Last April, Jesse Katz was meant to open the doors of his strikingly modern Aperture tasting room on the outskirts of Healdsburg. The co-owner and winemaker had crushed in his new winery close by for the first time the previous fall. And with this visitor center, Katz (who also has Screaming Eagle and The Setting on his resume) would have both a state-of-the-art production facility for crafting his wines, and a very artistic setting for sharing them with people. Covid-19 kicked that opening back to July. Come August and beyond, fire and smoke were threatening, and he had to close up intermittently again, but he soldiered on until the pandemic dictated another lockdown in December. “This became my personal office,” says Katz. “I would take my laptop into one tasting room, then move to another.”
That was the kind of year 2020 was. And those of us who love discovering wine in terrific places, with sightlines over vineyards where it was grown, were left with, well, nowhere to go. That was then and this is now, as they say. Doors in wine country are decidedly open again. And more than a few producers took advantage of the down time to rework their tasting spaces or build entirely new ones. There has never been a better summer for exploring wine on the road. Here are seven of our favorite new places to sip in California.
Aperture, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Entering the new Aperture visitor center is to walk into the world of a photographer—into a camera itself, in fact. In the ceiling overhead, a larger-than-life aperture opens to the light. The private tasting rooms that extend from the central rotunda resemble shutters. And the entire kinetic camera (the spaces can be opened or closed), framed in concrete and glass, is a gallery for the art form, showcasing striking images from around the world taken by notable photographer Andy Katz, father of Aperture co-owner and winemaker Jesse Katz. Circling the photos, the younger Katz recalls each one, because he was there when it was taken.
Katz turns Bordeaux varieties from long-term vineyard sources in Alexander Valley into rich wines that manage nuance and elegance at the same time. His 2018 Oliver Ranch single-vineyard Cabernet ($150) mingles high-toned floral and exotic spice aromas with savory earth, hedonism with tension and energy. But surprisingly, Katz is also putting Bordeaux varieties in his vineyard right here in Russian River Valley, “planting in the best soils in cool places,” as he explains it, taking advantage of extreme diurnal temperature swings and long seasons to push freshness for now, but also plan for 15, 20 years down the road.
This year, though, a glass—or bottle—of the Aperture 2020 barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc goes down easy on the patio looking down to the Russian River. It’s one of the best Chenins in the state.
Baldacci Family Vineyards, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
The Stags Leap District AVA of Napa Valley, tucked against the remarkable namesake palisade formations on the Vaca Range, has long had some grand places to taste world-class Cabernet: Shafer Vineyards, Cliff Lede Vineyards, and that 1976 Judgement of Paris–winning producer itself, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. As of July 1, add Baldacci Family Vineyards to the list. With a grand opening that day, the new modern farmhouse–styled hospitality center, with comfy lounge spaces or tables to settle into, will offer appointments for a couple of different experiences. For the “portfolio tasting,” in the Royal Stag Hall, you can choose three wines from either Carneros favorites, or all reds that include the Baldacci Family’s two estate Cabernets, from Calistoga as well as the Stags Leap District, plus some cheeses and charcuterie.
But the best option is going to be an all-Cabernet tasting in conjunction with a tour of the family’s 19,000-square-foot wine cave, one of fewer than 50 in Napa Valley. (Rumor has it that president and winemaker Michael Baldacci will pop in from time to time.) Then it’s back to the Royal Stag Hall for a lineup of Cabs (and that cheese and charcuterie plate).
The Barn at The Hilt Estate, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County
Don’t be fooled by the name. This particular barn, designed by famed winery architects Howard Backen and Silvia Nobili of the Backen & Gillam firm, leans way more chic than shabby, its concrete floors covered with cozy rugs and stylish lounge furniture and its soaring walls made of reclaimed wood. It’s the newest place in Santa Barbara County that lovers of wine of all stripes can’t afford to miss on any trek up or down California’s Central Coast.
Come if you like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Versions from The Hilt’s three more-than-a-little-wild estate vineyards in this chilly southwest corner of Sta. Rita Hills, very few miles from the Pacific Ocean, are vibrant and minerally and fascinating. (Who knew that owner Stan Kroenke—owner, too, of Screaming Eagle—was a Chard and Pinot man at heart?) But come if you love Bordeaux and Rhône varieties too, because the wines of The Hilt’s sister brand in Ballard Canyon, JONATA (the likes of “El Desafio” Cab, “El Alma” Cabernet Franc and “La Sangre” Syrah are also made by the talented Hilt winemaker, Matt Dees), are poured here too. And come if you love sparkling wine, vintage or non! The Hilt’s are interesting and delicious. Finally, come if you like the experimental and the quirky: Pét-Nat, botrytis-affected Chardonnay, 100 percent whole-cluster Pinot. Tastings, all by appointment, can be tailored the way you lean.
Bouchaine Vineyards, Carneros, Napa Valley
When Tatiana and Gerret Copeland founded Bouchaine in 1981, they were making an early commitment to Carneros, the cool-climate region spanning both Napa and Sonoma Counties just above San Pablo Bay. When they brought on general manager and winemaker Chris Kajani and then associate winemaker Erik Goodmanson in 2015, they were putting a stake in the ground for fine-tuning vineyard developments, sustainability, and cellar work to produce even more elegant (read fresh and vibrant) Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the estate. And with a striking new arc of a visitor center owning a hill with views across surrounding vineyards to the bay in the distance, Bouchaine has become a must-stop in the region, which itself is now home to more exciting wines and wineries than ever.
During the lockdown, the Bouchaine team made great use of video equipment for virtual experiences, even launching a seasonal series of virtual wine tastings and concerts in partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The nexus of wine and music is close to the heart for Tatiana Copeland, whose great uncle was composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.) But now the artistic melding of beautiful rescued redwood and clever metalwork is drawing guests in real time for hosted tastings. And there’s no better place to reserve a picnic table in the garden or by the vineyard, order lunch provided by nearby Carneros Resort (or bring your own—even your dog if you like), and get set up with some side-by-side bottles of the fascinating single-clone Pinots Kajani and Goodmanson make, from the fresh and delicate Swan clone to the darker, more tannic Pommard.
The Faust Haus, St. Helena, Napa Valley
The long-awaited reveal of the transformed Victorian perched west of Highway 29 just north of St. Helena ran smack into the pandemic lockdown. While it was possible to taste on the terraces outside the new, dark and brooding Faustian exterior, few could see the high-design interpretation of the legendary bargain with the devil on the inside. Now, the Faust Haus is one of the valley’s best new visits, inside and out. The themes of darkness and light are reflected on two floors of the historic house (with authentic detail, from windows to wood, restored): Downstairs, the walls are covered in dark, saturated colors, with ancient-looking photos of some very modern winery team members displayed. A striking mural on the stairway, by Italian artist Roberto Ruspoli plays with the themes as well, depicting the tension in black on white at the bottom, switching out to white on black at the top, as you emerge on the upper floor into light-filled, white-painted spaces. In the basement, the original owners’ cellar retains its Prohibition-era feel, with a rack of Faust bottles against old stone walls.
The multi-level terrace out front, surrounded by stunning oaks, remains the best place to settle in and taste. The sweeping view across the valley might take in significant damage from last year’s fire at the moment; still, you feel as if you own the region from here, as a talented team member brings you a clever box of snacks and pours Faust wines. The latter aren’t from around here, actually. The estate vineyard is in the south valley, in the newest and coolest (in every sense of the word) Coombsville AVA. Vibrant and complex from the lower temps and longer growing season, they contrast with the warmer-weather wines of St. Helena. Whether you taste it onsite or not, do take a bottle of The Pact 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) home with you. Pure-fruited and vibrant, it’s generous—even hedonistic—in the moment but has the fine-grained structure to go a distance in the cellar.
Opus One, Oakville, Napa Valley
Not long after its founding in 1978, the grass-covered rise of Opus One took shape opposite Robert Mondavi Winery, equal parts Greek or Roman temple and alien space ship. The wine, though, absolutely fulfilled the vision of partners Robert Mondavi and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild of proving to the world Napa Valley’s capacity for producing a “California First Growth” equal to Bordeaux. And now, Opus is opening with world-class hospitality to match the wine, with a stylish new complex of living-room-like spaces to host visitors. The vibe honors the partnership—Old World and New, modern and classic—with square wood tables flanked by gilded French chairs, even a mirror that reportedly hung in Baroness de Rothschild’s bathroom. The Rothschild family themselves were involved in this renovation, and contributed some pieces.
Tastings are all hosted now, and they can be customized to your interest. If you’d like to see the legendary barrel room, you can, or visit the lab to peek in on yeast trials; if optical sorters are your thing, speak up. But also plan to settle in for a three-vintage taste in the lounge area, a private room, or the lovely new outdoor patio. In a recent tasting, the Opus One 2006 was stunning—floral sachet aromas mixing with dark chocolate liqueur, blackberry, and cherry. Perfumed, smooth, and still vibrant.
But wait, there’s more. Come early fall, there will be an estate chef onboard creating food experiences such as the “Art of the Table,” a multi-course meal sounding an awful lot like high times at the French Laundry.
Sixmilebridge, Paso Robles
New tasting room aside, Sixmilebridge is the newest producer in Paso Robles you should know about. In limestone-rich soils on Paso’s west side, the Bordeaux varieties loved by founders (and Texas natives) Jim and Barbara Maroney are overseen by Hillary Yount in the vineyard and her husband, Anthony Yount (maker of great Rhône varieties at Denner), in the cellar. The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon ($96) is a classic, revealing what their site can do. Violets, resiny herbs, and other botanicals, layered with dark mulberry fruit and crushed rock minerality are fresh and energetic while still offering some Paso Robles opulence.
But there is that new tasting room too. Modern lines are framed with beautiful stone and wood. Good use is made of outdoor spaces, with a bar on the porch and clever shades to manage the elements. But it’s the deck under a 150- to 200-year-old oak, topped with lounge furniture, that’s the sweet spot for tasting here. And high-level hospitality is the bar. A host is dedicated to every party—no sharing. It’s the best new place in Paso to settle in.