Sat. Jan 28th, 2023

Suzanne Deal Booth is not your ordinary art collector, and her new wine project, Bella Oaks, is not your typical Napa Cab. Booth is an art preservationist, a curator at heart, and she has devoted most of her life to making art more accessible to everyone, as well as supporting artists in accomplishing their work. She’s the founder of the Friends of Heritage Preservation (FOHP), which has contributed to more than 80 preservation and conservation projects in 18 countries, and she has endowed two annual awards: the Suzanne Deal Booth Rome Prize for Historic Preservation and Conservation at the American Academy in Rome, and the Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize at the Contemporary Austin. In sum, she arrived in Napa with a deep aesthetic commitments, which continue to expand as the wine project evolves.

In 2010, in an intuitive leap of faith, Booth bought the storied old Rutherford vineyard owned by Belle and Barney Rhodes, whose vines had supplied grapes to Heitz Cellars from 1976-2007. Deal sold fruit to Staglin Family Vineyard from 2010-2016, when she decided that Bella Oaks should have its own label. She chose Nigel Kinsman, former winemaker for Araujo, whose own label, Kinsman Eades, makes knockout wines, to craft the property’s own interpretation of these grapes.

I first tasted the wine one day when Booth wasn’t in town, and though I’d wanted to meet her, I was kind of glad I could faun over the wine without seeming disingenuous in front of the owner. You see, I’m not a devotee of California Cab, in general, the way so many wine collectors are. I visit often, I taste a lot, and I often end up preferring other grapes from other regions — Willamette and Anderson Valley Pinots, Italian Nebbiolos — but Bella Oaks won me over before the wine even hit my palate. The aroma of the inaugural 2018 vintage is nuanced, floral, vertically ascendant (meaning lyrically deep), and balanced, something that the genre is not particularly well-known for. I said to my host, “Are you sure this is a Cab?” She laughed, and I sensed she’d gotten similar responses before, as this is a categorically different approach to Cab-making in the Napa Valley, and word is getting around. In the mouth, the lush berry-driven fruit is given ballast by a subtle maquis-like note — imagine circumnavigating Sardinia in the summer with your windows downs — and the spice impulses, for me, are tied to the florals (freesia, perhaps?), while the mouthfeel has a levity I rarely find in Cabernet, inviting but not imposing.

At this point, I hadn’t really even inquired into the art, two pieces of which I had driven by as I entered: Bosco Sodi’s “Untitled” clay cubes designed to change in their environment over time and another untitled sculpture by Joel Shapiro in bronze painted red. But I was tasting the wine adjacent to the vineyard, where I had just walked past the spectacular “Le Génie de la Bastille,” by Max Ernst, and it occurred to me that there was a synergy here, an aesthetic throughline, if you will, that connected the wine in the bottle with the art on the land, a paradox having to do with the simultaneity of gravitas and grace.

A few months later when I met Booth, I was eager to ask her about why she chose the pieces she did for Bella Oaks. She is a grand presence in any room, quietly commanding one’s attention, and the first thing she said to me was, “Have you seen the labyrinth?” Of course, this place of magical vibes would have need of one. She had commissioned landscape architect Andrea Cochran to design a labyrinth after the Chartres Cathedral, made of various stones from some of her favorite places, including Dublin, Boston and Utah. It’s a satisfying space where one can realign, tune in to what’s important.

The piece that ended up being the central focus of conversation is Yayoi Kusama’s “Where the Lights in My Heart Go,” a mirror-polished stainless steel and aluminum cube with an Infinity Mirror Room punctuated with holes to allow light in. Kusama, best known for her pop art, turned to this style of work as an antidote to the detachment of depersonalization, a mental health disorder she suffered that her art brought awareness to.

And on this visit, I was able to taste the just-bottled 2019 Bella Oaks, which will be released on September 13th for $295 a bottle — get on the list here.

Booth has recently acquired the nearby Swanson winery and tasting room and will eventually have a facility that allows Bella Oaks to have complete control over every aspect of farming and winemaking. For now, you can taste (by appointment) at Wheeler Farms down the road, then head over to Bella Oaks for the art tour, which is not to be missed.

There’s no doubt that Bella Oaks will be a must-have wine for the new guard of Napa collectors eager to see what this region can do when a a bit of restraint is employed. I sense that this wine is a view into Napa’s future, and I hope I’m right.

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