Local tourism has been a lifeline for wineries during the pandemic. For Bay Area travelers looking for an easy day trip up to wine country, we rounded up a few of the newer and recently updated wine estate visitor centers in Napa and Sonoma to consider visiting.
Stylish spaces, stunning architecture, and smart planning are ruling the day, and together provide an entirely different type of winery visit; one that emphasizes comfort, luxury, and privacy. These are not merely visitors centers, but rather interactive brand homes, with high-end culinary offerings and bespoke experiences designed to help you maximize every moment and savor each sip. In the meantime, these same wineries have stepped up their virtual games to bring consumers into that immersive experience from home as much as possible.
When Jack and Dolores Cakebread opened their eponymous winery in 1973, little did they imagine that the Napa Valley would become the center of American wine. Now under the stewardship of brothers Dennis and Bruce Cakebread, the new Cakebread Cellars visitor center opened in October 2019 after a decade of planning and several years of construction.
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The vaulted entrance is built with beautiful staves of redwood reclaimed from wine fermentation tanks. “It might have been cheaper to go in gold,” jokes David Griffiths, director of direct-to-consumer channels for the winery. Step inside underneath the streaming natural light from a towering cupola, and you’ll find yourself trying your first wine almost instantaneously. When he says “we want a guest to have a glass of wine in their hand within two minutes,” he’s not exaggerating.
The winery collaborated with BCV Architecture + Interiors for the project, with project manager Asa Prentice paying fanatical attention to every detail, selecting every color and pinpointing every line for a clean, natural-light-filled aesthetic. Nine unique private tasting rooms were designed to match the mood and the scene in different areas of the winery. The space may be huge — the project added 36,000 square feet while renovating the existing 10,000 square feet — but tastings are intimate, designed to serve a maximum of just eight people during non-Covid periods (indoor spaces are currently closed). “The smaller the group, the better and more personal the experience, and the more authentic the connection,” Griffiths says.
With myriad outdoor pathways and courtyards connecting to its multiple venues and spaces, and numerous nooks and crannies carved out to ensure every guest feels at home, a visit to the new Cakebread feels like a trip to a lavish private resort. The grounds include expansive gardens and a culinary wing spearheaded by culinary director and chef Brian Streeter, who’s been with the winery for three decades. He leads cooking classes, offers food and wine pairings, and puts together numerous dinners and events. “People are looking for more education and even hands-on activities,” Streeter says. “It’s a way to interact with our guests.”
Cakebread is now open for outdoor experiences limited to fewer than six guests per booking, and the winery is expanding its current list of tasting packages. One option returning in mid-August is the Garden to Glass, a tour of the winery’s vegetable garden with chef Streeter, a hands-on harvest of produce to bring home, and a seated, chef-led meal and wine pairing. Cakebread is also offering several virtual tasting packages.
The Prisoner Wine Company
The Prisoner Wine Company has never shied away from edgy, eye-catching imagery, and so it should come as no surprise that the same stylistic flair shines at its new visitor center. TPWC’s space, which has been open for just over a year, is far removed from old-school Napa.
The project was led by architect Matt Hollis, along with interior designer Richard Von Saal, who’s worked on wineries including Screaming Eagle, Alpha Omega, and Patz & Hall. Together the duo evokes the brand’s ethos with plenty of bold solid colors — blacks, reds, and grays — along with metallic furnishings and adornments, a blacked-out exterior facade, and exposed black steel beams.
The visitor center includes The Makery, a private dining and tasting space under a 57-foot-long, cathedral-style glass ceiling. In addition to standard wine tastings, experiences including sensory garden tours, food pairings, chef-led tastings, and visits to the open kitchen, while the space also highlights products from an array of local artisans ranging from pottery and jewelry to skincare and food. Visitors to The Prisoner Wine Company will not only enjoy the unique setting that brings the wines to life, but also a chance to try exclusive pours from the brand that can’t be found elsewhere.
The Prisoner Wine Company is currently open for outdoor patio dining and tastings, with the TPWC Summer Pop Up package priced at $45 for a 50-minute booking. Additionally, winery-exclusive bottles are now available for curbside pickup and nationwide delivery. The brand also released a series of videos with the winemaking team and winery staff to engage with consumers at home.
Sonoma winery Aperture Cellars planned to debut its inaugural space this past spring, two miles from downtown Healdsburg. Signum Architecture, a team with myriad wine country projects already under its belt, tackled the project for winemaker Jesse Katz, who debuted Aperture in 2009. The result was the creation of a multifaceted 4,000-square-foot hospitality space, including private tasting rooms showcasing different themes such as art and travel.
The atmosphere was designed to evoke a gallery-like experience, bringing home the winery’s connection to the art world, including photography from Andy Katz, Jesse’s father. “This new space is stunning — it’s the Aperture story in building form,” says Jesse Katz. The visitor’s center has been built on the site of Aperture’s 42-acre estate grounds, which, in addition to 22 acres of new plantings, includes 10 acres of Zinfandel planted in 1912.
Aperture is currently open from Thursday through Sunday and is accepting reservations for outdoor tasting experiences. There are also private spaces indoors for individual groups offering floor-to-ceiling windows opening to the vineyards.
Customers who make a purchase from Aperture’s website can schedule a virtual tasting session with Katz or someone else from the team. There are several virtual tasting packages available, and a couple of immersive virtual cooking and dining-in packages. For instance, for $1,000, Top Chef Master chef Douglas Keane provides a bespoke, in-depth cooking experience alongside Katz, offering pairings with three bottles of wine. For that experience, 50 percent of the proceeds benefit Corazón Healdsburg’s Unity and Community Fund, supporting those most impacted by Covid-19.