Northern California's wine country has the advantage of built-in open space preservation by virtue of its indispensable agricultural acreage. While there are certainly more tourist accommodations now than there used to be, the roads through Napa Valley are still flanked mostly by row upon row of perfectly trussed grapevines and—at this time of year—the bright yellow blossoms of mustard grass.
The tourist experience in Napa, while often decadent and luxurious, is more about connecting visitors to the land than creating a comfortable barrier between them and the natural surroundings. The primary activity—wine tasting—is a process of learning to taste subtle environmental influences and native elements of the region.
Because of this, the wine country is a natural location for building hotels that excel in environmentally-sensitive design. One of the newest ones, Bardessono, opened just six weeks ago in Yountville with a strong statement for pushing the sustainability envelope in the hospitality industry. "The hotel industry often believes that seriously green projects are compromises in guest satisfaction and experience, and are too expensive," developer Phil Sherbune told me, "I didn't think any of those things needed to be true."
Sherbune, who is based in Seattle, hired architect Ron Mitchell, the head of the Seattle office of WATG (Mitchell has since opened his own firm) to plan a hotel on a site just steps from the main commercial strip in Yountville, home of The French Laundry, among other culinary hotspots. The land belonged to a family named Bardessono, who were ready to cease operations on a small vineyard they'd been running there and wished to repurpose the space for something that could be a legacy for their family.
A few years later, the completed hotel bears the family name as well as many of the pieces of their home, which was taken down during construction. Stones from their root cellar were cut and used as cladding on the walls next to the hotel bar and restaurant. Our front, rammed earth walls sourced from the site mark the entry to the property. "The soil makes Napa Valley what it is," Sherbune said, "So these entry walls communicate and celebrate the importance of soil."
Perhaps the most impressive green element of Bardessono is the amount of energy the facility generates on site. Eighty-two 300-foot deep geothermal boreholes are subtly hidden beneath a small vineyard at the front entrance, providing heating and cooling for all of the guest rooms, the spa, and the domestic hot water system. The flat rooftops accommodate 940 solar panels, which lay flat and out of sight, generating 200 kilowatts of electricity.
While the energy-generation technologies are relatively invisible, the materials used in the hotel's design are proudly displayed. All of the wood throughout the place was sourced and milled by Evan Shively, who runs a sawmill in West Marin county called Arborica, specializing in salvaged and reclaimed wood. Shively outfitted Bardessono with Monterey cypress, orchard walnut, California bay, elm, and redwood (from recycled wine casks). "All of it was from trees that would otherwise have been chipped or burned because they're not lumber trees," Sherbune explained, "They're ornamental and the lumber industry considers them trash."
Sherbune is an urban planner by background, but his passion for green development leads him to do extensive research for each of his projects into what would be most appropriate and most advanced in a particular setting. In Yountville, where the sun can be hot during much of the year, he wanted window shading that would prevent heat gain inside the guest rooms. They selected an exterior venetian blind from a company in Germany. "Interior drapes do nothing to stop heat gain," he said, "Once the heat is through the glass, it's in the room."
The exterior blinds, which are connected to the hotel's computer system and operate with automated controls, perform all the same functions as drapes—insulation, privacy, and blackout—and in addition to improving energy efficiency they also keep indoor air cleaner and less dusty. Eliminating carpet and bedspreads further assisted in creating relatively hypoallergenic interiors, as well as the use of organic textiles and organic cleaning solutions.
All of these features were an investment, says Sherbune, but the overall cost of developing Bardessono with such great attention to green details was only about 6 percent higher than it would have been with conventional strategies, and a large portion of that will be recaptured through the significant energy cost savings produced by the geothermal and solar systems. "We need more good examples and more people to blaze the trail to make it easier for those [architects and developers] who are less adventurous," he said, "People are becoming aware also that the environmental issues are really serious. It's not something we can continue to ignore."