Rainy Cali day and thoughts turn to warmer days and wineries, give this a read….
Contrary to first architectural impression, not every Napa winery is either a stylized barn too good to be true or an exercise in Mediterranean make-believe.
There’s austerity as well as opulence, understatement along with over-the-top. You simply need to know where to look.
Hence this handy cheat-sheet of sorts: six wineries on the valley floor that offer an enriching range of stylized craft.
There are no winding mountain roads and no too-obvious destinations. If you know the valley, you’ve already visited Robert Mondavi Winery (mock-Mission at its best). Architecture buffs have already tried to pull strings and visit Dominus Estate by Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss architects best known locally for the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.
Which leaves plenty to choose from, no two even remotely alike.
Our counter-clockwise journey begins with the most surprising sight of all: Quixote Winery.
When plants spill from the uneven brick-lined roof and hallucinogenic tile patterns compete with a golden dome for attention, it’s clear that Napa’s weakness for pretentious theatricality is being tweaked.
The winery was founded by Carl Doumani, a pioneer in Napa’s resurgence, and the design is by Friedensreich Hundertwasser – a legendary Austrian architect who died in 2000 and has no other buildings in the United States.
Even if you don’t make an appointment, the building is worth a detour for the show. At the rate the landscape is filling in, you may not be able to see it for long.
6126 Silverado Trail, Napa; (707) 944-2659. quixotewinery.com
This winery is closer to what one expects in the valley, a barn-like form where thick stone walls frame a central bay of stained wood. The path to the tasting room entrance is shaded by a wooden pergola draped with wisteria vines.
What sets Sinskey apart is that there’s substance to the mood: a disciplined design by Oscar Leidenfrost that is resolutely modern in spirit.
The interior follows through with compressed drama, a long vaulted tasting room that’s a dim delight – “like you’ve entered a cathedral,” says one San Francisco architect. He’s not that far off.
6320 Silverado Trail, Napa; (707) 944-9090. robertsinskey.com
There’s not much curb appeal to this small facility tucked behind a sluggish gate. So why make an appointment? Because it’s the purest example of contemporary design among Napa wineries, industrial and artistic at once.
There’s no building per se, just a concrete-coated V-shaped cut into a ridge. Set against one retaining wall is a 30-foot-deep canopy that protects equipment from sun and rain.
The scale shifts at the entrance, where old bottles form a half-circle around the front door. From the outside it’s as if you’re walking through a sponge. Inside, the bottle-filtered light has a stained-glass effect as you enter barrel-lined caves, ribbed and rough like corduroy pants.
“We didn’t want a visitor center experience,” Hourglass owner Jeff Smith says of the design by Olle Lundberg. “We wanted to put people in the knuckles of what we do.”
Open by appointment only. Call (707) 968-9332, Ext. 17 or e-mail marybeth@hourglasswinecom
Larkmead Vineyards’ architect is Howard Backen, designer of choice for wineries that are among Napa’s most rarefied and remote. This one, though, is as approachable as can be: a streamlined update of a Victorian farmhouse next to a well-kept barn, all nestled among vineyards off Highway 29.
The tasting room is part of the farmhouse, next to a screened-in porch. Production occurs in the barn, the lone 21st century flourish being solar panels on the roof.
Backen’s touch is in the proportions, the ambiance. You feel this is what the entire valley was like, long ago, before all of us arrived.
1100 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga; (707) 942-0167. larkmead.com
Larkmead’s rustic romance aside, early Napa was more like the brawny historic triptych at Beringer Vineyards – a massive stone winery from 1877 flanked by stucco-covered warehouses from 1931.
Ignore the faux-Italian “carriage house” and the trinket-laden tasting room redo of one of the gaunt warehouse wings. Instead, sign up for a tour and then enjoy the ruggedness of the original space, and the enormous, scarred turn-of-the-(20th) century barrels still on display.
2000 Main St, St. Helena; (866) 708-9463. beringer.com
And now for something completely and comically different: Del Dotto Estate Winery.
You descend past statuary lions and a fountain into a tasting room that makes Las Vegas look shy. The marble pillars are 175 years old. The ceiling tile work is based on the Doges Palace in Venice. The architect was “Elio,” a staffer told me, and he brought a crew from Italy to get everything just right.
Excessive? Absolutely. But it’s excess at an intimate scale – and besides, let’s face it, excess is part of today’s Napa every bit as much as a not-bad Merlot.
1445 St. Helena Hwy. S., St. Helena; (707) 963-2134. deldottovineyards.com
John King is the urban design critic of The San Francisco Chronicle. Twitter: @JohnKingSFChron. firstname.lastname@example.org