A Tale of Two Valleys

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By: Andrei Herasimchuk | August 12, 2009

One of the perks of living in Silicon Valley is the 90-minute drive to Napa Valley, during which you can find yourself in the rolling hills of Yountville, driving up the Silverado Trail on a cloudless sunny day.

The contrast is stark. In Silicon Valley, strip malls and suburban streets intermingle with high-tech corporate parks packed with non-descript glass buildings. Napa, meanwhile, is miles of picturesque vineyards and a calming quiet that can’t be broken by fast cars and small roads. I hadn’t been in nearly a year, and for a wine enthusiast like myself, it had been a brutal dry spell.

I brought along a group of designers from my studio to get their visual and sensory impressions: Monica Keefe, the lead designer at Involution; her husband, Brian, a techie-turned-foodie who now works as a chef; Geoffrey Brown and Rob Brackett, the young guns at the studio; and my wife, Donna Driscoll, a designer and researcher who bought me a wine cellar for my birthday a few years ago. (True love!)

As the organizer for the trip, I set the agenda for our wine-tasting excursion based not on wine points, but on four different types of aesthetic experiences. At the studio, we spend all of our time creating digital environments; I was curious if we could get some ideas about how to apply the Napa experience in our daily work.

With this in mind, I picked four wineries: Joseph Phelps, an upscale Napa Valley staple that still tries to appeal to the everyday wine drinker; Duckhorn, a grand, Victorian-style plantation that exudes wine snobbery; Judd’s Hill, a small, artistic, family-owned spot; and William Hill, one of the more overtly commercial wineries in Napa. And we would stop at Oakville Grocery, a mom-and-pop store with a Neiman Marcus aesthetic (and prices) to pack up on quality food for the day.

We drove first to Joseph Phelps, a grand, spa-like lodge that sits on a small hill overlooking its vineyard. Phelps is a classic Napa Valley conundrum: How to communicate its high-quality standards to the workaday wine drinker? Its best offering, Insignia, illustrates this problem. The bottle has an expensive embossed seal burned right into the glass, but the label, a mesh of dark violet patterns and gold and black type, attempts to appeal to the wine enthusiast but merely looks average.

The bottle also fails to communicate how much Phelps applies the techniques of biodynamic farming: The winery will pack the horns of a lactating cow with its manure, bury the horns for six months from fall to spring equinox, then remove the preparation from the mix, add a tiny amount to lukewarm water, stir for one hour, and “create a vortex where the energy of the preparation is transferred into the water.” Nevertheless, Geoff spoke for all of us when he said it was one of the best wines he’d ever had.

Duckhorn, on the other hand, has no qualms about broadening its appeal, and as such, the experience and aesthetic is more focused, even if the wine isn’t as good as the Phelps selection. The wine label and bottle design are simple, distinctive, and memorable: The clearly illustrated ducks not only call to mind classic 19th-century wood engravings, but also serve as a mnemonic device for the winery’s name. Even though we were taking a break from the computer, we couldn’t resist breaking out our iPhones to play “What the Font?” to figure out Duckhorn’s typeface—a bastardized version of Garamond with extremely poor kerning.

We then headed south down Silverado Trail to the small, independent winery Judd’s Hill, which occupies an open field just north of Napa itself. A chicken coop with five clucking hens sits near the parking space. One of the best things about Judd’s Hill is that you can reserve a spot for “crush,” that time of year where people take their shoes off and smash grapes to a pulp with their own feet. Afterward, you can use what you crushed to make your own wine using Judd’s Hill facilities. Once you’ve made your own varietal masterpiece, the owners encourage you to design your very own label. Inside the winery, a large wall of empty wine bottles from years past is a tribute to the many who have expressed themselves this way.

The winery’s quirky, artistic approach to the wine experience extends to its own label: The stem for the J also forms the left side of the H, a beguiling minimalist rectangle that Mondrian could have loved if he had preferred earth tones over primary colors.

The last stop of the day was William Hill, where the bottle, label design, and tasting experience were wholly generic, reinforcing the idea that the wine is a reliable, safe choice for dinner or a night out on the town.

But most of us couldn’t get past the drab, warehouse-sized building that sits on the vineyard, a monument to William Hill’s commercial success.

Each winery had a different aesthetic, each had its own voice, and each made its own choices about what kind of winery it wanted to be. But the wine-tasting experience is about the total package: the atmosphere, the bottle design, the backstory, the taste. We ended the day at Bistro Jeanty, a wonderful slice of French countryside cooking, before heading back to the valley of high-tech.