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Napa Travel: Form and Function In Napa Valley

Modern and historic wineries are built on the same foundations

James Laube
Posted: June 29, 2004

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As the sun set gently behind the Mayacamas Mountains, which form the western boundary of Napa Valley, the final rays of daylight cast Trefethen Vineyards in a stunning, rosy pink hue.

Surrounded by towering oak trees, this historic landmark is at once a comforting link to Napa's past and an ongoing tribute to the land.

This winery, built in 1889, embodied Napa's first golden age, then lay vacant for decades before being rejuvenated by the Trefethen family. It is a monument to Napa's rich agricultural heritage, an enduring citadel that combines form with function, a sacrosanct place where grapes are transformed into wine.

There are hundreds of wineries in Napa Valley and every one tells a story. Some have been here since the beginning of wine in the valley, and these fortresses remain symbols of wine's prominence and endurance. Others are so new they haven't yet been stained by grape juice. Wineries come in all shapes and sizes, as if one's imagination and financial wherewithal are the only constraints on how lavish or regal or rustic it appears.

Napa's wineries range from vast, arena-sized underground facilities dug out of rugged hillsides to functional concrete warehouses with faux facades to single-room buildings barely large enough for one person to work in. A few -- Trefethen, Far Niente, Inglenook and Greystone -- share the vision of one architect. Some, such as Rombauer and Napa Wine Co., are custom crush facilities that house dozens of small brands.

What nearly all of them have in common boils down to the essentials of winemaking -- the processing of grapes. And despite the huge advances in knowledge and technology in Napa's first 150 years, the basics remain the same. The most efficient, practical and noninterventionist way to move wine through a winery is by means of gravity flow. The nuts-and-bolts needs of the winery are relatively straightforward, allowing the architect a fair amount of aesthetic freedom.

"Nothing's really changed," says Jon Lail, a highly respected architect who has worked in Napa Valley for three decades. Lail, who is also a vintner (he's co-owner of Lail Vineyards), has designed dozens of wineries from the ground up and inside out, including Grace Family Winery and Laird Family Estates. He has redesigned and modernized dozens more, and this year alone he is working on better than a dozen different projects. "We've gone from the equivalent of the Model T [in old wineries] to V-8s, and now we're at the turbo level," he says, referring to contemporary wineries such as Vineyard 29 that generate their own energy. "When you think about it," Lail says, "we're doing the same thing [winemakers] did [years ago]." In that sense, the more things have changed, the more they've remained the same.

You don't have to look hard to find historic buildings in Napa Valley. They're on display and in use today everywhere you turn. There are scores of old wineries and châteaus, restored country homes, weathered barns, water towers and narrow bridges, all reminders of a bygone era, yet still alive and in use.

With a little imagination, it's easy to envision Trefethen 100 years ago as a working farm and winery -- filled to the brim with a newly fermenting vintage, the air heavy with the smell of newly crushed Cabernet grapes, farm equipment scattered across the grounds and horses being led back to their stables at twilight. The winery, designed by Hamden McIntyre and called Eshcol (Hebrew for "valley of grapes"), faces what is now Highway 29, a busy thoroughfare for cars and trucks.

Three stories tall, with the crusher on the third floor, the old Eshcol winery had grape gondolas that were lifted on a conveyor belt driven by a team of horses. The crushed grapes flowed into large fermentation tanks on the second level, and then into barrels on the ground floor. Because of the weight of the wine, the interior beams were thick and sturdy.

Many of Napa's oldest wineries, such as Beringer, Chateau Montelena, Charles Krug, Greystone (now the Culinary Institute of America) and Schramsberg, were solidly built into hillsides. Many had thick rock exteriors to keep the cellar temperature cool. At Mayacamas, built in 1889, the original stone winery high atop Mount Veeder looks very much like it did a century ago, although there have been modern additions. Owner Bob Travers, who bought the winery in 1968, still utilizes the same crush pad at the top of the winery, which is built into the hillside. In the old days, a horse-drawn wagon delivered the grape lug boxes to the crusher. From there, the wine was moved through the winery by gravity flow. Once ready, the wine was taken in barrel by wagon to the city of Napa and put on a boat to San Francisco where it was bottled.

A few miles north of Trefethen is another of McIntyre's designs, Far Niente. It shares Trefethen's outward appearance, except its exterior is built with rock, not the heavy timber that frames Trefethen's outer walls. Farther on, you'll see yet another of McIntyre's works on display, the grand old Inglenook estate château. Today it goes by the name Niebaum-Coppola, and while the current owners, Francis and Eleanor Coppola, have remodeled the property, it still looks like the Inglenook of yesteryear.

The midvalley hamlet of Oakville provides a comparative look at what's old, what's new and what's been remodeled. The aforementioned Far Niente winery, restored by the late Gil Nickel, is part of what Nickel called Napa's "silk stocking" district.

To the north of Far Niente is Robert Mondavi winery, which in 1966 became the first new-construction winery in Napa Valley since before Prohibition. Its new fermentation and barrel-aging facility, built in 2000, is tied into its California Mission design and is state of the art. Yet Mondavi utilizes upright oak tanks (not stainless steel) in the new cellar, another throwback to the past.

Across the highway from Mondavi is another of Nickel's marvels, the new Nickel & Nickel winery. South of N&N is the regal Opus One, built in 1991. To the north is the handsome, modern redwood exterior of Turnbull winery.

Nickel & Nickel has the look and feel of a 19th century farmstead with its weather-beaten barn and restored Queen Anne farmhouse, built around 1884 by John Sullenger. The Gleason Barn, dating to 1770, was purchased by Nickel in Meriden, N.H. It was dismantled over a two-year period, shipped piecemeal to Oakville and reassembled. The fermentation room is housed in a barn of similar design. Outside, it looks like it could be from the same era as the Queen Anne building. Inside, the thick wooden beams give it the appearance of being much older than it actually is. What you can't see from ground level is the elaborate underground barrel-aging chai beneath the fermentation building.

While Sterling Vineyards, perched atop a hill at the northern end of the valley, is perhaps Napa's most familiar sight, Dominus, in Yountville, is stark and austere, designed to blend clandestinely into the landscape. Its sturdy rock and wire exterior and the lack of trees or shrubs around it contribute to its discreet appearance. The modern upstairs offices, with graceful glass walls and sleek desks, provide panoramic views of Napa's vineyards and rock outcroppings. Inside, the winery looks very much like a modern Bordeaux château.

Another spectacular site is the grand Domaine Carneros winery in the southern part of the valley. This beautiful French-style château is nestled into a hillside with elaborate, picturesque landscaping, while its elegant interior evokes Champagne, France, where the winery's owner, famed Champagne house Taittinger, is based.

Three of the most recent additions to Napa Valley -- Colgin, Bryant and Palmaz -- magnify their respective owners' individual tastes when it comes to design. For Ann Colgin the winery is a literal extension of her lifestyle. She lives within steps of her winery. Colgin's winery is an elaborate estate with the rustic look of an old water tower. It's spacious inside, utilizing gravity flow to move the wines.

Bryant Family Vineyard sits at the top of a 15-acre Cabernet vineyard in the hills east of Napa Valley. Like Colgin, Bryant enjoys a panoramic view of the valley and Lake Hennessey through its large glass windows.

There are plenty of tiny wineries, too. Grace Family Vineyard, north of St. Helena, was one of the early cottage châteaus, but few are smaller or quainter than Jean Phillips' Screaming Eagle winery, a stone-covered fermentation room with five little tanks. Phillips ages her famous Cabernet in a tiny cave, too, below the winery, transferring the wine downhill into barrels through a hose. Once crush is over, her machinery is tucked away neatly in a nearby barn.

Much of Napa Valley is abuzz about two new wineries, Vineyard 29 and Palmaz, and no wonder.

Vineyard 29's owner, Chuck McMinn, is a self-described "high tech" and "start-up" junkie who heads Covad Communications, a high-speed DSL provider. His design not only incorporates gravity flow but is energy self-sufficient, utilizing two microturbine engines, for instance, to create heating and cooling elements in the winery. One of the ways McMinn moves his wines is by elevator. Once a fermentation tank has been emptied into a belowground tank, that tank is lifted above those by the elevator and the wine is allowed to return to the fermentation tank via gravity flow.

Palmaz is an amazing undertaking. The winery, owned by Amalia and Julio Palmaz and located in the Coombsville area of Napa, is 17 stories tall, built into a hillside and subdivided into six floors. Palmaz conducted its first crush last year, having the grapes delivered to the top floor. After being crushed, the must flows into a series of computer-controlled stainless steel tanks that rotate under the crusher on a rail. From there, the wine descends to a third floor, in larger tanks, and then down to two levels of barrel aging. On the bottom level is a bottling line.

Once you've seen one bottling line, you've seen them all. But once you've seen the likes of many of Napa's architectural delights, you'll be hard-pressed to say you've seen anything quite like them. Just remember, the inner workings are pretty much the same as they've always been. So far, no one's come up with anything better than gravity flow to move wine from crusher to tank to barrel -- and frankly, no one expects to.

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