A much-appreciated breeze cooled her face on the warm day as she walked along a meandering path adorned with lovely flowers. These floral works of art created by Mother Nature herself proudly showed their vibrant colors as the sun’s rays lit them up. Preserving culture and art had been her life’s work and her mission of not intervening too much in the preservation process was an important rule she abided by, as art and culture needed to have their own voices. But at that moment, when she saw the purity of expression of nature, she knew she had to make sure a vineyard that she owned had its own voice – one of the first official single vineyards in Napa Valley.
As many Napa Valley wine lovers know, the first vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa is Martha’s Vineyard in the prestigious area of Rutherford. In 1962, the vineyard was bought by Martha and Tom May just a few years after Belle and Barney Rhodes had planted it; Barney was having issues commuting to work and overseeing the property hence why he sold it to the Mays. One might think he deeply regretted the sale, however, as a few years later, in 1968, he and his wife bought another single vineyard in Rutherford that they named Bella Oaks. It was a property that was first planted with vines as far back as 1875 and transitioned at some point to orchards. But the Rhodeses planted the property with Cabernet Sauvignon, foreseeing that Napa Cabernet, especially from Rutherford, was the future.
In 2010, Suzanne Deal Booth bought the “original 14-acre” Bella Oaks vineyard as she was taken by the history of the property yet dismayed by its state as it was far from its glory days. She hired viticulturist David Abreu as vineyard manager as he not only had an impressive resume of working with stellar vineyards but the idea that he was a true “Napa native son” with a familiarity with the Bella Oaks property sealed the deal. Hence, a complete overhaul of the vineyards included new vines (rootstocks and clones), canopy management and row orientation; they did everything and anything to assist the vineyard in expressing its true sense of place in the most elegant way possible.
In the beginning, Suzanne sold the fruit from Bella Oaks to Staglin to make a special bottling as she not only greatly admired this family winery but she also knew that Bella Oaks’ history consisted of a valuable relationship with another well-respected wine family – Heitz. And like any good preservationist, she was continuing this tradition for the property.
But one day, when she went on a walk in Napa Valley taking in the incredible natural beauty surrounding her, it hit her – Bella Oaks needed to have its own voice.
Bella Oaks Vineyard
Regarding the conservation of visual arts and cultural heritage, Suzanne has a remarkable background spanning three decades. She has worked with many notable institutions and eventually started her own charitable organization called The Friends of Heritage Preservation (FOHP). The FOHP has contributed to over 80 preservation and conservation projects in 18 countries including an architectural retrofit of a Napoleonic coffee house on the Grand Canal in Venice. Her organization also addresses intangible cultural heritage such as a stone carving training program in Jordan for Syrian refugees and the documentation of the civil rights movement by the last participants in an Oral History project in Alabama with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. And so, when a significant piece of history of Rutherford, Napa, which is physically represented by the Bella Oaks estate, started to fade into obscurity, she had to take action as “preservation is not passive, it is a very active endeavor,” noted Suzanne.
There is nothing like being the first of anything of significance and hence why, many times, Bella Oaks lived in the shadow of Martha’s Vineyard when the Heitz family was making both wines as they bought the Bella Oaks fruit from Belle and Barney Rhodes and the Martha’s Vineyard grapes from Martha and Tom May, both sets of couples being good friends of the Heitz family. A Bella Oaks Vineyard bottling was made by Heitz from the first vintage in 1976 until 2007 as the Rhodeses sold the vineyard to a cousin in 2008, until finally Suzanne bought the property.
Not only does Bella Oaks have a fantastic reputation due to being highly valued for its terroir (sense of place) by those in the know but it is a fitting living monument of the legacy of Belle and Barney Rhodes. They were champions of great food and fine wine in Napa Valley for many decades, hosted many wonderful dinners and wine tastings and for anyone seriously involved in fine wine or food, their home was the must-visit stop in Napa Valley. Suzanne has collected tons of notebooks left behind by Belle and Barney that talk about all the grand dinners, events and the running of Bella Oaks. She is determined to preserve every part of their life that she can find, as they shaped the enchanting world of Napa. Even when Suzanne speaks about the property, one would think she would only want to focus on the considerable investment and sacrifice she has made in bringing it back to its prime. Still, she often wants to return to the Rhodeses’ importance and that she is a steward who only wants to do justice to the property and their legacy.
Freeing The Voice of Bella Oaks
Again, Suzanne had a great relationship with the Staglin family winery, who made a Bella Oaks single vineyard bottling from 2011 until 2015. Still, after that walk where she realized that she needed to give Bella Oaks its own voice, she would have to make the wine herself, hence, assemble the ideal team to unlock the voice of Bella Oaks. Finally, a pivotal piece to the puzzle of how she would make Bella Oaks was when she found winemaker Nigel Kinsman. Originally from Australia and with a strong foundation in working in various top wine areas worldwide, Nigel and his family found their home in Napa. Even though the world is big, the wine world is relatively small and after Nigel made a name for himself, he was asked to become the winemaker at Eisele Vineyard Estate (known as Araujo Estate Wines at the time). From the beginning, he impressed many in the business with his first vintage of 2010 and stayed there until 2015; one day in 2017, he received a phone call that changed his direction.
Suzanne called Nigel and asked him if he was familiar with Bella Oaks and he quickly replied, “Yes!” Nigel is a true lover of Napa’s history and it is an obvious passion, so much so that sometimes one might think that he and his family have been in Napa for several generations. Serendipitously, he had just tasted a 1976 Bella Oaks, the first vintage, just a week before Suzanne’s call and of course, wines that are bought at auction are a gamble as one never knows the state of the bottle and so, initially, he had low expectations. “Oh my god, it was the most sublime Napa Cab I have had in a long time,” exclaimed Nigel. And so, it was meant to be; Nigel became the winemaker of Bella Oaks.
Both Suzanne and Nigel prefer to talk about those who have come before them as they are true devotees of the history of Napa. Nigel has even found a way to bring back a Cabernet Sauvignon clone called Bella Oaks as its unique qualities were discovered at the vineyard. It was planted in other areas yet was not replanted at its original home. And so Nigel has become a conservationist in his own way.
Even though they have brought back the past with the Bella Oaks Cab clone, they still had the idea that the most important thing was to take any necessary steps to unlock the greatness of the site. Hence why, in certain sections, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc were planted and they were able to obtain Cabernet Franc clones from the outstanding VCC estate (Vieux Château Certan) located in Pomerol, Bordeaux. Also, they brought on Michel Rolland, who Nigel has worked with on another projects. Nigel knows that there are mixed feelings about Michel as he is the most well-known wine consultant in the world who has achieved success on a level unimaginable to others, therefore becoming a target for criticism yet his blending skills are legendary and he has become a true master of the art of blending.
But like so many other winemakers who have worked with Michel, Nigel can’t say enough wonderful things about how much he loves the guy, as Michel has an incredible amount of joy for his work that is infectious. “He helps me be a better winemaker,” said Nigel, as Michel doesn’t come with the same baggage that a winemaker who expects certain things with each plot would have and so when Michel tastes the wines for blending, there are no preconceptions.
The first launched vintage of the Bella Oaks bottling of the Bella Oaks Vineyard was in 2018, which received scores of 98 and above and the 2019 vintage received 100 points from Vinous.
Finding the authentic voice of a vineyard is much more of a challenge than preserving a piece of art, as the art is already expressing its voice, as opposed to a vineyard that has fallen into disrepair and needs help unleashing its true potential.
During that fateful walk, Suzanne was grappling with a multitude of thoughts that created an overwhelming feeling that she needed to improve her relationship with this vineyard, a vineyard that should have become iconic a long time ago. It is a big responsibility for her to become the steward of such an important property and she felt that she wasn’t allowing it to speak for itself. Still, maybe it never had that opportunity and so, to the unpleasant surprise of her business manager, she wasn’t only going to stop with the massive investment in the vineyard, she would do everything in her power to make a wine that was worthy of an iconic piece of land.
As a conservationist and preservationist, her main goal is to do justice to those pieces of art, culture and history that she has had to be a guardian for when there was no one else willing to do the job. One would think that getting such high scores in the first two vintages being released would be more than enough but she is far from finished as there is a new winery on the horizon. Unlocking the voice of such an important vineyard goes beyond scores as no matter how great the wines are showing now, there could actually be a lot more potential for the expression of the property and Suzanne knows there is so much more, which makes the future of Bella Oaks that much more exciting.
***Link to original article published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2023/07/31/great-napa-valley-single-vineyard-in-top-wine-area-of-rutherford-finds-its-voice/
Suzanne Deal Booth is one of the top advocates for culture, preservation and the arts in the world and so, it is not surprising that she shows that commitment at the Bella Oaks estate. The natural beauty of charming gardens, olive orchards and lovely grape vines surrounds several art pieces on the property. The art includes Yayoi Kusama’s Where the Lights in My Heart Go, Max Ernst’s Le Genie de La Bastille and an untitled site-specific work by Robert Irwin. Adjacent to the home is a meditation labyrinth inspired by Chartres Cathedral, which also inspired the primary design element on the Bella Oaks wine label.
They decided to change Bella Oaks from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon to adding a small amount of Cabernet Franc and/or Petit Verdot and so they have decided to label the wine as a ‘Red Wine’ instead of ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ even though they have used enough Cabernet Sauvignon, 75% or more, to call it by that variety during the last few vintages. But they like the idea of keeping their options open as the Cabernet Franc is really doing well and they might add more in certain vintages so they want that freedom.
2021 Bella Oaks Proprietary Red Wine: 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Nigel Kinsman. This is a preview as the wine will not be released until Fall 2024. Deep ruby color with hints of purple that is juicy from the first sip with kirsch flavors and touches of blueberry scone that was concentrated yet feminine in its overall finesse of the delivery of the intensity of fruit married with the lace-like structure.
2019 Bella Oaks Proprietary Red Wine: 93% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Nigel Kinsman. This vintage is currently on the market. A wine that brings tears of joy; it is so good with pressed rose petals, orange peel and a dusting of cocoa powder on the intoxicating nose with a stunning purity of red and black fruit on the palate and complex notes of cigar box lingering for a long time in one’s head. Extremely impressive!
2018 Bella Oaks Proprietary Red Wine: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot and 8% Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Nigel Kinsman. Shocking how this could be Nigel’s and Suzanne’s debut wine as it is a knock-out with a compelling perfumed nose that has many layers that go beyond floral qualities as there is pepper, cardamom pods and fresh tarragon with lots of crushed rocks in the background that has a broad body with a silky texture that immediately seduces.
Bella Oaks made by Staglin Family Vineyard
2014 Staglin Family Vineyard, Booth Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Fredrik Johansson. A subtle nose with touches of dried wildflowers and broken slate with rich blackcurrant fruit on the palate.
2012 Staglin Family Vineyard, Booth Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Fredrik Johansson. More intensity on the nose with smoldering incense, anise seeds and wet stones with a round texture and sustained finish.
Bella Oaks made by Heitz Cellars
2007 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker David Heitz. Violets and rose oil with flavors of chocolate and cinnamon sticks with blue fruit and elegant structure.
1999 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker David Heitz. Savory nose of tobacco leaf and dried rosemary with more structure and grip than 2007 with plush boysenberry flavors.
1998 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. A touch of bacon fat that blew off after some aeration with dried herbs dominating the nose with stewed red cherries.
1995 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. Dried wildflowers with grilled toast and freshly grated nutmeg with upheaved earth and a slight angularity to the body of the wine.
1993 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. Lots of vibrancy and finesse to this wine with bright red cranberries and an intense minerality but still lots of purity of fruit.
1986 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. Cinnamon notes jump from the nose with hints of apple cider, dried cranberries and candied violets with a good amount of juicy fruit still left.
1985 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. Sandalwood and smoldering earth with hints of dried flowers and a long finish with fleshy red fruit.
1984 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. Shockingly, there is a lot of freshness on the nose with fresh mint and delicious cassis notes that still has lots of weight and intensity.
1978 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. Multilayered nose with forest floor, sage and cured meats with a sweet fruit quality on the palate, such as raspberry pastries and cherry pie.
1976 Heitz Cellar, Bella Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemaker Joe Heitz. A wine that has a lightness of being to it, yet it has so much still to offer with bay leaf, black cherries and crunchy cranberries with an extremely silky texture and a long, delicate finish.