The same conundrum faces many architects of contemporary wineries: where – and how – to place what is essentially a factory, in a landscape dedicated not only to the bucolic pursuit of growing grapes, but also to attracting visitors.
Woollaston Estates winery is located roughly 30 minutes’ drive outside the small city of Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island, an area noted for its sunny weather, art scene and laid-back lifestyle. The winery’s co-owners, former conservation government minister Philip Woollaston and his wife, Chan, were in the process of expanding a small, family-run vineyard into a 250-acre estate when they engaged winery architect Laurence Ferar. Supported by local firm Arthouse Architecture, Ferar's brief was to design a four-level, gravity-fed winery built into the side of Mahana Hill. The space where it sits was dug out by an excavation contractor who was invited to take the earth away to use as fill in for other projects.
Woollaston Estates was formed in 2000 when the Wollastons teamed up with two American partners, Glenn and Renée Schaeffer, to create a winery that was not only highly functional, but "also sensitive to the natural aesthetic of the area." Planting of pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot gris grapes began in earnest and by the time the April 2005 harvest came around, it was clear the estate needed a processing facility for an initial production of 250 tons and a potential 575 tons. Ferar, based in Portland, Oregon, was the architect of choice.
“Two things attracted me about [Ferar’s] work,” says Woollaston. “One, they are all ‘honest’ buildings, and secondly, they are all different. His approach to projects like this was something I was instantly comfortable with. There’s a sensitivity that’s really nice. When I looked at his buildings, I couldn’t detect his ego."
In practical terms, Portland-based Ferar had already designed a dozen gravity-fed wineries in the United States and Canada. They include Kisler Vineyards in Sebastopol, California; Lemelson Vineyards in Carlton, Oregon; and Adelsheim Vineyard in Newbery, Oregon. Most are built over three levels, so the wine is moved between different processes, from top to bottom, using gravity rather than pumps.
“This allows more gentle and natural handling,” says Woollaston, “resulting in better wines and reducing the need for fining and filtration, particularly for reds. Our best pinot noirs go from grape to bottle entirely by gravity, with no pumping or filtration.”
The upper fermentation level of the facility is covered with a roof of native plants, mostly silver tussock grass, allowing it to blend into the landscape. Grapes are delivered at this level, which opens onto the red fermentation room 10 feet below. White fermentation and settling tanks are on the next level down.
“The planted roof was a natural aesthetic choice,” says Ferar, “but it also moderates the temperature directly by shading the fairly vast roof area." In addition, the roof provides "thermal lag," storing heat during the day and releasing it gradually overnight. "This evens out the diurnal swings. Wine generally prefers constant temperatures,” explains Ferar.
The space afforded by the extensive excavation that took place ahead of building allows for barrel cellars on two levels. Like a chai (an above-ground wine storage and aging facility common in Bordeaux), this arrangement also gives the option of maintaining two different, naturally sustained temperatures. “Malolactic fermentation can occur in the upper cellar, with longer-term aging on the lower level,” Ferar says.
Being underground, the winery has a huge thermal mass and little exposure to passive heat, significantly cutting its energy requirements. Skylights and continuous windows provide natural light and prevent the interior from feeling too subterranean.
Woollaston's father, Toss Woollaston, was one of New Zealand's most famous artists. As a result, the brief for the winery called for part of the facility to provide space for displaying art, and to double as an entertainment venue. Ferar designed the lowest level with a multipurpose work and banqueting area, outdoor terrace and commercial kitchen, as well as a wine library, show- and working-cellars, and additional barrel rooms.
Although he is now a successful wine-grower turning out 40,000 cases a year, Woollaston originally moved into the wine business as a retirement venture. “It started off as a hobby, but I quickly realized there’s no such thing as a hobby vineyard,” he says.
When it came to planning a winery, fitting the 28,600-square-foot building gently into the landscape was a priority. “I’ve always been a sucker for green roofs, and we wanted to avoid visual pollution," explains Woollaston. "I [didn't] like the idea of a foam and aluminum sandwich acting like a vast mirror to reflect the sun into Mahana School across the road.”
However, the subtlety and rustic aesthetic of the winery are offset by a striking structure on its front lawn. Marté Szirmay’s massive sculptural installation “Yantra for Mahana” was commissioned specifically for the site, and it is the first thing visitors see on arrival. Nearly 25 feet high and made from 40 tons of gently oxidizing Cor-Ten steel, the piece contains references to Maori, Christian and Buddhist symbolism.
Over the past decade, the estate has commissioned several other large-scale sculptural works with the assistance of New Zealand artist Andrew Drummond, a former senior lecturer in sculpture at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts.
One of the largest pieces, Christine Boswijk’s “Totems for a Vineyard,” is a grouping of gum-tree posts – felled during the vineyard’s development – topped with ceramic balls. It sits in front of the Schaeffers’ house overlooking the vineyard.
Other site-specific works include “Cascade,” a fountain designed by Drummond in the public courtyard, and Neil Dawson’s “Mahana Dome,” a filigreed steel inverted dome suspended from an invisible ceiling above a tasting table deep underground in the winery’s cellars. Also in the cellars are two large tapestries designed by American abstract artist Ed Moses: "Crema de la" and "Bronze Man-X." Moses is regarded as one of the founders of the post-war abstract movement that accompanied the Beat Generation of writers and artists.
For Woollaston, the estate's Ferar-designed building is also a continuing source of inspiration. "I still get a kick out of the winery,” he says.
Around 50 percent of Woollaston Estate's wine is exported to North America, Europe and a smattering of Asian countries, with the remainder sold within New Zealand. The winery's portfolio includes Woollaston Pinot Gris, Wollaston Pinot Noir, and Wollaston Sauvignon Blanc.