The Art of Winemaking

Written by Jane F. Garvey

First and foremost, wine is an agricultural product. It takes good dirt and good climate to make wine, and no amount of “art” will ever change that.

But there’s an aesthetic aspect to wine as well, and its links to the visual arts have become increasingly important over the last few decades. Architects are called upon to create worthy spaces for making, storing, tasting, and selling wine to the public. The mechanics and chemistry of winemaking in those circumstances are repackaged to fit into a far different model from the strictly utilitarian caves that were (and in some cases still are) the main structures dug into the side of a hill for that purpose. No aesthetics much; just function, at least to start.

But today, art and wine are darling companions. In this country, the ground in that department was broken by Margrit Biever Mondavi, Robert Mondavi’s second wife, who had come to work as a tour guide at the winery in the late 1960s and later became its director of public relations. In 1970 she opened a 5,000-square-foot gallery in the winery, believing that art and artists would attract more visitors to the valley. In 1980 she and Robert Mondavi were married. An artist herself, she still paints.

Through her, the couple’s influence in the artistic life of the valley and elsewhere evolved substantially. The association of wine and art in Napa Valley, perhaps launched at Robert Mondavi, now is almost an understood and necessary symbiotic relationship throughout California. In Napa Valley, two sources leap to mind among the famous names of winemaking.

Art informs everything at Clos Pegase, beginning with the winery itself, designed by architect Michael Graves and completed in 1987. Jan Shrem and his late wife Mitsuko established the winery in 1983 near Calistoga. He had made a fortune in a book import business in Japan. As his business grew, eventually establishing 50 offices globally, he began collecting art.

Widowed in 2010, Shrem sold the winery and vineyards in 2013, but the art wasn’t part of the sale. New owner with investors is Leslie Rudd, who owns Dean & Deluca as well as Rudd Winery in Napa Valley. Rudd has said that the linkage between wine and art will continue at Clos Pegase, but for the moment is focused on improvements to the winery itself. The architecture alone secures wine-art connection, but some of the original installations – namely the fountains – remain. Now remarried to Maria Manetti Farrow, Shrem and his bride have donated millions to the University of California Davis to build a museum housing the collection at the very university so known for its wine work. The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art is slated to open later this year.

Like Margrit Biever Mondavi, Donald Hess was born in Switzerland, where he assumed direction of the family brewery at a young age. From there, he built a portfolio of wine estates and a stunning art collection, some of which now is in a museum that is open to the public in California; another in a museum at Glen Carlou, a Hess winery in South Africa; and another at Bodega Colomé in Argentina.

The linkage between wine and art began for Donald Hess many years ago, although he’d already begun collecting art. He wanted to buy a piece by Swiss artist Rolf Isell, but, although needing money, Isell refused to sell it to him believing that Hess’s business practices lacked environmental integrity. Hess listened, and today the Hess Family Estate portfolio of wineries use biodynamic, organic, and sustainable farming methods.

About the time Jan Shrem was working on his art collection at Clos Pegase, Hess opened the museum at The Hess Collection Winery in Napa. Housed in the 1903 original winery, the museum opened to the public in 1989. Now retired from day-to-day management of the extensive Hess portfolio of wineries, Donald Hess still supports 20 living artists in their professional development.

Art informs winery design and marketing around the world. The Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry-designed the intriguing Marqués de Riscal winery in Rioja, Spain. This building could not illustrate more intimately the nexus between wine and art. As with his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, sculptural sensibilities shape the design, yet within lies a fully functioning winery.

In South Africa, art is prominent at two important wineries: Delaire Graff Estate and the two Graham Beck wineries.

British-born Laurence Graff OBE was born in modest circumstances and left school at age 15 to apprentice beginning in the jewelry business. From that beginning emerged Graff Diamonds. As a young man, he first nurtured his art collecting impulses with the purchase of a Renoir.

Today he owns the Delaire Graff Estate in Stellenbosch, South Africa, which besides wine, showcases a world-class collection of art, mostly celebrating South African themes but is not entirely devoted to that topic.

Also South African, Graham Beck’s Robertson estate houses a selection of the enormous family art collection and visitors to the Robertson winery are welcome to view it. Visitors also will see on the grounds sculptures by the Italian-born South African artist Edoardo Villa. Villa went to South Africa during World War II as a prisoner of war and stayed after his release. An entire museum of his work is located in the capital, Pretoria.

As you explore the rapidly growing world of wine, look for its connections with the world of art and artists. Shaping not only the structures where wine is made, art enhances wine enjoyment by synthesizing the sensory experiences we can find pleasurable in the world of wine. Santé!

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