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The Wine Is Great … but Would You Want to Live There?

Modern winery architecture has been inspired by Hellenic temples and medieval castles, but a new breed takes its cue from the simple, iconic farmhouse

Posted: Dec 6, 2012 12:30pm ET

By Robert Taylor

I first met vintner Achille Boroli four years ago in New York, where I was as impressed with photos of his family's modern winery, designed by his architect brother Guido, as I was with his Barolo Villero 2001. The Boroli tasting room and cellar in Castiglione Falletto is a thoroughly modern, three-level barn-inspired facility with sharp lines, shadowbox windows and, most striking, vertical clapboard siding composed of repurposed oak barrel staves that make the winery appear to shimmer and undulate in the Piedmont sun.

Boroli was back in New York this past October, hosting a small dinner to showcase three of his Barolos at Lincoln restaurant, a fitting architectural setting for a winery passionate about design. The restaurant is nestled beneath the Tisch Illumination Lawn, a hyperbolic paraboloid (think saddle-shaped) park framed by glass fins that serves as Lincoln's roof. Lincoln's Brazilian wood plank ceiling mimics the park's contours. Boroli and Lincoln served as reminders that, as with wine, there's more outstanding and accessible architecture today than ever before.

There is, for me, a romanticism to the concept of the winery as multi-use architecture—at their best, designwise, wineries are habitable factories, structures that serve the demands of both efficient production and engaging aesthetics befitting hospitality. If I sound starry eyed, I am not ashamed in admitting to George Costanzian fantasies of architectural grandeur—"You know I always wanted to pretend that I was an architect ... Nothing is higher than architect!"

I never shared George's aspiration to claim an addition to the Guggenheim, though. I prefer Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes to his spiraling off-white nautilus on 5th Avenue, much as I favor architect Howard Backen's Harlan farmhouse to Frank Gehry's iridescent Marqués de Riscal.

I'd be remiss without first recognizing the Old World archetypes—the 17th- and 18th-century châteaus of Bordeaux, Italy's castellos, Spain's bodegas and Germany's weinguts—which served as blueprints for the New World's modern classics, many of which you'll find in Napa (check out the slideshow below for a few of the best examples of Napa's 19th-century icons), but my affinity leans toward the forward-looking designs.

I marvel at Gehry's Marqués de Riscal and Casa Lapostolle's Clos Apalta, designed by Roberto Benavente. Much like Clos Apalta, architects Bórmida & Yanzón's O. Fournier winery majestically rises from its Mendoza vineyard like an alien spacecraft. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron transformed brutalist gabions into the arresting Dominus Estate in Napa. Zaha Hadid's wine pavilion for Rioja's R. Lopez De Heredia is a mesmerizing matryoshka doll integrating ultramodern steel, glass and composite wood with original design elements from 1886 and 1910.

Even in the Old World's most tradition-bound regions, modern wineries like Boroli's have found a place. Piedmont's Ceretto offers the Acino, a grape-shaped oval bubble that juts from a hillside overlooking the vineyard, the Cube, a frameless tilting glass box, and the brightly painted Sol LeWitt and David Tremlett Chapel in Brunate. In Bordeaux, Christian de Portzamparc designed Château Cheval-Blanc's new chai, a stealth gray turtle shell atop the St.-Emilion plateau.

But for all the wonder these modern marvels inspire, I often ask myself, "Would I want to live there?" In the case of Marqués de Riscal's titanium orchid or Clos Apalta's UFO skeleton, beautiful as they are, the answer is no. (And no, I haven't been invited to move in at either.)

The long-anticipated Gehry project at Napa's Hall winery, originally scheduled to open in 2010, has been abandoned according to the winery, a victim of the unstable economy coupled with community concerns about its sore-thumb potential. It's perhaps also reflective of an architectural trend toward highly sophisticated but more subtle wineries that actually look like they belong in an agricultural community. Architect Howard Backen's wineries set the standard among them. I talked to Backen last week about his approach to designing understated, inviting yet nevertheless jaw-droppingly beautiful hillside farmhouse wineries.

Backen, whose credits include Bond, Futo, Harlan, Paul Hobbs, MacMurray Ranch, Ovid and many, many more, insists that he doesn't have a "style," per se. He listens to the vintners and the geography, and takes his inspiration from rural agricultural buildings, namely barns. Backen looks to "architecture without architects—carpenter-built [buildings] … with a little bit of industrial thrown in."

Barring putting a label to his oeuvre, certain elements regularly appear in Backen's projects: landscape integration, peaked monitor roofs, corrugated metal, board-and-batten siding, exposed rafters, indigenous fieldstone and his signature barn-style sliding pocket doors. They come together in remarkably livable-looking production facilities.

Is the recent dearth of new over-the-top McChateaus a result of economic conservatism, or an indication that American tastes are trending toward more modest, refined architecture? Backen couldn't say, but believes, "It's a good thing."

Backen is now working on Tim Mondavi's Continuum winery, among others. He's especially excited about plans for a new winery for Bill Harlan on the Oakville Crossing; Harlan isn't ready to discuss the infant project yet, but chances are good that it'll look like some place I'd like to live.

Click on the thumbnails below for a slideshow featuring many of the wineries mentioned in this blog.

Photograph courtesy of Inglenook Photograph courtesy of Stag's Leap Photograph courtesy of Beringer Vineyards Photograph by Guido Boroli Photograph courtesy of Ceretto Photograph by Matt Wilson/Cephas Photograph by Sara Matthews Photograph courtesy of Viña Morandé Photograph by Michael Lange Photograph by Jean Bernard Nadeau/Cephas Photograph by Adrian Gregorutti Photograph by Daniel Hurst

Alfonso Cevola
Dallas, Texas, USA —  December 23, 2012 9:25am ET
Loved Cheval Blanc's new space. A working museum, very pretty, functional, maybe a little too clean (it is new) and I think it would be great to live there.


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