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Steel, stone and sky.

Elevating unassuming raw materials and basic industrial construction Herzog and de Meuron's winery in the Napa Valley elegantly fuses the rational with the sensuous to make poetry out of economy.

The Napanook Vineyard, located near Yountville, California, has been cultivated since 1866. The Dominus wine produced there since 1983 by new proprietor Christian Moueix of Bordeaux has attracted such international acclaim that it was decided to build a winery on the site. The Moueix family commissioned Herzog & de Meuron in 1995 and the first bottling of a Dominus vintage took place in the new building in May this year. While many California vineyards pander to the public with extravagant roadside buildings which try unconvincingly to evoke an 'olde worlde', Dominus assumes a different posture. Not open for public degustation, the winery is set back from the road in the heart of the vineyard. The architecture is reticent, even aloof, an understated complement to the very high quality of Dominus wine.

The building is a simple two-storey box 140m long by 25m wide with its long axis running north-south. The box is punctured by two covered passages which separate the functional components of the building. At the north end are the cask cellar and store at the ground level with administrative offices above; all other areas are double height, with the tank room in the central band, and the bottling facility, warehouse and electrical plant at the south end. The north portal aligns with the major east-west access road from the highway which passes through the building and continues on into the vineyard. The open-air portico so created houses entrances to each of the major spaces of the winery, including the tasting room and cask cellar, the offices and the tank room. The south portal provides a covered outdoor space between the tank room and warehouse which serves as a bottling and boxing area and as a loading bay. Parking for staff and invited visitors is unobtrusively provided in a single file along the entire length of the rear west facade.

The winery is of conventional economic warehouse construction with a concrete ground slab, site-cast concrete columns, beams and tilt-up walls, and a precast concrete plank roof. This solid, introverted construction gives way to a steel frame on the upper level at the north end of the building where the offices are located. While the box is conventional, the cladding is not. Just as the sinuous copper cladding of the Signal Box 4 Auf dem Wolf in Basle also acts as a Faraday cage to protect the electronic equipment inside, so the skin of Dominus is both handsome and functional. Galvanized steel gabions, widely used in river and highway engineering as retaining structures, are filled with loose crushed basalt typically used as the sub-base for road construction. Here the caged stone takes on a new role as rainscreen and, through the modulation of both light and heat, tempers the interior environment of the building.

The gabions, imported flat-packed from Switzerland, were assembled and filled with local rock on site. They bear on a perimeter grade beam and are restrained by ties to stainless steel rods cast into the concrete wall panels and, in the areas which are framed, by brackets from the steelwork. Using a single module of 900 x 450 x 450mm for the entire building, enormous variety is achieved by very frugal means. Three sizes of mesh are used: the largest is the 75mm square grid of the gabion; an intermediate gauge of screen is added to the gabion at the base of the walls to prevent rattlesnakes from nesting among the rocks; and the finest 5mm mesh is used for balustrades and suspended ceilings.

Likewise, three grades of stone are used. The largest and least densely packed, which is permeable to light and ventilation, is used for the walls of covered outdoor areas and the tank room. Because the fermentation tanks themselves are insulated and fitted with sophisticated temperature controls, the environment of the tank room is not critical. The space is permanently vented at high level by the coarse stone screen combined with a window screen in the back-up wall. By day, filtered sunlight is allowed into the tank room and by night, the facade glows like the embers of a dying fire. A closely packed smaller grade of stone which clads the cask cellar and warehouse is opaque to light and provides a stronger barrier against temperature changes in these sensitive areas.Within the cask cellar, in lieu of a slab, oak barrels rest on concrete sleepers on crushed basalt so that humidity from the earth can permeate the room to assist in maturing the wine. This same grade of fine basalt is used as loose ballast on the roof. The mantle of stone acts as a thermal buffer which insulates the building. Only the offices a small area of this large structure - have mechanical heating and cooling. The environmental strategy of the building is thus dominantly passive rather than mechanical and, more importantly, in the realm of architecture rather than services - a radical approach in the land where air conditioning is king. Dominus is not about high-tech California winemaking, but about an intimate relationship with the site exemplified by both the wine and the building.

In stark contrast with the delicate filigree of the dense, rough and highly textured stone cladding are the large panels of glazing enclosing the offices. Nothing is allowed to diminish the pure abstraction of the glass. Set back two metres from the facade to create outdoor terraces overlooking the vineyard, the glass produces complex and surprising collages of earth, sky and building - part real and part illusion.The frame is suppressed externally by silicone jointing, and detailing at the floor and ceiling is minimal. Interior partitions are held back from the perimeter, with sliding panels used to close the gap between room and external wall only when necessary. Uniformity of finishes inside and out - concrete floors and wire mesh ceilings - increases the purposeful Miesian ambiguity between interior and exterior space.

Within the giant entrance portico which is scaled to the measure of the landscape are a series of entrances at human scale, each carefully distinguished hierarchically. Lowest in this order are the doors to the tank room and the barrel store - sliding panels hung from standard industrial rails and painted grey to match the concrete walls. The administrative entrance is marked by a pair of hinged mesh shutters which give access to an open-air vestibule and stair up to the offices. The ascent towards a framed view of sky is transformed at the top of the stair into a view over the vineyard and back along the access road. Turning 180 degrees, passage into the interior of the building is through a discreet door in the glazed office enclosure. Alternatively, it is possible to move around the perimeter of the upper level on the exterior terraces and to cross over the entrance portico on open-air bridges which lead to the tank room catwalks.

Most important is the entrance to the tasting room and cask cellar. Raised on a slender plinth, abstract glazed doors reflect the vineyard and conceal the inner sanctum. The dark bottle-green glass keeps daylight out and glows when lighted from within. A small lobby with an oak inner door allows the eye to adjust from the bright California sun to the dark tasting room. A butt-jointed clear glazed screen makes an invisible boundary between tasting room and cask cellar. An austere grid of suspended 40-watt bare bulbs is softened by spiral vine-like tendrils of the same galvanized wire used to lace together the gabions.

Christian Moueix believes that winemaking is led by nature; Herzog & de Meuron have adopted this principle.The building meets ground and sky simply. The stone appears to rise directly out of the bare earth of the vineyard. While the basalt walls are barely distinguishable from the mountains beyond, the pure horizontal line drawn by the roof of the building provides a subtle counterpoint to the jagged horizon provided by nature. Just as the vine is subjected to the geometric rigour of the vineyard, so is the rough and irregular basalt made to conform to a rational order.

Like the transformative process of winemaking, Herzog & de Meuron have elevated the most unassuming of raw materials into an architecture which is both functional and beautiful, robust and delicate, tactile and highly abstract. This building, like the wine it houses, is a refined blend of science and art. While highly rational, efficient and intelligent, Dominus Winery is also a sensuous fusion of nature and the man-made.


Herzog & de Meuron, Basle, Switzerland

Project team

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Jean-Frederic Luscher, Uli Ackva, Ines Huber, Nathalie Kury

Structural engineer

Zucco Fagent Associates

Facade consultant

Mario Meier


Bela Berec

Construction management

Valley Architects


Margherita Spiluttini
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Title Annotation:Herzog and de Meuron's architectural design for a winery in the Napa Valley, California
Author:Lecuyer, Annette
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Previous Article:Lakeside spectacular.
Next Article:Sacred box.

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