Wine is many things. It is romance. It is agriculture. It is magic. It is art. And, surprisingly, it is architecture. Over the centuries in Europe, and more recently in places like New Zealand, California and South America, an architecture unique to wineries has grown up and influenced how we perceive wine and the winemaking process.

Good architecture sends an important message. It says, “This building was created with care and sensitivity.” That message extends to the product. Elegant wine will surely flow from an elegant building. Good, reliable wine is the product of a sturdy, stocky structure. It’s the reason so many wineries use an image of their building on their label: Architecture is part of the brand identity.

Defining that identity is not such an easy thing. Many wineries choose the grander-is-better approach: A chateau, estate, manor, mansion, or even a castle is deemed better than a series of simple farm buildings. The logic in this approach is that buyers will think a wine is better if there is a pretty building behind it. And it is better still if the building looks French; a maison is better than a mansion. There are plenty of faux maisons in the wine-growing regions of the world that say, “Our wine is on par with what they’re producing in France.”

This is not to imply that there isn’t real architecture in the wineries of Bordeaux, Burgundy and other French wine-producing regions. There are chateaus so lovely that you wish that the buildings themselves could be drunk, let alone the wines they produce.

Architectural Terrior
But imitation does not make good architecture. The best wineries reflect the uniqueness of their own regions. The use of native materials, a concern for the ecosystem, a sense of local history, and a desire to blend with the landscape—these are the qualities that make a winery worth seeing.

Perhaps it is these same qualities that make a wine worth drinking. “How is wine different from the place it is made?” asks architect Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain Partners in Los Angeles, designers of the Opus One Winery in Napa Valley. “The wine carries all these flavors: the sun, the soil, the essences of the storage cellars, and the care of those who made it.”

Johnson won the commission to design Opus One when he presented an architectural model that depicted the wine aging within a hollowed-out building core so “it could be close to the earth where it came from,” Johnson says. “We wanted to redefine the conventions of wineries. It’s not a building so much as it’s a part of the landscape—a hill or even a volcano.”

There’s nothing volcanic about the interior of Opus One, which is as refined as a modern-day temple. A rotunda at the center illuminates a circular stair that leads to the wine cellar. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels separate the tasting room from the storage barrels. An overall palette of stone and wood imparts richness.

Like Opus One, the subterranean Artesa, also in Napa Valley, is barely visible from the road. When you approach Artesa from some angles, it looks more like a scenic overview than a place to make wine. But the architect is less poetic about this. “How else do you handle a 120,000-square-foot building in the middle of a rural area? It would be a blight on the landscape if most of it weren’t underground,” says Earl Bouligny of St. Helena, California, who worked with Spanish architect Domingo Triay to design Artesa.

Most of Artesa, in the Napa Valley, is underground. An industrial space designed otherwise , said one member of the design team, would be “a blight on the landscape.”

The most visible building materials are soil and grass. The architects seem to have peeled back the hilltop, inserted the winery into the bedrock, then replaced the soil, planting it with fescue grasses to harmonize with the rest of the topography.

Tourism was a primary consideration in the design. Viewing balconies overlook the production areas, allowing visitors to watch the proceedings without disrupting them. With the fantastic views of the valley, fountains, art and a winemaking museum, visitors have plenty to do.

If You Build It, They Will Come
Tourists are also well occupied at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, thanks to picnic areas, a restaurant, art exhibitions, lectures, music festivals and a store that sells Mondavi memorabilia; to some degree, the architecture of wineries is the same as that of tourist attractions. But Mondavi is probably best known for its iconic 1960s building that appears on labels and advertisements. Designed by Cliff May, who is renowned for his sprawling California ranch houses, the winery was intended to look homey: “…this is not a factory; this is a home, a place with real character and feeling,” Mondavi writes in his autobiography, Harvests of Joy: How the Good Life Became Great Business.

With its broadly arching entry, low-slung roofs and bell tower, this rambling winery has the flavor of a hacienda. But it captures the freedom and openness that’s unique to California. It’s as if the building is saying, “We’re a California winery; we’ve broken all the wine-making rules.”

Nicolas Catena Zapata, owner of Catena Zapata, wanted a winery that was symbolic of South America and of the mountainous Mendoza region of Argentina where the winery is located. A history buff, Zapata is fascinated with the Mayans and their remarkably advanced culture. He dreamed of a winery that resembled a Mayan pyramid, but it took architect Pablo Sanchez Elias, also from Argentina, to make it a reality. Elias studied the Mayans, traveled to the pyramids and worked closely with Zapata and the winemaker.

The resulting building, made of cream-colored blocks of local stone, is like no other winery and would certainly look out of place in any other setting. But here it works. “We wanted to make a statement with this building, just as we make a statement with our wines,” says export director Laura Catena. “This shows pride in our own culture. And we think we’ll get floods of visitors.”

Form and Function

There are other more practical reasons for good architecture. Says John Buck, CEO of Te Mata Estate Winery in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand, “Let’s face it, we are a food processing plant. Things must function well.” Rooms must be easy to clean and made with finishes that last. Also, as more people study wine and winemaking, the winery itself becomes a communication medium, a way to express the quality of the processes that go on inside them.

Te Mata’s buildings are unique even for New Zealand, though the climate is similar in some ways to that of Napa Valley. “These forms and shapes wouldn’t look right anywhere outside of Hawkes Bay,” Buck says.

Designed by Ian Athfield, an architect known internationally for his approach to a modernism imbued with traditional New Zealand forms, Te Mata is a series of honest, unfussy buildings. The native materials used—corrugated iron, timber, tile, canvas, and plaster—relate to the original 1872 building on the site. Athfield restored this and created four new buildings, grouped around two courtyards, between 1986 and 1995.

When asked if the building affects the product, Buck replies, “Of course it does. Everything is related, from the attitude of the employees, who enjoy working in a place like this, to those who visit and are inspired by the setting.”

Winery-as-factory was also the idea behind MezzaCorona in Trentino, Italy, though on a much bigger scale than Te Mata. MezzaCorona has the capacity to produce 4.5 million bottles of wine per year. It is a structure built to accommodate wine technology—it has stainless-steel vats for fermentation and a sophisticated computerized bottling plant. Yet the building is also a representation of the rows of vines that stretch outward from its walls. The Italian architect Alberto Cecchetto created a wavy roof supported by straight columns, much as vines are supported by stakes.

At the other extreme is Long Meadow Ranch, a tiny winery (and olive oil producer) in Napa Valley. Long Meadow Ranch is truly a wine-growing farm, as architect and author Dirk Meyhofer and photographer Olaf Gollnek talk about in their book, The Architecture of Wine. “This is not a showpiece, it is a working farm,” says Eric Haesloop, of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects in Berkeley, California. Long Meadow Ranch produces about 5,000 cases of red wine per year.

The building is pisé, a combination of soil and cement sprayed onto plywood forms. The soil used was excavated to make the cellar. The pisé is about two feet thick, which allows the building to be cooled naturally—when it’s 100 degrees outside, it’s 75 degrees inside, the architect says. The floors are concrete, the beams are recycled wood and the roof is corrugated metal, as an old farm shed would be.

“Our inspiration came from using what was at hand. All the pieces of the building function. It is arranged like you would arrange a kitchen—according to the needs of the cook or, in this case, the winemaker,” Haesloop says.

Dominate the Landscape
Another building to break new ground in the area of winery architecture is Dominus, located in Yountville, California. There, Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron designed a giant rectangular shell made of jagged chunks of basalt encased in a wire grid. The various operations buildings are enclosed within the shell. The effect is stark and a little depressing. From the road Dominus looks like a penal colony—as though you’d see prisoners inside, breaking rocks to add to the shell.

Still the building has had tremendous impact, both on winery architecture and on Napa Valley. When asked to participate in this article, the press relations people at Dominus refused with the following note:

“Dominus is in an awkward position. The building elicits an enormous amount of interest but Napa County restricts us from receiving public visitors (due to traffic congestion). So, we are obliged to refuse requests to visit the winery and taste our wines. Including us in an article would only exacerbate the situation.”

The case of Dominus puts to rest any doubts that remain about the importance of architecture to wineries and, ultimately, to wine. There’s a simple and fundamental equation that can be made when talking about wine and architecture in the same breath. It is this: Wine equals art. Architecture equals art. Therefore wine plus architecture equals art times two. It is a formula that many winery owners are coming to, via one route or another.

Freelance writer Wendy Talarico specializes in architecture. She lives in Irvington, N.Y.

Published on June 1, 2001

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