Building for Booze: Tracing Vernacular Architecture Through Napa Valley


We were feeling fancy last week and took a little trip to Napa and Sonoma Valleys, California, for some research into vineculture and regional architecture. Route 29 winds north through Napa County, passing through the towns of Yountville, Oakville, St. Helena, Rutherford, and Calistoga and by countless wineries dotted along the sides of the highway against a backdrop of low mountains on either side. We don’t claim to be a wine expert, but as it turns out, one can get a pretty accurate sense of a winery’s product based on its setting. And yes, we also judge books by their covers.

Whitehall Lane Aggressively contemporary exterior sheathed in the ubiquitous leafy arbors, de rigeur for any winery on Route 29 open to the public. Whitehall‘s wisteria is especially abundant, which might explain (at least in our fertile imagination) the floral notes in the wine. Verdict: The Cabernet Sauvignons are fairly straightforward California style — jammy, tannic (tart on the tastebuds), could use some time to mature. Kinda like that geometric building.

Nickel & Nickel Sullenger House, a restored 1880s Queen Anne, sits back from the highway on a parcel of land with tidy, picket-fenced vineyards, an old-fashioned windmill, and horse grazing in the pasture. Nickel & Nickel is slightly obvious in its retro-kitsch-ery, but the place exhibits a clean aesthetic with a strong whiff of farm hygiene. The winery was founded in its present incarnation in 1997, so the vintages are fairly recent. Verdict: An East Coaster’s version of a sparkling, immaculate California vineyard. Proof? That cool old barn on the property was constructed in 1770 in Meriden, New Hampshire, dismantled and shipped to its current location in 2002.

Beringer An established vineyard that produces a commercially-friendly library of wines, from Chardonnay to Cali favorite Cab to Pinot Noir, Beringer has manicured lawns and thickets of rosemary lining gravel pathways. It’s large and in charge, and a major destination for Napa travelers of every stripe. Verdict: We’re going to get snobby and recommend the Private Reserve blends, especially the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, perfect for those times you want to pretend that you, too, own a decked-out Victorian mansion in wine country with carved wood paneling and custom made stained-glass windows.

Chateau Montelena Montelena‘s got a French pedigree, and they want you to know it. Frenchification is evidenced by the chateau-style building (what else?) and landscaped grounds, including an Indo-influenced lake pavilion and wandering geese. Marie Antoinette would approve. Bordeaux grapes, a history of French winemakers, and a famous ’73 Chardonnay that beget the Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976 add to the Francophilia. Verdict: Some of the most consistent and palate-pleasing vintages on the market in Napa; everything we tasted was subtle and fantastic, and will age even better. And we hear 2008, though small in size, is going to be a banner vintage year…

Dunn Vineyards Not open the public, and run by a clan of California natives, Dunn Vineyards is an authentic, down-to-earth production that begets honest and high-quality wines. The grapes, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, are grown on and around Howell Mountain outside of Napa, a low-key community with Seventh Day Adventist roots. Due to its location off the tourist mecca of Route 29, and its proximity to a fundamentalist sect of religious denizens, Dunn is low-profile, and hopes to stay that way. Which means more good stuff for those in the know. Verdict: Appropriately, the main architectural feature at Dunn is the cave, which also serves as The Function. (Fun fact: the machine that dug out the immense cavern for storing wine barrels left a pattern in the back wall that looks like something out of a John Le Carré thriller.) Like any under-the-radar product, this wine ages like a champ.

Golly, all this architecture talk makes us thirsty…