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Napa Sonoma Magazine
Summer / Fall 2006

Where art and magic intersect

A grazing flock of life-size white metal sheep—and one mischievous black one—is a playful hint that the di Rosa Preserve is not your average art gallery

By Janet Parmer

Situated along a curvy swath of highway in southern Napa County, the di Rosa Preserve: Art & Nature is testament to founder Rene di Rosa’s commitment to the art and artists of Northern California. Comprised of three galleries and an outdoor sculpture meadow, the di Rosa Preserve is constantly changing, as its founder, who is now 86, continues to ferret out emerging artists.

It’s a satisfying day for di Rosa if he discovers a painter, video artist, sculptor, or photographer he admires who hasn’t exhibited yet—or perhaps has never sold a piece of work. If the art captivates di Rosa, he’ll buy it on the spot, and the piece becomes part of his extraordinary 2,000-piece portfolio. “I acquired my favorite kind of work the other day,” says di Rosa, his smile broadening with joy. “It was by an artist who had never sold anything before. I had the pleasure of realizing it was something pretty good. I paid $600 for his painting.”

Di Rosa, who typically dresses in his trademark green tractor cap, blue denim shirt, and khaki slacks, looks more like a local farmer than a major art patron. But his preserve boasts one of the most extensive collections of Bay Area contemporary art that is open to the public, and it is one of the largest regional art collections in the nation. It attracts artists and art patrons, as well as wine country residents and visitors looking for a cultural alternative to sipping wine and sampling gourmet cuisine.

“This place is magical,” says di Rosa Preserve executive director Kathryn Reasoner. “And what I find lights people up is the sense of playfulness here. They leave with a smile on their face. It expands the spirit.”

Among the 900 artists represented at the preserve are such names as Robert Arneson, David Best, Squeak
Carnwath, Imogen Cunningham, Roy De Forest, Robert Hudson, and William T. Wiley. But equally important—
as di Rosa staff will be the first to tell you—are gifted artists who may so far be known only to their art instructors, friends, and family.

The di Rosa Preserve sprawls on more than 200 acres in the Carneros region, occupying land that is a mix of
vineyard agriculture and native plants. The open spaces surrounding the preserve are protected by the Napa County Land Trust. Peacocks strut confidently throughout the property, and a visitor gets the impression that the majestic birds with their screeching cries are welcome here, rather than being considered a noisy, messy nuisance. 

For years, di Rosa stopped in at open studios and college art exhibits hoping to be impressed by new artists, and purchased what he found appealing. More recently, however, he’s conferred with the preserve’s board of directors and friends who are artists in selecting pieces for the collection. Fortunately for the public, his taste is eclectic, and the preserve, which opened in 1997, showcases art that could be described as unorthodox, audacious, sublime, profound, whimsical, and outrageous.

About half of the visitors are locals who know they’ll see something new each time they stop in, and the other half are out-of-towners visiting the region. Throughout the galleries, pathways, undulating hillside terrain, 35-acre lake, and sculpture meadow are pieces of art that make visitors giggle, gasp, or marvel at how they were created. “It’s a very humanistic collection, and the art shows the range of human emotions and experiences. Rene reads a lot and thinks a lot about the world and human beings,” says Reasoner.

The di Rosa Preserve is a relaxed, informal environment without intimidating rules for visitors. The traditional museum or gallery practice of identifying art with labels does not hold here, as di Rosa thinks it can distract viewers from actually studying the pieces. In his galleries, there is minimal use of labels, but volunteer docents can supply a printed list with the information.

The preserve occupies just under half the land di Rosa, a former newspaper reporter, bought in 1960. The
property was planted as a vineyard in 1855, but major setbacks like Prohibition and a phylloxera epidemic adversely affected grape production, and the land eventually was used for cattle grazing. Di Rosa replanted 250 acres as vineyard and restored a 125-year-old stone winery building as his home. The property had the first named wine appellation in the region, and di Rosa’s wines were highly prized. He is also known among vintners for putting in a man-made lake
as a water source for irrigating his crops. With the proceeds of the sale of his Winery Lake Vineyard, specializing in pinot noir and chardonnay grapes, to Seagram in 1986, di Rosa formed a foundation to share his love of nature and art with the public.

Unlike many landowners who want to restrict access, di Rosa actually wants to boost attendance. “I wish there were more visitors here,” he says, surveying the 217 acres that comprise the preserve.

Last year, after lengthy negotiations with the county of Napa, the nonprofit preserve’s board of directors was
given permission to increase public access to the property. In the past, visitors had to make reservations in advance to visit and sign up for a tour. Now the preserve welcomes drop-in guests Tuesday through Friday, and guided tours are offered Tuesday through Saturday. The preserve is closed on Sunday. In addition to art tours, the preserve offers spring bird and wildflower hikes on appointed Saturdays in April and June. These tours are considered moderately strenuous and cover three and a half miles. Advance reservations are required. The preserve is also expanding its visitor services, adding a wider range of public programs and a teen docent program. Art receptions are also held on the premises in conjunction with new exhibits. Introductory tours cost $10 per person, and two-hour tours cost $15.

The home where di Rosa and his late wife, Veronica, lived is included in the tour and remains just as it did when the couple resided there. The house has art hanging from the ceiling and crammed into the bathroom, bedrooms, and kitchen. Veronica, a Canadian sculptor and watercolorist, died in a hiking accident in France in 1991. She felt strongly about giving the public a chance to see the art the couple collected, and Rene is carrying on her legacy. While he no longer lives in the stone house, di Rosa’s new home is just a few steps away, so he can easily keep an eye on what’s happening.

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