Winery architecture: practicality or vanity?

With their increasingly eye-catching architecture, are wineries catering to practicality or vanity, asks the director of London’s Design Museum

Words by Deyan Sudjic

Green vineyard landscape from a birds eye view

The name Jan Shrem may not be particularly heralded in architectural circles. Truth be told, the founder of the California winery Clos Pegase is not even that acclaimed in the wine world. Yet it is in no small part due to him that wineries now sit somewhere behind a museum or a skyscraper, but ahead of a chair, as many architects’ idea of a career-defining edifice. 

When Shrem set up in Napa Valley’s Calistoga in 1982 after selling his publishing business, he was determined to make his mark on the wine world. His strategy for doing so was to put as much thought into the way the winery looked as he did into the vineyard and, therefore, the stuff in the bottle. In setting out to locate a serious, headline-making architect to take on an apparently simple job, it seemed like a startlingly new idea, but Shrem was in fact merely following the example of Bertrand Douat at Château Margaux two centuries ago (of which more later).

Shrem organised an international competition in conjunction with San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art to find an architect for the project. Michael Graves – regarded at the time as the most gifted designer of his generation and certainly one of the most famous – got the job. Graves had made his name as an architectural Pied Piper, leading the tribe away from simple-minded modernism towards a decorative style full of history, memory, colour and playfulness. He designed Clos Pegase when his reputation was at its highest (and before he had churned out some worryingly elephantine hotels and an office building for Disney, the latter pairing a giant order of dwarves with Baroque classicism). With its pastel colours, symmetrical plan and monumental forms, Clos Pegase represents the high-water mark of post-modernism at its most inventive and seductive. It looks like something of a period piece now, but it showed other winemakers what was possible.

Clos Pegase vineyard in Napa Valley
Clos Pegase winery in Napa Valley
Clos Pegase

Clos Pegase had all the elements of a modern winery. Alongside the utilitarian tanks, vats and barrels needed to ferment, settle and age the wine was the full range of attractions required to engage an audience and build a brand. Graves included a series of tasting rooms and space for multiple tours of the cellars, along with a picnic ground and art gallery. The only things missing were those commercial imperatives of the modern winery: the hotel and spa – like the one Frank Gehry was to design 20 years later for Marqués de Riscal in northern Spain or Steven Holl’s elaborate Loisium resort in the middle of an Austrian vineyard. 

Shrem wasn’t the only newcomer to California to combine wine with architecture. Thomas Lundstrom, the Swede who acquired 120 acres in Napa in 1983, asked London architect David Connor to build him a home in the middle of his vineyard. If Graves created a dignified update of a Roman farm in Calistoga, Lundstrom’s house was like an expressionist lightning flash. Named Villa Zapu, it looked like the backdrop for a Depeche Mode music video. The artist Kenny Scharf’s drawing of the villa was then used for the label design of the estate’s bottles, further mirroring the 200-year-old approach taken by Château Margaux. 

Prow-shaped extension on Villa Zapu designed by David Connor in the Napa Valley in California
Villa Zapu designed by David Connor

Reinterpreting that long heritage and history of winemaking, and accepting the sense of responsibility that should come with building in exceptional natural settings, has resulted from time to time in architecture of the highest quality. Not every Napa Valley winery sets out to generate noise – or crowds.

Among the most notable example of a more understated, considered approach is the Dominus winery in Yountville, designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Swiss architects who went on to build London’s Tate Modern and Beijing’s Olympic Stadium. The Dominus winery is a powerful but subtle composition that makes great architecture out of humble agricultural and industrial ingredients. It sits at the edge of the vineyard like a piece of land art, its gabion walls packed with basalt rising from the landscape. The rocks need no cement or mortar and are held in place by a metal mesh cage. It’s a simple but effective way of bringing light and air into the heart of the building, achieving one of the primary tasks of winery architecture: temperature control. Designing Dominus has done as much for establishing the reputation of its architects as the estate’s wines – combining Bordeaux methods and California potential – have for its founder Christian Moueix.

California’s Dominus Estate by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron
California’s Dominus Estate by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron

Beyond the state’s borders, the world’s newer wine-growing areas were quick to follow California’s architectural lead. Imaginative designs for new wineries in Oregon, British Colombia, Australia and Chile all seem to suggest a certain correlation between the growth of a country’s wine culture and the quality of its contemporary architecture. Chile and Australia do particularly well in both categories.

In Chile, the Vik winery is both delicate and monumental

In Chile, the Vik winery – 50 miles outside Santiago, under the shadow of the Andes – designed by Smiljan Radic of the Serpentine Pavilion in London, is both delicate and monumental. Two parallel concrete walls are cut into the landscape to accommodate the winemaking process, framing a vast hangar-like open space, roofed with a stretched white fabric. In Victoria’s Yarra Valley, the Medhurst winery designed by Folk Architects is on a more modest scale but has a similar geometrical clarity; while in British Colombia, Seattle-based studio Olson Kundig Architects designed the Martin’s Lane winery at Kelowna, whose two inclined roof planes reflect the topography of its hillside setting and gravity-based nature of its Pinot Noir production.

Viña Vik winery designed by Smiljan Radic
Viña Vik designed by Smiljan Radic

In Europe, both Portugal and Spain emerged from the isolation of decades of dictatorship by Salazar and Franco energised by the prospect of modernising their traditional industries. In the former, Pritzker Prize winner Álvaro Siza evokes the quiet, almost melancholy simplicity of Portuguese small towns slumbering in late afternoon sun through his Quinta do Portal winery. It makes for a stark contrast with the flamboyant work of Frank Gehry, another Pritzker winner. The Marqués de Riscal vineyard at Elciego in Rioja survived phylloxera, the Spanish Civil War and the stagnation of the Franco years before commissioning Gehry to design a hotel on its property. Like his Guggenheim Museum not far away in Bilbao, the de Riscal project has a titanium skin and a billowing cloud of interlocking surfaces, rendered in a vivid palette that echoes the wines. 

Despite having invented so many of the timeless traditions of winemaking, France has developed a weakness for daring architectural gestures along the lines of the pyramid at the Louvre (commissioned by François Mitterrand from IM Pei). Luc Arsène-Henry and Philippe Starck labelled their new cellar for Château les Carmes Haut-Brion ‘a blade’. To help with the cooling process, it sits partly submerged in the centre of a pond, an arrangement that makes it look more like a dreadnought from the Jules Verne era. Starck (like Michael Graves, also a designer of kettles and lemon squeezers) has form at this kind of thing; for his knife factory for Forge de Laguiole, he stuck a giant blade on the roof. 

Paris-based Carl Fredrik Svenstedt worked for Delas Frères in the little town of Tain l’Hermitage, restoring an old masonry-built house to serve as a visitor centre for the winery, while deftly inserting a chai into its walled garden. The new structure is screened by a technically ingenious undulating wall made of pre-stressed stone ribbons that is both modern and a reminder of garden traditions.

Read more: Distilleries are also pushing boundaries with their architecture and design. Nina Caplan visited the new Macallan Distillery, where the architects were instructed to ‘reveal the mystery’…

Carmes de Haut-Brion winery designed by Philippe Starck
Carmes de Haut-Brion designed by Philippe Starck
Delas Frères winery designed by Carl Fredrik Svenstedt
Delas Frères designed by Carl Fredrik Svenstedt

Meanwhile, not far from Aix-en-Provence, Paddy McKillen, as much a hotelier (Claridge’s, The Connaught, The Berkeley) as a winemaker, has spent years carefully turning Château La Coste into an outdoor gallery for his substantial collection of art to adorn his biodynamic vineyard. A giant Louise Bourgeois spider sits in the middle of a pool flanked by Tadao Ando’s austere concrete architecture, while he also has a Frank Gehry pavilion – originally designed for the Serpentine Gallery – that he dismantled and shipped from London. 

If the contemporary winery has its roots in California, Shrem and Lundstrom were employing a new architectural language that has its roots in a custom dating back to at least 1812. It was then, after the French Revolution, that Bertrand Douat celebrated his acquisition of Château Margaux by demolishing the original buildings and commissioning gifted Bordeaux architect Louis Combes to design the handsome house that is still home to the estate’s owners and appears on the bottles’ labels. Combes was a neo-classicist at heart, but he modelled his building for Douat on the work of Andrea Palladio, reflecting the villas in the Veneto that, like Château Margaux, combine a grand country house with wings that contain working farm buildings.

Château Margaux, the Versailles of the Médoc, has no need of exhibitionist new architecture to draw attention to itself. Its vintages speak for themselves. But while it values its traditions, it is also a dynamic estate that needs to be able to grow and develop. To that end, it commissioned Norman Foster, who has deftly added to its capacity, carried out a careful restoration of the ancient orangery (the oldest surviving building on the site, from 1815) and inserted new spaces for winemaking and barrel and bottle storage. Foster’s work reflects a continuing respect for the qualities of the past, with new pantile roofs supported by svelte, tree-like columns. Now he has been commissioned to create a new, landscape-sensitive winery building for St-Emilion grand cru Le Dôme. Perhaps someone should suggest to him that, as a debt of thanks from all architects, he take on a further commission and apply the same sort of tact to the now somewhat dated facade of Clos Pegase.