Bell Wine Cellars is located off of Washington Street, just south of Yountville about 3/4 of a mile from Highway 29. Despite the Yountville town address, the winery sits in the country surrounded by vineyards and a nearby riparian zone. During unseasonably heavy rainfall years, sometimes the water overflows its banks and the nearby vineyards completely flood. Two nearby winery neighbors include Mira Winery and Hoopes Vineyard (formerly Hopper Creek Winery).
Winemaker and founder, Anthony Bell was born and raised in South Africa where his father ran a spirits company – which included vineyard land. Anthony has been attracted to agriculture since his youth – before coming to the Napa Valley in 1977 he worked at wineries in various wine regions in Europe and in South Africa. He graduated from Stellenbosch University in South Africa with an undergraduate degree in viticulture and later earned his Masters degree in enology from U.C. Davis.
Anthony worked for 15 years at Beaulieu Vineyard as director of wine making and later as General Manager. He worked alongside prominent wine makers André Tchelistcheff and Richard Peterson. While at Beaulieu Vineyard, Anthony oversaw what became instrumental research on clonal variations of Cabernet Sauvignon and today is most known for introducing Clone 6 to the Napa Valley; this is also the clone of Cabernet Sauvignon that he started with when founding Bell Wine Cellars. In 1980 he oversaw the planting of 14 unique clonal selections of Cabernet Sauvignon – and then after several years, harvested, fermented separately and produced an individual wine from each clone.
One of the clones caught his attention – clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon. It had come to California originally from Bordeaux sometime during the gold rush years and was taken as a cutting from an abandoned vineyard in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Unlike other clones of Cabernet Sauvignon in which the bunches of grapes are tightly packed, these grapes grow in loose clusters and as a result, visually are fairly easy to identify.
After tasting through all the separate wines in multiple blind tastings – it was the clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon that repeatably stood out – a wine that kept eliciting the word ‘wow’. In 1984 a grower grafted over 10 acres of existing vines to clone 6 and in 1991 Anthony harvested and produced the first single-vineyard single-clone Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley.
And several quick definitions are in order relating to clones. A varietal is a specific type of grape with its own overall inherent characteristics (IE Cabernet Sauvignon is a varietal and is a different grape then say Malbec). A clone refers to plant material from a varietal that displays unique and or distinctive characteristics as compared to other clones from that varietal. Clones are created through genetic mutations over long periods of time. This can be shape of clusters, flavors, grape size, drought tolerance, differences in times of ripening or resistance to disease among other attributes. And another related word is ‘selection’ – this term refers to cuttings taken from an existing vineyard (regardless of varietal or clone) which are then propagated in a new vineyard (IE a Cabernet Sauvignon selection was taken from the Eisele Vineyard).
And with Anthony’s legacy of clonal research at Beaulieu Vineyard – BV now makes a number of premium clone specific Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
Anthony was also instrumental in creating Los Carneros Appellation – he submitted paperwork to create the appellation in 1979 and was approved in 1983 (the second sub appellation within Napa Valley, Howell Mountain was also approved in 1983). Today there are 16 such sub appellations within the Napa Valley, two of which cross county lines (Carneros and Wild Horse Valley).
Anthony began Bell Wine Cellars in 1991 with his inaugural vintage crushed at an old winery in the Carneros district. Over the years he moved to various local wineries before finally locating this already existing winery in 1998. The general tasting room is located right within the tank room, the Reserve Room is for special tastings and if the weather permits you can taste outdoors next to the kitchen, pizza oven, and bocce courts. Vineyards surround the winery and are planted to Merlot and several clones of Chardonnay.
In 2002 Anthony entered into a partnership with former California wine wholesaler Ron Berberian and Alex Spanos (Alex died at age 95 in 2018), the majority owner of what is now the Los Angeles Chargers (formerly San Diego Chargers). At that time, both Ron and Alex acquired a partial interest in Bell Wine Cellars. Both the Berberian and Spanos family are connected through marriage – Alex’s daughter Dea is married to Ron.
During our first visit to the property many years ago, we enjoyed the 2005 Bell Cellars Clone 6 several months before it was even released to the public. In our opinion this wine was ready to go when we tasted it. It is unfiltered and is sourced from the historic well-known Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard in Rutherford. The original plantings on site were from 1928 by Georges de Latour (Beaulieu Vineyard). This is a very dark wine with rich concentrated flavors. Cherry, black currant, and blackberry all meld together on the palate anchored by structured tannins on the finish complemented by slight notes of pepper and just a subtle fling with vanilla (an influence imparted from the particular French Oak barrels it was aged in).
Also, two excellent Syrahs and a non vintage Reserve Port-style wine are released in very limited quantities. Bell Cellars in fact produces quite a few other wines including Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Viognier, Merlot and several Sauvignon Blancs – including at one point, a wine from a vineyard in South Africa. Today, the produce wines from not only Napa County but also neighboring counties and other regions in Northern California.
Tastings are by appointment; it is always refreshing find a winery that caters to people seeking a more personalized and intimate tasting experience (as compared to some of the larger wineries along Highway 29 just north of here). Two primary tastings are offered, the Current Release and the Wine & Cheese Pairing. Additional more specific experiences are available including the Grape to Glass Tour (learn wine making 101 and try a barrel sample), the Blending Seminar (blend and create your own wine) and perhaps the most coveted of the experiences, the Clonal Tasting (sample and discuss four different Cabernet Sauvignon clones). Anthony is often around the winery so visitors might have a chance to meet him.
Their wines have been well received in Japan and this winery is sometimes popular with Japanese wine aficionados who are seeking a smaller more intimate Napa Valley tasting experience. Some of their wines are nationally distributed while some limited production wines are club and winery direct only. For more information or to join one of their Carillon club membership levels or mailing list, visit: www.bellwine.com
NOTE: this review has been identified as needing a **major** update.