Lahofer Winery

Architecture and wine

From Napa Valley through to Northern Italy: vineyards fit for the 21st century.
by Florian Heilmeyer | 10/27/2020

As regards the architecture of wineries, the 21st century began exactly in 1997 in Napa Valley, California. Thanks to its warm, Mediterranean climate the valley had already in the 19th century developed into the center of wine production in the New West with the arrival of the first European settlers. Today, the Cabernets, Zinfandels und Chardonnays from Napa Valley still number amongst the world’s best wines. However, in terms of architecture the valley has long lagged behind its reputation for progressive wines; the “Napa Valley style” consisted primarily of picturesque, castle-like estates or fortress-like houses made of heavy undressed stones. These were arguably intended to evoke memories of the European homes of the settler families, while inside increasingly modern equipment took over the production of wine. This could perhaps best be compared to trying to force a stainless-steel tank into an oak barrel simply to keep up appearances. The trend reached a climax with the arrival of post-modernism in the Valley: In 1984, the winery Clos Pegase cooperated with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to organize an international architectural design competition participated in by 96 architectural practices. It was won by the famous New York postmodernist Michael Graves, who designed a cheerful mixture of temple and ranch characterized by various styles and bright colors. Completed in 1987, the Valley had never seen anything like it before; it triggered a small boom of sorts, when neighboring wineries attempted to outdo this postmodern masterpiece. They included the Opus One Winery lined with colonnades designed by Scott Johnson and completed in 1991 or the whimsical Quixote Winery featuring the unmistakable signature architecture of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, (1998).

A gray box to counter postmodernism

It was this landscape of castles, estates and postmodern mythical creatures that the two Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron encountered when in 1995 they first came to Napa Valley under commission to Dominus Winery. And they put an end to the development by proposing a completely different approach. Referencing the typical stone barns in the valley they designed a simple, dark-gray box, 136 meters long, 24 meters wide, and eight meters high. Subsequently, they inserted this two-story block inside the orthogonal North-South frame formed by the rows of vines and gave it two large thoroughfares where the side roads for the large harvesting vehicles ran. Inside the box is perfectly organized as a state-of-the-art production line in three sections: The grapes are delivered at one end, and the wine is stored, packed and sold at the other end. The outer shell consists of wire mesh baskets stacked on top of one another and filled with coarse undressed stones of grayish-green basalt – a stone typical for the region that comes from the nearby canyon. From a distance it looks like a very plain box wall, but the interior affords excellent conditions for working or simply being in the building. The Dominus Winery was completed in 1997 and has ever since been considered a milestone of wine architecture, which has considerably influenced the development of new vineyards in the entire world over the last 20 years.

Initially, the development of new wine architecture branched out into two different directions. On the one hand, there were the vintners who still wanted to lend their vineyards as spectacular an appearance as possible in the hope of securing greater attention for their products. Accordingly, the 2000s were golden years for the star architects of global renown: Mario Botta, Steven Holl, Christian Portzamparc, Jean Nouvel, Santiago Calatrava and Richard Rogers designed wineries in France, Italy and Austria variously as a high-tech shells, as a three-arm star in Corten steel, as a large wave, as a curving vine cut an angle, or even as an abstract block with a bright red reflecting metal facade. They were also ideally organized inside, but also hoped in the wake of the “Bilbao effect” specifically to be placed near the top of the must-visit lists of travel firms and wine magazines. The winery Château La Coste in the Provence topped his trend: From 2004 it gradually enlarged its vineyards adding an open-air park for contemporary art and architecture where visitors can discover pavilions by Tadao Ando, Kengo Kuma, Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano as well as artworks by Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Richard Serra and Ai Weiwei. It is also possible, albeit for a small fortune, to overnight in the vineyard’s own hotel that comes complete with a spa; after all, one day is hardly long enough to see everything. The wine in the evening almost becomes a side issue.

In this sense, the vineyards that are more inspired by the model of Herzog & de Meurons Dominus Winery can be read as a countermovement that signals a “new modesty”. After all, through until the 2010s the competition between especially spectacular wineries slowly came to a halt. Now the emphasis is more on a barn than a spectacle. This has increasingly involved engaging young, local architects and in addition to creating a building beneficial to production conditions it also needs to satisfy higher expectations regarding sustainable building technology featuring solar energy, the use of rainwater and the natural ventilation of plants and workplace. Fortunately, this chimes with an ever-greater interest on the part of vintners in presenting their wines as exemplary ecological products that are grounded and in close touch with nature. A spectacular building that dominates the vineyard does not fit in with that image. And so, for all their differences what the more recent wineries around the globe have in common is above all a remarkable architectural calm and tranquility – and their reference to traditional typologies and local craftmanship.

Two wine barns by Ludescher + Lutz

Bregenz-based architects Elmar Ludescher und Philip Lutz have designed two prime examples of this in Austria and Germany respectively: The first winery is located in the hilly World Cultural Heritage landscape of the Wachau in Austria. The new building is an addition that is clearly informed by the old estate in terms of color, form and choice of material. An unassuming structure, the production building is located on the road, thus providing protection for the new inner courtyard, which looks directly at the vineyards rising up behind the estate. This is the location of the second section of the new building where wine can be sampled inside and outside. The second vineyard is situated in a much more exposed position above the vineyards on the northern shore of Lake Constance; to the South there is a magnificent view out across the lake and mountains. The new building resembles a simple barn, albeit a very large one. To the south, the building opens up with a glass facade and visitor garden and there are two sets of stairs leading to the tasting room beneath the heavy roof making you feel a little as if you were on a hayloft. The glass facade facing south is fitted with vertical wooden blinds to protect against too much sun, but two large shutters can be opened up in the evening to let in the light again.

Vineyards in the United States and Canada

Two new vineyards in North America provide similar examples. In 2018, not that far north of Napa Valley, namely in Oregon, the modernized and enlarged Furioso Vineyards opened. The office of Ben Waechter from nearby Portland connected the existing buildings to create a single, large structure and added a uniform facade of ebonized pinewood. What was previously a rather disparate conglomerate of different buildings is now a long house with a saddle roof straddling them, which looks like a black barn with a large throughway for farming machinery – not unlike its model, the Dominus Winery by Herzog & de Meuron. Here, too, production is organized on a linear basis and at the south end of the production line there is a large room for hosting events and wine tastings that thanks to its glazing on three sides provides a panoramic view out over the vineyards.

In 2016 and some 500 kilometers further north in Kelowna, Canada, Olson Kundig Architects designed a remarkable new building for Martin’s Lane Winery that is located right in the vineyards themselves, which fall away steeply down to Lake Okanagan. Once again, this simple large edifice clearly references agricultural buildings, albeit with two differences: First, it is made of steel and has a facade and roof of corrugated iron, and the roof has already taken on a warm brown patina. Second, the structure is divided into two parts: the production line follows the natural topography so that during the fermentation and sedimentation stages natural gravity can be drawn on. The visitor center lies at an angle to the production line and offers an attractive view of the lake and as far as Mission Hill winery on the other shore, which was also designed by Olson Kundig in 2000. This juxtaposition is interesting from an architectural point of view as the older vineyard is conceived as a country estate with sweeping arches, colonnaded walks, barrel roofs and even a tall campanile and is very much in the traditional postmodernist style while the winery designed some 16 years later is wholly committed to the new, functional, less spectacular look.

Near Barcelona: cellar with a sea view

The small, highly traditional winery Mont-Ras is a good one-and-a-half hour's drive north of Barcelona. The brief of architects Jorge Vidal and Victor Rahola from nearby Girona was to add a modern cellar to the historic estate. They simply inserted it as a simple block of visible, large, inexpensive bricks into the slope, but did not conceal it entirely: the outlines of the roof edge remain completely visible, and were used to create a garden for the old house. By contrast, to the south one of the cellar facades emerges completely into the daylight. Here the references to farm buildings are most evident, not only in the language of the simple materials – wood, bricks, concrete, but also primarily through four large sliding doors that allow the cellar to be opened up completely. The doors also form the ends of the four-barrel vaults, which divide up the interior from the production, via storage through to the vault for entertaining guests and wine sales with a view out across the sea.v

Italy, Czech Republic and back to Napa Valley

So, has the spectacular architecture of wineries come to a complete end? Well, not entirely. But its characteristic features have become much more subdued. That is evident, for example, in the extension of the wine cellars at Hotel Pacherhof in Brixen in North Italy. Here the two local architects Michaela Wolf and Gerd Bergmeister have modernized a historic colonnaded cellar from 1450 and enlarged it by 590 square meters. It is here that the stainless-steel tanks are stored, while grapes can be delivered to the new entrance and travel from there to the cellar where they are processed. Rising up over a large sliding door at the car park, this new entrance forms a serrated tower clad with bronze panels. Though this might potentially appear too spectacular, the dimensions are too modest, the colors too subtle and the forms much too familiar in view of the surrounding mountains. Bergmeister and Wolf have managed to create something which is so familiar that it remains an inconspicuous spectacle.

The next stop on our short small wine tour around the world takes us to the south of the Czech Republic. Very close to the border with Austria the Czech architectural practice of Chybík + Krištof has designed a new building for the winery Lahofer, which manages to cleverly combine the spectacular with the barn look. Two simple blocks inserted into one another provide space for the production; they are buildings of simple reinforced steel frames and fair-faced concrete, while the facade between the concrete pillars consists of horizontal wooden slats. Inside the blocks are as simple and functional as they are outside. However, facing south there is an underground wine cellar above which the building forms a concrete wave, that comes to a halt above a very high glass facade. It is here that the restaurant, event room and offices are located; the tall concrete arches exactly follow the strict pattern of the rows of vines in front of the window outside. Atop of the magnificent wave there is a viewing platform whose steps can be used as an amphitheater for events. Though this winery has a spectacular design it is evolved in such details and remains so subtle in terms of color that is almost appears functional.

We finish with a view of Sonoma, the neighboring valley to the west of Napa Valley. At the center of the Valley San Francisco-based Piechota Architecture have created several new buildings alongside each other for Silver Oak Winery housing production, offices, event and visitor rooms. Architect Daniel Piechota puts it like this: “The shape references the dominant barn form of the area, here reduced to its simplest clarity.” This clear legibility is even heightened through duplication. “Walking up the long, landscaped walkway, the building becomes a study in aesthetic rhythms, syncopations.” But what really makes the building so forward-looking are its sustainable aspects: Large sections of the facades, the stairs and seating were made of repurposed wood. A neighboring winery wanted to replace old wine barrels up to 100 years old, which is why here and there the timber used for Silver Oak also sports stains from red wine or perforations. Thanks to large sliding walls some rooms can be opened entirely, which is beneficial both for production but also for ventilation. A broad roof between two buildings covers and provides shade for an outdoor workplace. And because water is an especially valuable commodity in California's vineyards the landscape planners at Munden Fry installed a system of water basins around the building for capturing rainwater that is then filtered so that it provides most of the water needed by the two barns. The US Green Building Council awarded the building its highest distinction, namely Platinum certification for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design”. And having visited these wineries you get the impression that wine architecture is well equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century.