Food & Wine

The Tastemaker: Suzanne Deal Booth’s worlds of art and culture merge among Napa Valley vines

By Emily Mangini

Suzanne Deal Booth (Photo by DAGNY PIASECKI)

Suzanne Deal Booth, owner of Napa Valley’s Bella Oaks Vineyard, is a formidable force in the art world, a forever student and a tireless protector of art, culture and heritage. Fittingly, she’s also an expert at putting things back together.

It’s a skill she discovered as an undergraduate student working at Roman excavation sites in Italy and Israel. “Anything that would be found — clay pots, mosaics — I would take care of,” she says. “Because I gravitated to that. I love the visual arts. I love what man has created and left behind.” Back in her native Texas and at Rice University, Deal Booth also had the opportunity to work for the illustrious art collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil. What started as a work-study assignment grew into a special mentor-protégé relationship.

“She took care of me in my formative training so I could expand my wings, so to speak. We were more like family,” she explains.

Today, Deal Booth is herself a renowned art collector, visionary and philanthropist. Among her numerous contributions are 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, a $200,000 artist award given every two years along with all expenses for a solo exhibition in Austin and New York.

I was … surrounded by a past civilization, seeing how they thought about themselves, what they left behind. And I thought: I really want to do my own label. Suzanne Deal Booth

As for how Deal Booth ended up in the wine industry and at the helm of Bella Oaks, well, that story begins in 2010 with a walk and a spark. She was visiting her dear friends and Napa vintners Shari and Garen Staglin, and during an evening stroll, they passed the historic, albeit tired, Bella Oaks property.

Yayoi Kusama’s stainless steel and aluminum Where the Lights in My Heart Go, 2016, was acquired for a location inspired by Francesco Borromini’s Palazzo Spada in Rome. Photo by MATT MORRIS.

“The land had been a bit neglected. Barney had been sick for some time,” Deal Booth says, referring to the late Bella Oaks founder Barney Rhodes. He and his wife, Belle, had founded the vineyard in 1973 and were early champions and trailblazers — both culturally and agriculturally — of the Napa wine industry. Tired and neglected as the property may have been, Deal Booth says she immediately felt a connection to the land.

Perhaps that connection is why she approached Bella Oaks very differently than other buyers might have. Whereas many a buyer would have seen an opportunity to raze and rebuild with opulence and grandeur, Deal Booth recognized the chance to do what she does best: put it all back together.

Deal Booth started her work in the vineyard. “It was time to improve it, to rethink it, to orient the rows more in alliance with the maximum sun,” she says. “To do a little fine-tooth grooming.” In those early years, she maintained the Bella Oaks tradition of producing grapes for others, including the Staglin Family Vineyard. But in 2016, Deal Booth felt another spark: It was time for Bella Oaks to have its own label.

Bella Oaks’ labyrinth wine label was inspired by Chartres Cathedral in France. Photo by BELLA OAKS.

Fittingly, she was on a walk when the moment of inspiration came, but this time she was in Italy, doing a residency at the American Academy in Rome. “We were happily producing wine with Staglin,” Deal Booth says. “But I was on one of my many walks — surrounded by a past civilization, seeing how they thought about themselves, what they left behind. And I thought: I really want to do my own label. This is a legacy I want to leave my kids.”

To turn her vision into a reality, Deal Booth tapped winemaker Nigel Kinsman, who notes, “We want to capture the essence of the site, to make better and better wine every year … to restore this place to perhaps its former glory and build upon it.” The first vintage, a 2018 cabernet sauvignon, will be released this fall.

As for the former Rhodes residence on the property, Deal Booth worked with architect Michael Maltzan to preserve and breathe new life into the house that had once been a social epicenter of the valley. And, of course, Deal Booth has brought her love of art. Dotted throughout the 18 acres are outdoor works, including Yayoi Kusama’s Where the Lights in My Heart Go, Max Ernst’s Le Génie de la Bastille, and an untitled site-specific work by Robert Irwin. There’s also a meditation labyrinth inspired by Chartres Cathedral, plus an olive orchard from which Deal Booth produces olive oil, and she’s in the process of building a botanical garden.

Eleven years into her first agricultural project, it’s safe to say Deal Booth has done more than put Bella Oaks back together. She’s created an oasis of art, history, culture and, of course, wine.

Joel Shapiro’s untitled painted bronze sculpture welcomes visitors to Bella Oaks. Photo by MATT MORRIS.




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