Party guests gather under the laurel trees

Attend a party at Brown Estate Vineyards in Napa Valley, California, and succumb instantly to the slow-paced pleasure of summer. On this particular afternoon, guests arrive to find benches, farm tables, and mismatched chairs scattered across the lawn. The informal setting, along with glasses of the Browns' Betelgeuse rosé, sets the mood for the meal to follow: a five-course feast that relies on locally grown summer produce.

"Within the first 15 minutes of our gatherings, everyone is relaxed," says Coral Brown, who teamed up with siblings Deneen and David to operate the family-run business. "There are people sitting on the steps, on the rock walls, in the gazebo. For me as a host, it's beautiful to see."
Cucumber-Cream Cheese Sandwiches with Sungold Tomato Gazpacho

Hard to believe the 450-acre property was ever an "uninhabitable ghost ranch," as Coral puts it. When her parents, Marcela and Bassett, purchased the place in 1981, it consisted of a dilapidated barn, a single withered grapevine, and an abandoned shell of a Victorian farmhouse. Marcela and Bassett—who grew up in Panama and Jamaica, respectively, before establishing a medical clinic in Los Angeles—had a vision: They would create a weekend getaway that would also keep their privileged, city-raised kids from becoming too soft. "We wanted them to know a different kind of life, to feel a connection to Mother Earth, the soil, the plants," Marcela says.

Kicking off the feast, Cucumber-Cream Cheese Sandwiches accompany Sungold Tomato Gazpacho. The Browns served their 2006 Chiles Valley Zinfandel with the soup and sandwich. "Its spiciness complements their subtle flavors," Coral says.  
Lobster Salad with Herb Croutons

"There was no TV, no pool, bugs everywhere—it was like camping," Coral says now. "No, it was like work camp!" Deneen interjects, citing the chores that would await their arrival: painting and renovating, mulching and weeding, and tending to 10 acres of newly planted grapevines, whose fruit was sold to neighboring wineries. Eventually, though, the three fell in love with the property. "We realized what a special place it was," David says, "and what it symbolized: the opportunity to live off our own land and create our own destiny." The siblings shifted into making their own wines in 1996; today, they produce 5,000 cases a year, garnering high marks from industry critics.

As the meal continues, citrus zest and mineral-rich fleur de sel cut through the rich lobster and crème fraîche salad, served on oversize herbed croutons. The Browns picked their full-bodied 2006 Chardonnay to go with the lobster salad because the wine's natural acidity cuts through the richness of the shellfish.  

All those years of shared toil have resulted in a remarkably tight-knit family—they live within a one-mile radius of each other, work together at the winery (Deneen as CEO, Coral as director of sales and promotions, and David as winegrower), and hold weekly meetings that touch on everything from family gossip to the latest grape blend.

Pencil asparagus is tossed with olive oil and vinegar, then served with ribbons of prosciutto and slivered radishes. The Browns' 2005 Chaos Theory is their version of an Italian "Super Tuscan" wine. Its complexity stands up to the strong flavors of the olive oil and prosciutto.
Marinated Beef Skirt Steak

"We live by a Three Musketeers philosophy—all for one, one for all," Deneen says. "Our little unit takes priority over everything else." (One caveat: Mom still knows best. When David resisted her suggestion to make a Chardonnay, Marcela won out with a time-tested masterstroke: "I'm your mother, that's why.")

Skirt steak that's been marinated and grilled is hearty, not heavy. The Browns combined the steak and Rice Salad for a final savory course, serving it with their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. "Its smoky cassis notes go well with grilled food," Coral says, "but won't overpower it."  
Rice Salad

Even when it comes to kicking back, the Browns keep their connection to the land front and center. At winery tastings, they serve artisanal cheeses and breads from nearby producers, and they partner with area chefs, whether for meetings of their 700-member wine club or for the afternoon party featured here.

Served alongside a simple summer meal, this Rice Salad gets its snap from sherry vinegar.
Peaches and cream

Dave created this meal for the Browns with uncomplicated recipes that use fresh, local produce. "It's not about being highbrow," Dave says. "It's about being approachable." Coral agrees. "Summer is a lazy time in Napa," she says. "We just live off the garden, the grill, and the cellar."

To finish off the feast, ripe berries and peaches need little more than a touch of vanilla; even whipped cream is optional. The Browns served their 2006 Arrested Zinfandel, a versatile dessert wine they've fortified with their own brandy.