The latest offering from eccentric-and-lovable wine magnate Jean-Charles Boisset is one part tasting room and one part museum.
Taken as a whole, the new 1881 Napa, housed in a meticulously restored circa-1881 Victorian just north of the Oakville Grocery in Oakville, is a great place to spend an afternoon learning about the Napa Valley and wine.
The new digs opened April 15, 2019, six months after Boisset purchased the property at the end of last year.
“We wanted to do more than just have a place where people come to taste and then leave,” Boisset said earlier this month. “We wanted something that would serve as an educational opportunity, something that teaches them about this beautiful place, the land that grows our grapes, and how all of that has evolved over time.”
The main attraction comprises a great room with a 30-foot ceiling and wraparound balcony on the second floor.
On the ground floor is the tasting area; decanters from Boisset’s personal collection line the walls and one long table in the center of the room offsets seating nooks around the perimeter. The second floor and balcony comprise the museum.
In typical over-the-top Boisset fashion, a crystal chandelier hangs down from the ceiling and illuminates the space. Both stories have windows that look out on the Mayacamas and the To Kalon vineyard.
The tasting experience focuses on terroir. When guests walk in, they are greeted with a display of 16 jars containing soil samples from each of the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the Napa Valley. Fittingly, 1881’s winemakers make 16 different appellation-specific wines with the same varietal from each AVA. Instead of pouring a variety of wines from one appellation, the tasting room pours horizontal tastings from four appellations at a time.
Each four-pour tasting is $45, and sips are served in special Boisset-branded glassware from Baccarat.
According to Boisset, the experiences provide visitors with a unique opportunity to taste how soil and location can affect the way a wine smells and tastes and looks.
“Napa Valley is not that big but is remarkable for how the appellations differ,” he says. “When you have the same winemakers using the same techniques on the same type of grape from different appellations, you really get a sense of how specific characteristics come out of each growing region.”
The museum experience is loosely organized by appellation as well.
Walls in an anteroom at the top of the stairs display old photographs and biographical information of the men (sadly, they were all men) largely credited with starting each area.
Out in the great room, the walls of the wraparound balcony display old instruments that vineyard workers and vintners used in the fields to grow grapes and make wine: early pruners, presses, grafting tools, and more. The balcony also has a series of maps and portraits of people who helped shape Napa Valley into what it is today; because Boisset never shies away from an opportunity to promote himself, his portrait is in the mix, too.
If the 1881 building looks familiar, perhaps you recognize it from its most recent past life—the Rudd family, which owned the property until Boisset bought it late last year, operated a tasting room for their Durant & Booth brand out of the same space from May 2016 until it closed in May 2018. Before that, the Victorian house sat unused for a few decades after being used as a residence through the 1970s.
The new digs at 1881 rival big changes at the Oakville Grocery next store, which opened as a general store in 1874 and recently was purchased by Boisset as well.
Some of these changes include an expanded wine inventory, a new wine-by-the-glass program that offers a variety of wines at a variety of price points, and an upgraded prepared food menu that includes house-smoked salmon, house-made hummus, and local charcuterie. Future plans for the grocery include remodeling the patio and landscaping between the grocery and 1881 Napa so visitors can sip wine, nibble food, and linger well past Happy Hour to witness sunset every night.