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Mary Orlin

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Wine Country's Sexy New Winery

Posted: 09/22/11 02:42 PM ET

It's not often a new winery gets my attention.  But this one does.  Four years in the making, Ram's Gate Winery opens its doors in California's Sonoma wine country this week. It gives new meaning to the term "destination winery."  I want to move in.


Ram's Gate is in the southern end of the Carneros wine growing region. Why the name Ram's Gate?  Carneros means ram in Spanish; the winery is at the gateway to the wine country.  A local landmark is the Infineon Raceway, which you can see from the winery.

This is a winery that takes design seriously but not too seriously.  It's not over the top; it's fashionable and on trend without being tacky or gaudy.  Ram's Gate has set the style.  Wait and see, I predict others will follow.

At a media preview last week, I was seated at a table with Ram's Gate architect, Howard Backen.  This architect to wine country stars (Harlan, Bond, Meadowood) says he didn't want to build a replica of a French or Italian winery.  Thank God.  He wanted the winery buildings to reflect the heritage of the Carneros wine region.  I tell him I think this is a sexy winery.  He seems delighted by that.  But I really mean it.  There's a great vibe here, warm and inviting.  The surfaces are sleek and cool and the lines are clean.  You just want to chill in front of the indoor and outdoor fireplaces and sip a glass of Pinot and never leave.
Howard took his inspiration from the old barns of Carneros.  With its weathered exterior, which comes from a reclaimed snow fence made of Douglas Fir, Ram's Gate looks as if it has been here forever.  The 30-foot ceilings soar into the atmosphere and draw your eye upwards.  The proportions work.  And the details matter.  Howard preserves the incredible view from the terrace by enclosing it in glass to shield visitors from the chilly afternoon winds.

The winery occupies the ranch that was once home to Roche Vineyards.  The new owners razed the existing structures to make way for Howard Backen's concept of two barns connected by a courtyard and covered gallery. No matter where you stand in the winery, you have a clear line of site to the opposite end, beyond which are eye-catching views of the Carneros vineyards and countryside. Simply breathtaking.

First Winery for Interior Designer

Orlando Diaz-Azcuy had never designed a winery until Ram's Gate.  "I accepted the commission because the description fit very well with my thinking of simplicity," Orlando says. He's known for doing the interiors of Masa's restaurant and the Levi Strauss headquarters, both in San Francisco.

"The image of the American farm barn has been a symbol of nostalgia, romance, purity and simplicity in architecture."  He says, "I considered that the end goal should be sophisticated, restrained luxury."  Above all, Orlando wanted "to avoid style clichés."  He absolutely achieved this.  While his design brings the outdoors in, it's done in a new way and feels fresh.

Take a look at this photo.  Nice chairs, furniture, pillows and accents right?  Would you believe many of those items are from Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn and Room and Board?  Orlando's interiors are the perfect mix of fashion's hi-low concept.  I love that.

The hi part of the mix comes from custom pieces Orlando created for Ram's Gate, including white leather swivel chairs in the Lounge.  Orlando wanted people to be able to swivel to face the fireplace or anywhere else that they like.  You'll also find a custom red sofa in the library, which is now called the Ram's Gate sofa.

More than Cathedral Ceilings

"With 30-foot  high ceilings, you need something for the viewer to look up to in order to realize and enjoy the interior height," says Orlando. "Rather than a chandelier, a simple fixture that emulates the light of candles was appropriate.  The eight-foot high lanterns are made with a resin that imitates seeded glass, with a steel frame corrugated finish."

Wall of Wine

This is one of my favorite features, and turns out that Orlando came up with the idea.  The bottles are all empty (darn).  This wall separates the main tasting bar from the kitchen, but it's easy to see what the chefs are up to thanks to a big cutout window.  Orlando says, "this wine wall is conceived as a free standing minimal sculpture."

The Landing Strip

Ok so there's not an actual airplane landing strip in the winery.  Chef Jason Rose says they call the long white Carrara marble island in the kitchen "the landing strip." So much counter space! I want this kitchen.

This is a demonstration and teaching kitchen.  In fact, if the chefs are at work while you are visiting, feel free to go sit in the kitchen and watch -- or even lend a helping hand.

The Wines

Sometimes when you see a brand new shiny winery, you have to wonder, is this fancy window dressing or are the wines any good?  Winemaker Jeff Gaffner does his new digs proud.  Jeff's also the winemaker at Saxon Brown and Xtant, and was on the team at Chateau St. Jean that made Cinq Cepages.  Here he's got a portfolio that includes some sparkling wine and Moscato, but the main focus is on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a little bit of Syrah.  I am not the biggest Chardonnay fan, but loved the single vineyard wines from Durrell Vineyard and Ulises Valdez Vineyard.  The Durrell Vineyard Pinot Noir is smooth and elegant.

Visiting Ram's Gate

Ram's Gate is now open to the public, and you can drop in for a tasting, with prices starting at $8 for one glass.  Reserve ahead of time and you can also choose a wide range of wine and food pairings, from a tasting to a picnic by the pond.

Howard Backen hopes you'll find a sense of surprise and excitement at Ram's Gate.  "We want visitors to explore and experience every part of the building and the site around the winery, and leave with a strong memory of the place."

 

Follow Mary Orlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WineFashionista