enjoy their work because they take pleasure in the whole cycle of producing good wines. Stephen and Marilyn Kahle who like so many former engineers turned to winemaking, made the right turn.

Ramona Ranch near the eponymous farm town looks down on a vale of grapes from rolling hills, boulders and all. This is a little farm within a recent AVA inside the larger map of southern California wine country. It comes with estate grapes, two rescued Shetland ponies named Thelma and Louise, two happy winery dogs, various cats and wonderful Italian varietals like Sangiovese and Tannat and Zinfandel. Syrah is emerging as a go-to grape in these parts, and your hosts will sit you down at the dining table that is the tasting room. I congratulate Teri, Micole and the fauna for good wine priced to drink and made to recall with pleasure.

Milagro Farms Winery returns visitors to a more familiar tasting room experience; it offers varietals with a view. Once more, the old Spanish heritage informs some of their portfolio, such as the Belleno Riojo. Like wines noted above, the wines are individual takes on grapes produced in a certain place that is not swathed in the pretensions of other wine coming from better known AVAs. These vineyards tell us that the reputation of California wine rests on a plinth that virtually came onshore with Christopher Columbus.

My interest in these properties is not merely their varietal variety, but the distinctiveness of the place when set against the trust fund ambience of the better-known wine lands of California. The sizzle in this part of San Diego County is sizzle you can taste, almost as much as the steaks we had at Vintana, your typical, wine friendly eatery perched atop a giant Lexus car dealership. Isn't that fun? Well, this is California.