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Architect Michael Graves

Renowned designer talks Tuscany, Napa and his wine cellar under the stairs

Laurie Woolever
Posted: June 29, 2010

Michael Graves, 75, is an influential American architect, designer and educator whose work spans a diverse array of buildings around the world: offices (postmodern icons such as the Portland Building in Oregon and Humana Building in Louisville, Ky.), private homes, cultural and educational centers and hotels (such as the playful Disney World Dolphin and Swan resorts). Wine lovers may know him for his design of Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga, Calif., built in the mid-1980s, for which he beat out 95 other entrants in the winery’s architecture competition.

Graves taught at Princeton University for nearly 40 years, fostering generations of architects, while his collaboration with Target stores, for which he designed over 800 household items, introduced him to the masses. In 2009, Graves collaborated with Yellow Tail on a limited-edition series of glasses that were auctioned off to support the American Association of Museums. He spoke with Wine Spectator from his home in Princeton, N.J.

Wine Spectator: How did you get interested in wine? Do you collect wine?
Michael Graves: It would be a reach to say that I’m a wine collector, but I do have a small room in my house dedicated to keeping wine. People don’t know what to give an architect [as a gift], so I have quite a stash. In terms of wine drinking, I do that a lot. I’m originally from Indiana, and Indiana when I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s didn’t have much wine. In 1960, I went to Rome to the American Academy—I’d won a fellowship called the Prix de Roma. At lunch and dinner, there was always wine served. … That was the beginning of an understanding of what wine was to meals.

And given that I lived so close to Tuscany, I got to see the wines being made there and the vineyards. As I was drawing, I couldn’t help but try to understand the wonderful order of the vineyards within the kind of disorder of the landscape. Now I buy a lot of Chianti. I like the full-bodied nature of it, and I eat a lot of pasta. I also feel that Chianti brings back memories for me. I am kind of nostalgic that way.

WS: That small wine room in your house, is it a proper cellar, or more of a closet?
MG: It’s on an outside wall, which I didn’t insulate when the house was renovated, so it’s quite cool on its own. There’s a large stair[case] off the living room, so I made that space under the stair a wine cellar with a hidden door. There’s a candelabra standing in front of it, so thieves will never know it’s there.

WS: How did you come to design the winery building at Clos Pegase?
MG: I’m often asked, “If you had your druthers, what kind of building would you like to design?” And I always say, “The next one,” which is generally true. But at that point in my career, the idea of designing a winery was just heaven-sent, because of my experiences in Rome and the landscape of the Napa Valley being so close to Tuscany in terms of the light and the golden fields in the fall. I wanted to make a winery that worked. Wineries were starting to be designed by modern architects that were more about modern architecture than they were about wineries and the history and substance of winemaking.

One of the judges [of the winery competition] was Robert Mondavi, who apparently said in an interview, “It was an interesting competition, but the Graves scheme was the only one that worked as a winery.” Given that he was the giant on the jury, we won, and we got to build the Clos Pegase winery.

WS: Tell us about your collaboration with Yellow Tail on the glassware for wine-inspired cocktails.
MG: Well, they came to me, I suppose, because of the work we’ve done for others, the reputation I have of having some wit and joy in the work that we do.

WS: With regard to Yellow Tail’s “winetails,” there’s a sentiment among some that it’s blasphemous to combine wine and other ingredients to make cocktails. What are your thoughts on that?
MG: My usual response is, “That’s why we play ballgames.” I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other. I can understand why purists would not want to do that, but I am not a purist in that sense.

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