Elaine Chukan Brown has emerged as an important voice on California’s dynamic wine scene. Having worked in commercial fishing in Alaska and later as a philosophy professor, Elaine took an accidental turn and arrived at a place where her writing on American wine has become a beacon of guidance for consumers.
An accomplished wine journalist, Elaine is the the American Specialist for JancisRobinson.com, and as Contributing Writer to Wine & Spirits Magazine. Her coverage on American wine industry has led her to be named by the International Wine & Spirits Competition and VinItaly as one of five of the top Wine Communicators of the Year in the world.
Well-versed in California wine history, Elaine chatted to us about a legendary 1976 Geyserville from Ridge Vineyards, a Pinot Noir made by California wine pioneer André Tchelistcheff and a varied selection of Chardonnays in her fridge.
This October, Elaine is also heading to Hong Kong to host a masterclass examining the history of California winemaking through 8 Chardonnays. Interested participants can contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Meanwhile, a grand tasting of California wines will be hosted on the same day on October 18, please click here to register.
How many years have you been aged so far?
My vintage, 1974, is a difficult one around the globe. While traveling internationally producers will often hear my birth year and offer to pour a different vintage right beside it instead. Happily, 1974 was a fantastic vintage for California wine and I have been lucky enough to taste across the classic Cabernets of the time, as well as old Ridge Zinfandel, and even California Pinot Noir from 1974 that even just two years ago was still in perfect condition.
What led you to wine?
I grew up commercial fishing for salmon in Alaska beginning my fishing career at age 9. Then in my 20s I became an academic and worked as a philosophy professor. After several years I realized it is a difficult time to be an academic in the United States so I decided to leave that career. I accidentally started my wine career by creating illustrated tasting notes. When I started them in 2011 no one had published anything like it in wine before and it led to me working in wine, first doing illustration work for a local wine shop-wine bar, then writing and illustrating for magazines, and now writing, speaking, and illustrating around the world.
What’s your pet peeves about wine?
Wine is a joyful, passionate, often intellectual beverage. In my work, I try to keep the idea that if someone is curious about wine all they should need is that interest. A lot of people aren’t interested in wine, and that is fine. But if a person is interested in wine, then let’s communicate and share in a way that is approachable. My pet peeve about wine is the sense of superiority that sometimes happens. Knowing more doesn’t make a person better. It just makes them more knowledgeable. I prefer to stay curious and approachable even as I gain knowledge.
Describe what’s an alcohol-free day like for you?
Honestly, I work so much I try to just lie down and not do much as often as possible. It sounds absurdly simple, but I really enjoy just relaxing with friends, or on my own.
What’s your secret passion?
Sci-fi is a powerful lens through which to both understand the ethical and moral values of a society, and also to help people imagine new possible social worlds. I can’t get enough.
What kind of wines are in your wine fridge?
I am constantly tasting Chardonnay from around the world so I have a mix of Hawke’s Bay, Sonoma, Margaret River, and Santa Maria Valley examples right now. As well as a few smart sparkling wines. I try to keep some old Madeira around (it keeps so incredibly well), and I always need champagne.
What’s the weirdest wine you’ve tasted so far that you actually liked?
It doesn’t properly count as weird as much as unusual but one of my favourite wine styles is Rosé de Saignée champagne. Because it is made by actually macerating the fruit before the initial fermentation it is actually a harder style of rosé to make and as a result is relatively uncommon. Any tannin or bitterness in the vin clair is accentuated through the secondary fermentation. So, those few producers who make Rosé de Saignée rather than simply adding juice to the base wine have always struck me as masters of their craft. The result is wonderful too as it has so much vinous character yet still the bubbles. I could go on….
If you can recommend one wine to any leader in the world, who would it be and what would you recommend?
The 1976 Geyserville from Ridge has aged beautifully retaining an incredible balance of freshness and depth. In my mind Geyserville is one of the most historically important vineyards in California, and Ridge has done such consistent work raising and sharing the quality potential of both California wine and old vine vineyards. Geyserville captures that combination of authenticity, honest winemaking, legacy, and vision in a way that communicates so much of what California is all about. With that in mind I’d choose the 1976 vintage for a one on one meeting with someone like Jimmy Carter, who I believe shows those sorts of qualities as a person as well. He truly chose a life of service for the larger community following his Presidency. Bringing the older vintage to meet with someone like him would represent an interest in contemplation and conversation. But if I could instead choose the wine for a group of world leaders then I would select a more recent vintage of the Geyserville. Bringing the newer vintage would simply be a matter of broader appeal for a more varied group.
If you can drink any wine in the world, which wine would you like to have?
I have to admit I am not one to think in terms of ‘a bucket list’ so it is hard for me to pick one pivotal wine in this kind of way. I have also been lucky enough to taste a host of incredible wines, so I have no reason to grumble. I am very historically curious though so there are wines I wish to taste because of the larger story they are also part of. For only one year in 1971 Ridge made wine from the Eisele Vineyard, which is considered one of the finest Cabernet vineyards in Napa Valley. I would love to taste that wine. André Tchelistcheff famously complained about how hard it was to make quality Pinot Noir but he also claimed the best wine he ever made was one vintage of Pinot from the 1940s. I’d love to taste that wine.
If you are a wine, how would you imagine your tasting note would be like?
I’ve thought I am probably a bit too much like Nebbiolo with fine boned structure and a bit of a firm demeanour that softens with time to reveal a complex character and plenty of length (of conversation).
What makes you happy?
Other people’s joy really fills me with my own. I can’t help but appreciate my friends’ successes and joyful relationships. One of my favourite things to do is hear how couples met. Inevitably the story goes longer than either expects and reveals so many funny, insightful tidbits about both people. It makes me feel like I’m seeing them fall in love all over again, which is always a happy site.
If you can only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
It would have to be champagne.