The Most in California

Exploring 4 of the State's fantastic wine properties


California is packed with impressive, historic and important wineries, though there is not necessarily much overlap among the three. Many of the historic wineries tend to have made additions to their properties in a way that is not disruptive to a long cultivated image. The iconic buildings of Mondavi, Beringer and Chateau Montelena serve as important architectural milestones for the Napa Valley and as such have great value for each brand, so it’s not surprising to find innovation in design coming from a new breed of winery.

To do something truly impressive, it unfortunately takes resources and for most small winery operators, those resources are quickly eaten up by the more mundane aspects of winery construction. The greatest additions to California’s winery architecture, not surprisingly, have mostly come in the Napa Valley (mecca for California wine), but also for the types of producers who are able to indulge in a bit of fantasy, or more. Check out our lineup of fantastic California wine properties!

Opus One

The coming of Opus One to the Napa Valley was truly a watershed moment in the history of California’s wine. This joint venture between wine royalty, the Mondavis in Napa and the Rothschilds of Bordeaux Château Mouton, represented not only the creation of a new, ultra-premium category of wine, but propelled Californian wine to a level of international prominence that it had not previously enjoyed.

Composing a Masterpiece

A venture like this required an impressive groundbreaking home and in 1991 the new Opus One Winery was completed. In many ways, the facility perfectly reflects the wine here. The use of local resources, combined with Old World architectural influences, has created a space that represents the synthesis between the two families. Even more compelling a connection might be the wineries positioning, dug in as it is into the soil of the Napa Valley. In essence, it becomes one with the Valley as Opus One has attempted to do with their wine.


If there was a true complement to Opus One’s status as the catapult that launched the ultra-premium category in California (which of course gave rise to the California cult Cabernet craze that we are just seeing the tail end of), it must be Dominus. Founded in 1983, and again a union between two important winemaking families, in this case Christian Moueix of Pomerol and most famously Petrus, and daughters of John Daniel, one of the true pioneers of ultra-premium quality wine in Napa Valley and producer of mythical Inglenook wines.

A Grand Beacon

Much like with Opus One, there was quite a break between the founding of the winery and the construction of the actual purpose built facility. In this case, we had to wait until 1997 to see the grandeur that is the Dominus Estate. Brilliantly constructed from terroir itself, the building is built with gabions, boxes constructed of wire, filled with basaltic rocks from nearby American Canyon. The result is a building that’s rugged, yet elegant, that rises from the valley floor resembling an artifact but serving, as many do, as a beacon. In this case, a beacon embodying a wine and its place.


Merus is one of those wines that have succeeded in making a name for themselves amongst a very crowded field. These are cult Cabs, available to only a few and allocated among the mailing list members. Whether this is good or bad is topic for another discussion, but one of the ways that Merus has succeeded is in the attention it gives its members, and that extends from the emails they exchange to the experience they offer visiting patrons.

Pure Art Form

While Merus remains a small operation, its roots can be traced back to 1998 when the wine was actually made in the garage of owners Erika J. Gottl and Mark Herold. Since then, the label has been purchased by the Foley family and the winery has been installed in a modest structure on the east side of Napa Valley. In fitting with the winery’s mission and policy of selling via list only, major investment in updating the winery were limited to production, aging and reception facilities. This is not monument to a brand, but rather serves as a warm, welcoming, refined reception for the wine’s consumers.

UC Davis

Okay, so this is a bit of a different tack but I would be remiss if I didn’t include the new, world’s greenest winery at UC Davis. There is no famous winemaker involved here and no famous wine produced, but as the home to California’s preeminent winemaking school, the facilities here will serve to train as well as influence our next generation of winemakers.

Surprisingly to some, the facility is not exclusively devoted to winemaking, including brewing and food processing operations as well, but the entire shebang is LEED Platinum-certified and when completed, will be a self-sufficient operation. We’ve spoken about interior design and architectural design, but this environmental design is destined to be ever more important in the relatively resource-intensive winemaking environment and demands our immediate attention. Kudos to UC Davis for its lead role here.

Want to learn more?

Check out these other Wine & Design profiles:

Unexpected Design in Washington

Winery Design in New Zealand

Great White Design

Form Meets Function

Grace and Place

Style and Design - Spain

And stay tuned for next week’s installment, when we look at some of the most distinctive architectural features that make for a must visit list of wineries.

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Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: JonDerry
    Hand of Snooth
    680446 3,110

    Nice article's a shame Dominus doesn't offer tours or tastings.

    Jun 21, 2011 at 12:46 PM

  • Nice article. Thanks for the insight.

    Jun 21, 2011 at 4:09 PM

  • Snooth User: hmachens
    535405 2

    I am so much into the wine craze, that I really want to follow my true love of wine, and get into a winery......

    Jun 21, 2011 at 5:02 PM

  • Snooth User: Mr Dolce
    Hand of Snooth
    453542 4,406

    Great article.

    Jun 22, 2011 at 4:33 AM

  • Snooth User: napagirl68
    Hand of Snooth
    87843 2,860

    Oh, I could add so much more... how can we host photos here? Maybe there is a way, but I have not been able to do it except for profile. A photo page dedicated to wineries would be nice. I have two amazing ones of chateau montelena, one featured on an SF news channel. Maybe a contributive blog for all on wineries?

    Sep 21, 2011 at 10:07 PM

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