Thirty years ago, wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma was pretty straightforward—no cheese, or tours, accompanied your sampling back then. But the days of simply bellying-up to the nondescript tasting bar for a quick flight of wines are long gone. With roughly 1,000 options throughout the two regions, wineries are turning to cutting-edge architecture and design to set them apart from the competition.
Today’s wineries invite guests to relax, take in the view, and stay awhile. Striking contemporary tasting rooms draw inspiration from their estate’s history, landscape, and winemaking practices to attract visitors and tell their winery’s story in dramatic fashion.
From a midcentury modern living room to the most sustainably built winery in the country, we’ve rounded up seven design-forward and architecturally awe-inspiring wine-sipping spots in Napa and Sonoma.
It’s safe to say that California wine country’s architectural renaissance started with Opus One. When the esteemed winery opened in 1991, it was by far the most vanguard design around and, nearly three decades later, it continues to intrigue visitors to Napa Valley today—even if they can only see it from afar. Known as one of the most exclusive wineries in wine country, Opus One was originally open by invitation only and now operates on a very strict and limited by-appointment policy. Just guests with a reservation can get through the gates, and its mystique makes it that much more alluring.
Opus One is a blend of old world and new. It was founded as a partnership between two of wine’s greatest icons—France’s Baron Phillips de Rothschild and California’s Robert Mondavi—and the winery’s neoclassical architecture and design by architect Scott Johnson, of Johnson, Fain & Pereira, reflects this merging of cultures.
Perfectly manicured green berms (grass embankments) and simple limestone colonnades are inspired by the classic French chateau. They’re in stark contrast with a circular, industrial structure that rises out from the limestone like a tower and has French and American flags hanging from it. The exterior leads to a much more embellished interior, featuring American oak and California redwood, a spiral staircase, a grand barrel room, and an eclectic mix of antique and modern furnishings. The winery’s founding goal was to produce just one wine of the highest quality, a Bordeaux-style blend of mostly cabernet sauvignon.
“This [design] embodies the vision of Opus One the wine, a combination of traditional practices and contemporary thinking,” Christopher Barefoot, Opus One vice president of communications and guest relations, writes in an email. “Following its completion, wineries that would follow sought out leading architects and historical references that befitted each of the new winery’s styles. A simple barn would no longer do.”
For the last few years, the winery has been undergoing a series of renovations, and now features a dedicated tasting space for the first time. “Starting in early 2020, visitors will be greeted in the main rotunda and be led to the veranda and new Partners’ Room, housed in a crystal-clear glass room overlooking our estate vineyards,” Barefoot writes. The furnishings will represent a blend of eras, from midcentury to today. The winery re-hired the same artist who made the original tables and chairs previously used for tastings—the simple furnishings looked out at the Grand Chai barrel room, containing roughly 1,000 French oak barrels of wine—to design chandeliers for the Partners’ Room.
“This new space will allow for private tastings and seated, hosted tastings in an elegant lounge-style space, much like your own living room might be,” says Barefoot. “The view of the valley is exceptional and truly one of a kind.”
In 2017, a new winery opened up in Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll District, just north of the city of Napa on Highway 29. It looked completely different from any of the hundreds of wineries in Napa Valley, and yet its architecture struck a familiar chord, going back 60 years.
Ashes & Diamonds consists of two minimalist structures from Los Angeles-based architect Barbara Bestor of Bestor Architecture (known for her work with Beats by Dre HQ and BODE Palm Springs). The winery production facility is a stark white modular building with Albert Frey-inspired porthole windows. The tasting room is also boxy and white, except for a giant, bright yellow door around the corner, a popular background on the winery’s many tagged Instagram posts. Plus, it has sliding glass doors and a funky, zig-zag roof a la Donald Wexler.
These overt midcentury modern architectural tributes align with the style of Ashes & Diamonds wines. They harken back to the earlier days of Napa’s industry, when the wines were more moderate in alcohol, and therefore believed by many to be more approachable and food-friendly.
“It made perfect sense to have fresh, classic California wines enjoyed in classic California design and architecture,” says Ashes & Diamonds proprietor Kashy Khaledi. “It was a revolutionary time. To think that Californians Ray and Charles Eames, Albert Frey, and Donald Wexler were changing the face of architecture all while [in Napa Valley], a game-changing winery like Robert Mondavi was being built is mind boggling. There was an unbridled sense of possibility and optimism that was the engine for innovation in that era.”
The interior of the tasting room looks like a hip, 1960s party pad straight out of an episode of Mad Men. It’s bright, filled with natural light and pops of color—purple, green, and more of the Shasta daisy yellow—warm textures, like Douglas fir wall panels, and midcentury furnishings, including Platner armchairs and a Jean Prouvé dining table. Acoustic ceiling panels fill the room with exotica music from the genre’s greats, like Martin Denny and Les Baxter.
“It’s an attempt at the postcard fantasy of the California dream, a look at lightness and simplicity in a confusing and dark time,” says Khaledi.
Artesa Winery is a master of the surprise factor. It’s not until visitors pull into the parking lot and walk up several sets of stairs that this geometric, avant-garde winery suddenly and dramatically rises out of a hillside.
The Codorníu Raventós family—owners of the oldest wine-growing business in Spain, dating back to 1551, as well as eight other wineries throughout the country—hired notable Barcelona architect Domingo Triay to design their first and only winery in the U.S. Built in 1991, the building seamlessly blends into the surrounding natural landscape. With the exception of the entrance and a V-shaped corner of windows, its facade is completely cloaked in native grasses.
At the top of the stairs, two narrow walkways placed over a trio of massive fountains create the feeling of walking on water. It’s here that most stop to snap a photo of Artesa’s iconic entrance sculpture: The copper abstract grapevine by artist Marcel Martí ascends from the water against a panorama of Napa’s Carneros region. Art is a major fixture of the estate’s design—Artesa has worked with several local artists to create sculptures and fine art pieces displayed throughout the property.
“The Codorníu Raventós family is historically passionate about art, craft, and natural preservation, so when they set out to create their first winery outside of Spain, they sought to preserve the magical landscape that lured them here,” says Susan Sueiro, president of Artesa.
In 2017, Artesa completed a renovation of its interior tasting room. Dubbed the Grand Salon, the bright white room was designed to echo the luxurious Mediterranean waterfront. Its centerpiece is a large, circular bar, where guests can partake in a Spanish-style wine and pintxos pairings. Inspired by a tapas bar, the bar features encaustic tiles (painted with pigmented hot wax) that were custom made in Barcelona to incorporate Artesa’s logo in a geometric pattern.
Designed by Signum Architecture (the genius local firm behind other wine country stunners like Cade, Progeny, and Odette), the salon was awarded the 2018 Design Award from the American Institute of Architects.
Architect Doug Thornley from Gould Evans (the firm also designed MacRostie Winery and Cuvaison Vineyards) found inspiration for the Hamel Family Wines estate in Hamel’s organically farmed vineyards, the magnificent Sonoma Mountain, and the surrounding Sonoma Valley landscape—all of which you can see through an 18-foot, slanted glass wall at the front of the light-filled Estate House.
Thornley used neutral and natural materials like walnut, travertine, and basalt on both the exterior and minimalist interiors. As guests walk through the estate, they’ll find themselves weaving in and out of indoor and outdoor tasting spaces (the latter is dotted with 100-year-old olive trees). Behind a pair of heavy, custom-built barn doors, natural light shines through a narrow and continuous set of windows that meet the ceiling in a chic, yet cozy private library that hosts reserve tastings.
“We didn’t want to create a space that looked like it was picked up and dropped without any regard to the natural environment that it was to live in,” says George Hamel III, managing director of Hamel Family Wines. “Instead, we looked to the property for inspiration for our material and color palette.”
Basalt tiling in the tasting room pays homage to a river that once flowed through the area 50,000 years ago. Thornley also repurposed excavated raw materials from the wine cave construction into a pair of 125-foot walls, made out of what looks like soil-turned-solid, that span the back of the Estate House. In the cave, a dome-shaped section was left unfinished, unveiling the stunning, red-orange rock into which it was dug.
“Our winemaking philosophy is to create terroir-inspired wines that tell the story of the vineyard they came from and the vintage year that they are grown,” says Hamel. “It made sense to us to make sure that flowed through the design of our Estate House, winery, and wine caves as well.”
Wine tastings at Three Sticks, located right off the Historic Sonoma Plaza, take place inside a Vallejo-Castanada adobe, the longest-occupied residence in Sonoma during California’s Mexican Period. In 2012, 170 years after the adobe’s initial construction by the brother of Sonoma’s founder, General Mariano Vallejo, Three Sticks proprietors Bill and Eva Price acquired the property and began the painstaking restoration process for their winery.
Preservation of the structure was their top priority, so they enlisted the help of many professionals (architects, historians, archaeologists, etc.) to ensure that the adobe’s historical integrity remained intact. A refuse site was discovered during this process and throughout several digs at this spot, they discovered artifacts that date back to the 1860s—including bottles, porcelain plates, vessels, tools, and dolls—many of which are now on display at the winery. In the end, the adobe’s original walls, doors, knobs, roof, siding, and some historical plantings in the garden courtyard were preserved.
Three Sticks hired renowned San Francisco-based designer Ken Fulk to transform the interior. The adobe’s living room is now a lounge, a former bedroom is the reception area, and the dining room is a tasting room. “We wanted an homage to the past, but not a false historical feeling,” says chief operating officer Prema Behan. “Ken’s ability to celebrate the past through materials and design, while [still making the space feel] utterly au courant and luxurious, made him an obvious choice for this project.” Fulk achieved this by using a blend of materials that were indicative of the 1840s—like wood, stone, metal, leather, cowhide, and authentic adobe bricks—with both contemporary and antique furnishings. In the lounge, for instance, cast-resin desert tortoise shells hang on the walls, the floors have been replaced with handmade Mexican tiles, and a pair of midcentury modern orange chairs sit atop an antique Khotan rug.
“We did not want the home to feel like a house museum,” says Behan. “The adobe needed to be alive, relevant, and energetic so that guests could feel the living history of the building and celebrate the unique Sonoman, Californian, and Mexican heritage of our region.”
Artist Rafael Arana hand-painted a thistle pattern in the entry room and Three Sticks’ iconic black-and-white mural on the back wall of the enclosed patio, which depicts the site’s rich history leading up to the present. The garden bathroom also can’t be missed: It’s achieved Instagram fame all on its own thanks to its wall-to-wall plant and floral wallpaper.
In 2018, the venerable Silver Oak in Napa Valley opened up a second property in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. Set on a historic piece of land that was deeded to the wine region’s namesake, Cyrus Alexander, in 1877, the winery unites the past and present with a modern, glass-walled interpretation of the classic barn, built with natural and recycled materials.
Designed by Daniel Piechota of Piechota Architecture, the glass creates the illusion of being outdoors, engulfed by the estate’s 75 acres of cabernet sauvignon vines and the rolling hills of the Alexander Valley. “It was important to us culturally that we stay in touch with the agricultural side of winemaking,” says Silver Oak CEO David Duncan. “Fruit quality is the most important variable in fine wine, so we wanted our team and our customers to be immersed in the farming process and be able to see a grapevine from any point on the property.”
From the vineyard to the winery design, the driving force at Silver Oak is sustainability. Its Oakville winery was the first LEED Platinum-certified winery in the world, and now the Alexander Valley property is the second. But this time, it’s taken its mission even further. The net zero energy, net zero water winery—2,500 rooftop solar panels emit 105 percent of their energy needs—is currently under review for the Living Building Challenge, the most advanced measurement of sustainability in buildings.
Silver Oak’s team vetted a list of more than 4,000 construction and industrial materials for their environmental impacts before building. They used reclaimed redwood from old fermentation tanks (used by a Cherokee winery in the 1930s) for siding as well as wood from naturally felled valley oak trees—which required removal for safety reasons—for flooring, wall, and ceiling panels. As for the insulation? The material was made with ground-up blue jeans.
In an effort to evolve with the ever-changing wine industry, many of Napa Valley’s most historic properties—including Clos Du Val, ZD Wines, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars—have undergone major restorations in recent years. But none of these undertakings have been as epic as the overhaul of Louis M. Martini, which opened its brand-new visitor center in the spring of 2019.
“The original winery building, constructed in 1933, is one of the first five wineries built in Napa Valley following the end of Prohibition,” says Jonathan Wendorf, Louis M. Martini’s estate manager. “We’ve been crafting cabernet here for generations. Everything connects with the working winery and the building’s historic legacy.”
Original terra-cotta wall tiles—which Martini brought up to Napa from a winery he had in Kingsburg in the ’20s—cover the exterior and some of the interior walls. These historic squares juxtapose the emphatically modern interior that ushers the winery into the 21st century. Wine country’s most sought-after architect, Howard Backen of Backen & Gillam Architects, utilized industrial and reclaimed materials, like metal and oak, and built the roof out of materials recovered from a dog track in Santa Ana, California. Large glass doors on three sides create a seamless integration between the outside and interior, a signature feature of Backen’s designs.
The structure has myriad spaces scattered throughout its large, open floorplan, each dedicated to a different tasting experience. Tasting flights are offered at the dramatic Crown Bar in the center, which peers into the barrel room. To the left, the light-filled Heritage Lounge hosts seated wine and food pairings, while the private, study-like Founders Room pours tastes of library wines and barrel samples. To the right, a small lecture hall called the Wine Study is used for wine education. The glass doors of the Heritage Lounge open up to Martini Park, where guests relax in serene outdoor nooks. Groups can book shaded cabanas and indulge in wine and wood-fired pizzas as if they’re in Tuscan wine country.
And yet, the most extraordinary part of the restoration is hidden beneath the ground. Lined on both sides with old redwood casks, the Underground Cellar includes a wine library for older vintages housed inside an old bank vault that Martini purchased from a bank that was going out of business.