With the current shift from traditional distribution channels to direct sales to consumers, most new wineries that open in Napa Valley seek to appeal to visitors. Few, however, go so far as new B Cellars.
Co-founder Duffy Keys and Jim Borsack made sure that every facet of the new winery on Oakville Cross Road will appeal to visitors, from the newly planted vines, some on attractive hills, the fruit trees and gardens to the winery itself — and especially the visitor center.
Keys spent 21 years with Four Seasons before partnering with Borsack, who owned a luxury leather company, to form B Cellars, which was formerly sited at the old Silver Rose Inn and Winery in Calistoga — soon to become a resort managed by Four Seasons.
B Cellars may be the only winery in Napa Valley where the elegant wine tasting room features a demonstration kitchen, a reflection of its emphasis on food and wine. And the room itself, with floor to ceiling windows that can be opened to the vineyard, seems the epitome of winery country luxury with its polished concrete counter and distressed hardwood floors. It’s more like a living room adjacent to a kitchen in a Napa Valley estate than a typical tasting room.
That doesn’t mean they’ve neglected the wine. Its new winery features well-tended vineyards, a modern production facility and extensive caves under the supervision of winemaker Kirk Venge. But the whole experience for visitors reflects an appreciation of luxury hospitality of the co-founders.
An unusual background
B Cellars is owned by American Fidelity Insurance Co. Bill Cameron is CEO of American Fidelity, and he takes personal interest in the winery, as attested to his presence there on the day of a tour.
Neither Keys nor Borsack had wine experience before they founded B Cellars. They met at a Fourth of July barbecue in 2002, when both were exploring new life paths in the wine business. They discovered that they not only shared the same tastes in wine but were also on parallel missions to acquire vineyard property.
Borsack spent more than 30 years in luxury goods as co-owner of El Portal, a chain of designer leather goods, handbags and luggage stores with 125 stores worldwide. He also orchestrated the rollout of the entire Swatch Watch franchise business.
In 2000, he sold his share of El Portal to learn viticulture and enology at UC Davis
Keys had a 21-year stint as a senior-level executive with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. He oversaw operations, marketing, public relations and finance in the U.S., Canada, and the Asia-Pacific region. He also later studied viticulture and enology through UC Davis.
In the spring of 2003, they formed B Cellars (B for Brix, the winemakers’ measure of sugar content of grapes) based on two principles: to produce wines from multiple vineyards and to develop distinct flavors by blending wines from complementary varieties.
They soon met Kirk Venge, son of famed winemaker Nils Venge. Kirk was named “One of the Top 20 New Winemakers in the World” by Food & Wine Magazine in October 2005 and has been winemaker from the beginning.
B Cellars made wine at Robert Pecota Winery before the Jackson family bought the property and then for 10 years at Silenus Winery.
Meanwhile, they opened a tasting room at Silver Rose Inn in Calistoga as the public face for the proposed resort to be built there by Bald Mountain Development.
Four Seasons, which would manage the property, wanted a working winery at the resort, but unfortunately, existing entitlements had expired and the project faced local controversy including a two-year wait for an election.
The resort ultimately won, but Keys and Barsock had to consider alternatives and found the 12-acre horse ranch, Vintage Oak Ranch, which was owned by Lisa Miller.
After acquiring the property, B Cellars got its permit on March 6, 2012, and broke ground at the end of June 2013. The winery hosted a group of country club managers on Aug. 18.
“We opened here before construction is starting at the resort in Calistoga,” noted Keys.
The architect of the property is Hart Howerton of San Francisco, and the general contractor is Facility Development Corp. of Santa Rosa.
The visitor experience
“We want to make the visitor experience as rich as possible,” said Keys.
Among the amenities are a big garden and Jidori chickens, two cork oak trees, a croquet court and the orchards.
Visitors can taste outside in good weather, and the winery also has private rooms for up to 24 people.
Tastings are by appointment only, and a concierge will assist visitors with other appointments and arrangements, too. “We want our visitors to experience Napa Valley like an insider, and we’ll take on that challenge for them,” Keys said.
As an example, each guest will have a personalized place tag for the seated tasting inside or out. The tastings, which start at $45, pair B Cellars wines with food. The winery guide will lead a tour highlighting the culinary gardens, caves and estate vineyards.
Other tasting experiences include tastings in the cave and a farm-to-fork pairing lunch at the communal garden table.
They can also provide gourmet picnic baskets and private wine tastings for groups.
The winery plans demonstration classes.
Preparing the food will be chef Brian Michael Green, who began his career working at Wolfgang Puck’s in the St. Louis Art Museum, then the Euclid Hospitality Group, Sidney Street Café, Café Boulud and Dominique Ansel Bakery in New York City. He also manages the culinary gardens, stone fruit orchard and the flock of hens.
Christina Machamer is director of wine and culinary programs. She switched from studying pre-law to an apprenticeship for chef Larry Forgione at An American Place, then attended the Culinary Institute of America and completed an externship for the Caneel Bay Resort on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She appeared in the fourth season of “Hell’s Kitchen,” then moved to Los Angeles at Gordon Ramsay’s London West Hollywood Hotel, then became opening Chef de Partie for Thomas Kellar’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills. She also studied wine.
Vineyards and winemaking
The property will ultimately have about 6 acres of vines, some newly planted from B Cellars’ own on-site nursery, others on a hillside behind the winery. It also plans to plant more vines, but some of the ground is impossibly rocky and will be left natural. Vinescape manages the vineyards.
The water table is high, which should reduce the need for irrigation as the vines grow. It does have a pond on site.
However, the winery also buys grapes from many sources from Calistoga, Pope Valley and Atlas Peak to southern Napa Valley for its wines, including Frediani in Calistoga; Stagecoach in Atlas Peak for cabernet sauvignon and syrah; Antica in Atlas Peak; Usibelli Vineyards in Pope Valley for sangiovese and viognier; Julianna Vineyards in Pope Valley for sauvignon blanc; Lewelling Vineyard in St. Helena for cabernet sauvignon; Dr. Crane Vineyards in St. Helena for cabernet sauvignon; Star Vineyard in Rutherford for cabernet sauvignon; To Kalon in Oakville for cabernet sauvignon; Caldwell Vineyards at 500 ft. in Coombsville for syrah and Maldonado in Carneros for chardonnay
It will sell wines from all six of Andy Beckstoffer’s heritage Napa Valley vineyards.
The winery offers both blends and single-vineyard wines, all made in relatively small quantity. It has a permit for 20,000 cases, but will make about 7,500 cases this year, and Keys hopes that will eventually reach 10,000 to 15,000 cases.
Among the winery equipment are two concrete tanks and two concrete “eggs,” the newest fad for fermenting wine.
The caves are only partially completed, but should be finished by Oct. 1. They will encompass 15,000 square feet including spaces for events and visitor experiences.
It also has a large water treatment facility with digesters that break down organic matter in winery waste water before the water is used for irrigation
Most of the wines feature cabernet, but Venge makes an unusual white blend of viognier, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Its red blends include a “super Tuscan” with syrah added to the sangiovese and cabernet; although Tuscan-owned Antica no longer produces sangiovese from its Atlas Peak vineyard, B Cellars does.
The wines are sold at a number of local restaurants but the focus is on direct sales.
B Cellars Vineyards and Winery is at 703 Oakville Cross Road in Oakville. Its Web address is BCellars.com and phone number is 707-709-8787.