Belle Rhodes

Lifetime Achievements 1992
Rutherford, California

A grape grower, wine collector, consummate hostess and patron of the culinary arts, Rhodes and her physician husband Barney, who survives her, helped establish Napa Valley’s reputation as a locus of good living.

In 1959, the Rhodeses bought a prune orchard west of Oakville and planted a small Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. But they soon tired of the commute from their Oakland home and sold the property to Tom and Martha May, who renamed it “Martha’s Vineyard” and made it famous. Unable to shake the wine bug, the Rhodes purchased yet another prune orchard in Rutherford and turned it into Bella Oaks Vineyard, an esteemed source of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for Heitz Wine Cellars.

Born and raised in small-town West Virginia, Rhodes enlisted in the WAVES, the Navy’s volunteer women’s unit, during World War II. She met her future husband at the Jacksonville Naval Hospital in Florida. After their move to the Bay Area, she attended and graduated from Mills College.
A tiny, elegant woman with an impeccable palate, Rhodes was one of the first women wine judges at the Los Angeles County Fair, according to Bay Area radio personality Narsai David, a close friend. A talented home cook with a library of 3,500 cookbooks (later donated to Napa Valley College), Rhodes “set an extraordinary table,” recalls David. “There was always something on the cutting edge. The first time I had radicchio was there. Whenever something new showed up, Belle knew about it.”

Rhodes also discovered, nurtured and promoted the valley’s young culinary talent, such as Cindy Pawlcyn and Michael Chiarello. Along with other prominent valley women, she established the Napa Valley Cooking Class in 1973, an informal school that endured for 20 years.
“Entertaining had to happen in the home because (Napa Valley) restaurants didn’t exist then,” says Chiarello. “So they schooled themselves. They brought in chefs from all over the world to teach them how to entertain with wine in world-class fashion.”

Dinner parties at the Rhodes home in Rutherford were legendary. Chiarello remembers that meals often ended with warm pistachios and a round-bottomed Port decanter that had to be passed continuously because it couldn’t stand on its own. Says Narsai David, “All of us developed more sophisticated tables and a more impressive array of glasses on the table because of Belle.”

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