Thousands of oenophiles trek to California’s Napa Valley each year to indulge in its scenic vistas and celebrated wineries. While the Chandons and Mondavis of the Valley are open to the throngs of tourists who ogle at the modern-day spectacle that is wine tasting, one remains closed on most days. And on the rare occasions that the Dominus Estate opens its silver gates to the public, it does so for architectural tours—not tastings. When I took one look at the building’s modernist sensibilities, I instantly knew why.
The structure is atypical for the region because its design draws from Miesian modernism whereas most other Napa Valley wineries favor throwbacks to sensationalized Spanish-style haciendas and French chateaus. Commissioned in 1995 and completed in 1997, the Dominus Winery was the first project built in the United States by Herzog + De Meuron. The structure is barely discernible from the foothills and vineyards, so much so that residents dubbed it the “stealth winery.” And stealthy it is. If you blink when you drive past it, you would never know that you just passed—in my opinion—one of the most interesting buildings in Northern California.
The building’s cool, grey-brown tones and ground-hugging horizontality transform it into an outcrop of the very earth it’s built upon. How the structure ebbs into the surrounding landscape is indicative of winemaker, and Dominus owner, Christian Moueix’s belief that the vineyard is of utmost importance. In designing the structure, the Pritzker Prize winning duo of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron echoes Moueix’s mantra to the letter, ensuring that the winery complements its site—the historic Napanook vineyard—rather than competes with it. The vineyard emotes an overwhelming sense of calm and repose; the winery is oriented parallel with aisles formed by the seemingly endless rows of grapevines, instilling a steady rhythm to the site. Visitors don’t miss a beat when they proceed to—and eventually through—the building.
Once directly in front of the façade, the building’s skin transforms. From the entrance gate it looks like one solid mass; however on close inspection one sees that it’s made up of gabions—wire cages filled with rocks typically used to build embankments. Here, Herzog + de Meuron elevate an industrial building technique to Architecture by using it for the exterior walls of the winery. In addition to creating a unique aesthetic, the stones serve a practical purpose: they passively heat and cool the entire building. The local basalt used in the gabions is less susceptible to climatic changes. Light shines through the rocks, articulating the interior with brightness and shadow. This natural ornamentation changes with the intensity of light, the time of day, and even the seasons.