Napa’s newest tasting room is a fancy picnic set in a gothic fairly tale

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In St. Helena, near where the most catastrophic wildfire in Napa Valley’s history recently burned, stands the Faust Haus — a startlingly stylish new tasting room that may provide a glimpse into where Napa wine tourism is headed.

Faust is a practitioner of a Wine Country hospitality style that might be best described as “fancy Millennial picnic”: a place where a group of friends can come for a leisurely, casual hangout with farm-to-table snacks and picturesque views. Wine is served, of course. It may even be discussed. But there’s a conscious effort to dispense with the pedantry that has characterized the high-end tasting rooms of yore, the “can you taste the difference between the sandy loam soil versus the clay loam soil?” type of thing. Here, the wine shares equal billing with the vibe.

That vibe, at the Faust Haus, is a slightly over-the-top aesthetic wonder. The Haus itself is an 1870s Victorian mansion, previously bluish-gray, now painted a foreboding shade of black. Perched above steep stone terraces of grapevines, with a steeple and weather vane protruding from the top and wild gardens all around, the whole scene looks like it could be the setting of a gothic fairy tale.

The place is intended to register “an ombre effect,” explains general manager Jennifer Beloz: an ascent from darkness to lightness. Indoors, the ground-floor rooms are dark and moody, with long tables and leather furniture, but climb to the second floor and the scene is light, airy and spare.

The reference is not exactly subtle: This is the visual enactment of the winery’s namesake, Faust — the doctor of German legend who sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge, immortalized in literature by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

As a wine brand, Faust — which has existed since 2002, without a tasting room — is meant to summon the “sensual pleasures” that the doctor sought, says Beloz. “The idea is that we all make these Faustian bargains with ourselves every day.”

There are plenty of sensual pleasures on offer. Visitors to the Faust Haus lounge on the outdoor patios, overlooking Napa’s lush valley floor, accompanied by little black boxes of colorful snacks — dips like tzatziki and pimento cheese with crunchy, raw veggies and crackers. They make their way through a flight of wines that are poured tableside. First, a Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like key lime pie, then a mocha-laced Syrah-Merlot blend, then the main event: polished, rich Cabernet Sauvignon with a satin-like texture and gratifying flavors of blackberries and chocolate.

The renovation of the historic Haus is the work of David Darling, of architectural design firm Aidlin Darling Design, who was also responsible for Scribe Winery’s Hacienda, perhaps Wine Country’s most famously Instagrammable destination and the progenitor of the fancy winery picnic model.

“For a long time, hospitality was an afterthought in Napa Valley,” says Beloz. “Then wineries started doing this highly curated, high-touch experience.” Quintessa, Faust’s sister brand, is an example of that model, in which visitors explore the vineyards, then sit for an in-depth, 1-on-1 tasting with an employee. Less of a picnic, more of a master class.

Beloz describes the Faust Haus format, on the other hand, as “choose-your-own-adventure.” It’s casual and largely self-guided, leaving plenty of time for selfies. “We’re creating this with Gen Xers and Millennials in mind,” she says.

The Haus was home to St. Clement Vineyards until Huneeus Vintners, Faust’s parent company, purchased it in 2016. (The company’s former CEO, Agustin Huneeus Jr., was sentenced to five months in prison for his involvement in the college admissions scandal in 2019 and is no longer involved with the family business.) Although there are plenty of grapevines surrounding the property, most of Faust’s vineyards are 20 miles away, in the Coombsville growing region near downtown Napa.

At $55 per person, the Faust Haus tasting isn’t cheap, but it’s hardly among Napa’s priciest tasting options. (Quintessa’s start at $125.) It feels akin to another Huneeus Vintners tasting room: Flowers, in Healdsburg, which has made its beautiful outdoor setting as much of a draw as its Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs in its $45 tasting sessions.

There’s something simultaneously eerie and reassuring about going wine tasting in Napa Valley right now. On one hand, it feels strange to taste expensive wine and dip heirloom carrots in artisanal pimento cheese just down the hill from wineries that now lie in rubble. The scars of the recent wildfires — in August, then again in September — feel fresh. The Glass Fire burned within 1,000 feet of the Faust Haus. Since the tasting room opened over Labor Day weekend, the air quality has been unpredictable; there were a handful of days, Beloz says, when Faust had to close early, to get employees out of the smoky air.

“No matter what, people have still wanted to come,” she says.

In fact, one might even say that to go wine tasting right now is to make a Faustian pact, momentarily setting aside the disaster to indulge in the sensual pleasures of Napa Valley Cabernet.

But there’s another way to look at it, too. This is what Napa does: wine tastings. Tourism here powers a local economy and 16,000 jobs in the community. The Glass Fire was a major disaster, damaging buildings at 27 wine estates. But the rest of the valley’s 500+ wineries are just fine (apart from, in many cases, making less wine due to smoke taint, but that’s another story).

It feels like a show of resilience that the valley is open for business as usual — and a testament to all that Napa Valley has built over the past few decades. Come rain, pandemic, wildfires or alarmingly high air quality index numbers, people from all over the world still want to come here for a view of a beautiful vineyard and a taste of Cabernet.

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