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Fall/Winter 2009

Wine Central

Bringing the outdoors into its sleek spaces, this is a gorgeous place to hang. It's also a future winery-and the heart of a Sonoma dream come true.

By Joan Chatfield-Taylor

We all daydream about what we’ll do when we win the lottery, inherit an unexpected fortune, or sell the company for millions. For many Californians, that dream involves a few acres of grapes and a place to crush them.

The owner of a Sebastopol property had this in mind when it came to designing a building he hoped would eventually become a working winery. The structure goes beyond the purely functional requirements of winemaking to include a floor with a room for a pool table and a bar that may one day serve as a tasting room to the public. Until that happens, San Francisco architect Mark Horton points out, “It’s a clubhouse, an office, and a wine barn,” for the pleasure of its owner.

When the owner decided to buy a weekend home in Sonoma County, he chose this sloping property near Sebastopol because it was known as hospitable territory for the fussy pinot noir grape. He asked Horton to expand the existing farmhouse for his family and to design a new building that would conform to the detailed laws that apply to anyone making more than 50 gallons of wine per year.

Fortunately, says designer Maura Abernethy, who worked with Horton on the project, “He was interested in architecture as well as wine.” Because he and his family would have a clear view of the new building from the house, the owner wanted something more distinguished than an ordinary barn. Horton and Abernethy sited the new structure so that it would give a sense of enclosure to the property, placing it across the meadow from the house to form a boundary from the road. Its location near the property’s entrance, as if it were a gatehouse, also suggests privacy and security.

Once the site was chosen, Horton began making models, building some 20 cardboard maquettes to experiment with rooflines and window placement, before deciding on the final form. “The whole point of this place is the beautiful landscape,” Horton says, “and I really wanted to highlight this. I saw the building as an object, like sculpture, in the landscape.”

The final result is a one and a half story rectangle that places the functional wine-making facilities on the ground floor, partially cut into the slope, which makes the building seem smaller from the house’s vantage point. Upstairs, a single large room opens onto a wide terrace, which fills it with light and offers views of the meadow and the vineyards beyond the house. The shape is basic, but Horton took pains to make the building interesting. A powerful sloping roof wraps down around one side of the building, protecting it from the sun. It stops just a couple of feet from the ground, paradoxically making the building appear solid and well-protected while it seems to hover above the ground.

Horton also chose the materials carefully, giving the barn a sense of fun as well as function. Sheets of standing seam steel, treated to have the soft finish of aluminum, alternate with panels of pumpkin orange Parklex, a material that sandwiches a dense resin-treated core between panels of wood veneer. “I like it because you get variations of grain, and I wanted to soften this very modern design, and give it an agrarian, pastoral feeling,” says Horton.

Anticipating its future use as a winery presented Horton and Abernethy with a few challenges unusual for a structure no bigger than a midsize house. In addition to adhering to the usual Sonoma County building codes, they had to meet the demanding federal requirements for a full-scale winery. Practical elements such as an expanded septic system, refrigerator doors, elaborate temperature controls, and doors large enough to admit farm trucks had to be incorporated in a subtle way so that they didn’t take away from the formal, sculptural quality of the tidy package.

Horton’s meticulous attention to details both stylistic and functional obviously paid off: The building received a Citation Award from the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

“It’s really nice when a project like this—something you build on a back road in the country that no one ever gets to see—gets an award because it makes people realize that things like this can and do happen,” says Horton. “There’s an alternative to the $89 shed, and it can enrich not only your property, but your life.”

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