By Barbara Barrielle
I first had the pleasure of meeting Elaine Chukan Brown when we were both invited to a harvest lunch at Jordan Winery. This traditional feast, orchestrated by the lovely – and tireless – Lisa Mattson, brought me in contact with someone who inspired me immediately by the fact that she was a successful writer who had raised her college-age daughter, Rachel, on her own and had a grace and intelligence that I got to experience more intimately after being asked to write about her.
Brown is a native Alaskan… really and truly a native with parents from two different Alaskan tribes. She grew up in a fishing family and has been on the water since the age of nine, starting her own salmon fishing operation in her teens. Brown has always worked with a dedication that puts those of us who follow a traditional path to shame. She fished the season tirelessly, sleeping very little, and experiencing the highs and lows of what nature delivers. If the season was June 1st through August 15th, Brown would keep fishing after the crew left picking up the late season catch. “I am not necessarily driven,” she says. “I do what’s in front of me.”
As one gets to know Brown and follows her unconventional life to where it has led her now – to the top of the wine writing heap – it becomes evident that this simple belief, or really practice, has been the reason her life has been an adventure. Not an adventure of extreme sports or pushing the limits, but an adventure of exploration. She chooses a path and excels, then may choose another path and give that avenue her full attention.
Having a successful fishing operation, Brown chose to attend college a bit later, but when she did, she did it with gusto. Quickly ripping through college at Northern Arizona University, then earning a McGill University Tomlinson Fellowship and serving as Dartmouth College’s Charles A. Eastman Fellow, Elaine returned to teach philosophy at her alma mater in Flagstaff, being recognized consistently for her work. “Graduate school is so much work, so much pressure. I just had to get it done,” she says. “I was always expecting to be judged, and I have to get things done with excellence. Everything is an opportunity to contribute and deliver with excellence.”
After almost ten years as a professor of philosophy, Brown decided to begin to unwind her life as an academic. She gave herself a year and, within that time, knowing she was not under pressure to produce or create lesson plans for the future, she started to explore wines. Wine had created memorable moments in her life and, as with philosophy, she was keen to explore this concept more. Having to write under a pseudonym, Brown started a blog with the unlikely title of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews, and just as powerful and perfectly unique, she started illustrating her wine experiences. It was on the walls of FLG Terroir Wine Bar and Bistro in Flagstaff, where she traded illustrated wine tasting notes for wine, that her wine “writing” career took off. Unexpectedly and with a fury, Brown was recognized as an artist in wine when her whimsical yet spot-on notes, were posted on some wine blogs, and people in the wine world took note.
The same approach she brought to academia, she applied to her wine education. Friends and colleagues echo that commitment when speaking about Brown. Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead and Massican, discovered Brown’s unique approach early on, as did Cathy Corison who proudly displays Brown’s illustrated overview of a Corison 25-year vertical in the tasting room. Petroski describes Brown’s unique style, “from an academic perspective she is incredibly thoughtful about wine, knowing the right questions and also how to listen. But her listening is always charged in thought. While she is listening, you can see she is thinking, reshaping the question and following up with more depth and insight.”
Petrosky continues, “Her process is rigorous, but her writing makes it seem effortless. She is truly gifted, and we in the wine industry are fortunate she is exerting her energies on us and not the work of philosophy, her former career as an academic.” As you will see, her friends and fans speak eloquently, admiringly – and at length – about her.
It was not easy to make the decision to go full throttle into wine and leave the comforts of an academic career, but Brown attacked and has not relented, to the benefit of all who love her zest and fervor for wine discovery. Early on, she was invited to Friuli, a sought-after trip for wine writers, but Brown was new to this world. Dan Fredman was one who encouraged her to go, and while tasting and eating all day, Brown would pound out her blog each and every night. If there was an hour off, she would write. This was in front of her, and she delivered it with excellence and continues to do so.
As a PR pro and sommelier Fredman explains, “Elaine Brown came late to the wine world, and this may explain why she’s been able to translate complex wine topics to novices and pros alike,” he says. “It’s all about exercising her innate curiosity about every detail imaginable… she brings an intellectual point of view that’s backed by academic discipline, but all of her work, whether in a magazine piece or as a moderator at a wine symposium, is informed by her approach as a wine lover and sheer appreciation of a subject she so obviously adores.”
“This is my all time favorite photo ever for California wine history – I am holding Rhys Glaab (son of Ryan and Megan Glaab of Ryme Wines) and standing with Randall Grahm, the late George Vare (who brought in North America’s first Ribolla Gialla but was a significant business influence in North Coast wine otherwise too), and Abe Schoener of Scholium Project,” says Brown.
Fredman also pointed out to me that Brown goes deep into a subject and spends an extraordinary amount of time getting to know winemakers, growers, vintners, marketers, and the whole gamut of what goes into wine.
During her expanding adventures in the wine world, Brown sacrificed in ways that demonstrate her dedication to what has become a truly inspiring career. She moved to Sonoma to be close to the largest American wine regions (although she is also an expert on Arizona wines and has spoken about the quality of wines from this region on several occasions) and raised her daughter,Rachel, modestly, building her wine career and earning money where she could. In the summers Rachel would visit extended family in Alaska, and Brown would delve into months of wine exploration. She developed a system, picking annual goals like making 2016 the year of the “role of soils” segueing into Chardonnay in 2017 and 2018. A study of Zinfandel will be her focus for 2019.
She is a popular speaker and presenter, having given inspirational keynote talks at Pinot Noir NZ, Prowein, Women in Wine, Central Otago Pinot Noir, IPNC and TEXSOM. James Tidwell, the founder of TEXSOM, says, “Elaine inspires through her depth of dedication to her chosen crafts. Whether as a writer, illustrator, or speaker, Elaine not only practices the skills necessary to excel but also does the research that allows her to convey the complexity and nuances within and amongst subjects. Her insight and commentary are held in the highest esteem, inspiring for the thought and care that are given.” Tidwell continues to explain that she has been instrumental in many areas of the popular TEXSOM, from speaking to wine judging, to writing for the magazine, and, finally, illustrating for the conference program.
Her illustrations are magical, her writing is thoughtful, and her life is inspiring. And Brown has only just begun. Now writing on North American wines for the esteemed JancisRobinson.com, the site’s eponymous founder is also impressed by Brown. “Elaine is one of the most diligent of our team of 14 on JancisRobinson.com. She took particular trouble, for instance with her (free) four-part series on the fascinating history of Chardonnay in California, continuing to supplement and refine the detail of it right up to publication during Christmas week,” says Jancis Robinson. “She’s also very good at personally keeping me up to date with West Coast wine news and is a great public speaker.”
As Brown herself says, “I am earnest in doing my work. I think, how can I contribute? Is there a chance for excellence here? I want to educate on a subject that may be complicated, but I share it in a way that all you need is interest.
“People make a mistake assuming that this is simplification, but it is clarification, and the details make it compelling. Education is everything I do. I want to know how things work and am always curious,” she continues. “I need to present (information) in a way that genuinely show what I find interesting. When I started, I was brave and naïve but had my willingness to learn and ask questions. In the wine industry, a lot of people have given me their time, and I respect that time, and I am sharing it.”