Photo: Matt Thurber

Wheels Up to Wine Country

We come along on a bizjet trip to California's Napa Valley and sample the products of some of its finest vineyards.

Joining a private charter aircraft membership club opens a new world of travel options, including flights to airports that have never been on airlines’ radar and business opportunities that you can jump on before the competition. Some clubs also offer lifestyle benefits via their partnerships with resorts, wineries, car rental companies, concierge firms, and other businesses.

One such flight club is New York–based Wheels Up, which has partnered with an outfit called Wine Access to create a Collector’s Club for the private aviation company’s members. The Collector’s Club gives Wheels Up members access to a wine concierge who can make recommendations; they can also receive quarterly deliveries of “hard to come by” wines and arrange wine-related travel. 

Wheels Up. Photo: Matt Thurber
A Wheels Up Citation X preparing to depart from Van Nuys Airport for the flight to the Napa Valley wine country. Photo: Matt Thurber

To illustrate that latter benefit, Wheels Up invited BJT and a group of Los Angeles–based lifestyle reporters for a day trip from Van Nuys Airport to the Napa Valley. Our day included limo service to Van Nuys—helpful especially on the way home after a day of wine tasting; the flight from Van Nuys to Napa County Airport and return; and visits to the Staglin Family Vineyard and Dana Estates Winery and the extraordinary VonSaal Design studios. Our concierges for the trip were Wine Access CEO Joe Fisch and chief wine officer Vanessa Conlin, who helped us understand what we were drinking and make informed comparisons between the wines.

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Sample whites and reds in everything from a WWII submarine-like training vessel to cellars once used by French King Louis XV.

This trip couldn’t have been timed better for travel by private charter, with a mostly clear day and temperatures in the 70s—perfect for an amble among the grapevines. Of course, one could make a similar trip on the airlines, but having to arrive early for a flight from L.A. to Oakland or Sacramento followed by a long drive to Napa and vice versa on the way back would not have been conducive to an enjoyable day. 

Sunny Staglin

We split into two groups for the morning flight to Napa; I was in a King Air 350, while the other group got to fly higher and faster in one of Wheels Up’s Citation X business jets, acquired with the purchase of charter operator Mountain Aviation last January. The King Air’s two double-club seating areas provided ample space for our group, and the flight north was smooth, although we did get slowed down by air traffic control to accommodate other aircraft landing at Napa. The airport was shrouded in a broken layer of clouds when we landed, but the half-hour drive to the Staglin Family Vineyard took us back into sunny territory.

We were made to feel most welcome by the Staglin family, whose ownership dates to 1985.  That’s when Garen and Shari Staglin purchased the property, and they and their children Shannon and Brandon all now work there. Our visit was hosted by Shannon and her husband Artie Johnson, whose official title is estate ambassador. Johnson is also the creator of a Rosé brand, Le Artishasic, which combines his and Shannon’s names. 

Staglin. Photo: Matt Thurber
Shannon Staglin and her husband Artie Johnson pour glasses of their Le Artishasic Rosé. Photo: Matt Thurber

“We’re farmers,” Johnson said, describing the behind-the-scenes work that makes a modern vineyard run smoothly. California had been experiencing a severe drought, and its annual fire season grew explosively during the past few years, posing enormous challenges for the state’s vineyards.

At Staglin, paradoxically, too much fruit grew on the vines because rainfall through midsummer 2021 was just 30 percent of normal. “The bizarre thing is we had a very good fruit set,” Johnson explained, “but the challenge is each one of those leaves is a solar panel, and it creates photosynthesis. So, if you have short shoot growth, you have fewer leaves and more fruit; you might have trouble ripening that fruit, so you have to bite the bullet and drop some of the fruit to the ground. The people that make that call are probably going to be better off.”

The other key variable is the threat of fires at the end of the growing season. “The last thing you want is a vineyard that’s over-cropped,” Johnson said. “With too much fruit, we end up with a cooler finish, you’re not getting the heat, and then you’ve got the fires compressing [the season], and you’re stuck. So, these are the things you think about. If you get greedy with Mother Nature, you lose every time.”

Shannon Staglin introduced the wines that we would be tasting, starting with the family’s estate Chardonnay, then a buttery smooth Pinot Noir that she developed with winemaker Fredrik Johansson under the Resa brand. “This is a celebration of our 30- or 40-plus years of experience in this industry,” she said, “and being able to do it in a more youthful, fun, expressive way.”

We followed the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a blended vin rouge (GSM, made from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre grapes), and Staglin’s estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

Generous Spirits

After lunch, we drove to Dana Estates, named for the Sanskrit term for “the spirit of generosity.” Dana encompasses three organically farmed vineyards in Napa Valley and each has its own characteristics, which are combined in the development of Dana’s wines. 

General manager Bob Roux introduced us to the Dana facilities and the various rooms where wines are fermented, depending on the character of the grapes from each vineyard. One room has concrete tanks, one has oak uprights, and another small barrels. 

The concrete tanks are in the “lotus room,” explained winemaker Chris Cooney, and its grapes are all hand-farmed because of the extreme slopes where the vines grow. “That’s part of what terroir is,” he said. “It’s not just the soil but the interaction of the soil with the climate, the people, the whole package.”

Dana Estates. Photo: Matt Thurber
Dana Estates winemaker Chris Cooney describes the winery's unique concrete fermentation vessels. Photo: Matt Thurber

The concrete fermentation vessels help Dana in a couple of ways. One is that the sloped vineyard produces grapes with “an incredible amount of fruit purity,” Cooney said. “We want to make sure we’re capturing that without getting too much influence from the fermentation vessel during fermentation.” The extreme exposure of those vines means the grapes get extra sunshine, which “creates a lot of tannin or structure in the wine,” he explained. “The concrete fermenters also help to work with that tannin and smooth it out or polish it to try to create a little more of a velvety texture to the wine.”

Dana Estates. Photo: Matt Thurber
Fine wine aging in oak barrels at Dana Estates. Photo: Matt Thurber

All too soon, it was time to put down the wine glasses and climb back into the shuttle bus for our last stop, the VonSaal Design studios, which greet visitors as they enter Napa Valley from the south. Richard VonSaal and his VonSaal Design Build team have extensive examples of their work in the Napa area, architecting commercial and residential developments and their interiors, as well as helping companies design logos, wine labels, and unique packaging. The studios’ designers also specialize in designing furniture, lighting, surface materials, and sculptures. We got a taste of VonSaal’s quirky artistry while visiting the showroom, walking around a collection that ranged from a classic Honda 175 motorcycle to a giant unicycle, various animal skins including zebras peppering the floor, and whimsical sculptures and artwork in every nook and cranny.

For the return trip, my group flew in the Wheels Up Citation X, and after a day of tasting more than a few glasses of amazing wines. It was the perfect way to relax on the swift flight back to Los Angeles.