Napa Valley is hoping visitors will sample local arts scene

LA Times | Travel

Yountville, Calif. Every time my husband, Kevin, and I visit the Napa Valley, we leave with a newfound appreciation for the local arts: the art of wine making, the art of wine country cuisine, the art of wine-and-food pairing. With so many temptations, we've never put down our wine glasses ...

By Jenn Garbee // 06.11.08

Yountville, Calif.

Every time my husband, Kevin, and I visit the Napa Valley, we leave with a newfound appreciation for the local arts: the art of wine making, the art of wine country cuisine, the art of wine-and-food pairing.

With so many temptations, we've never put down our wine glasses long enough to appreciate the other local achievement: the fine arts.

On a recent visit, we made a concerted effort to push away from the tasting-room bar and ponder the next Picassos. But finding the fine art was a bigger challenge than we had expected.

"The arts have always been here, only a little hidden," says Michelle Williams, executive director of the Arts Council of Napa Valley. "We have fantastic talent and organizations, but people just haven't known where to find them. . . . So we're trying to bring the arts to the forefront of people's minds and expand our offerings."

The real trick is getting tourists like us (read: wine fanatics) into these public art spaces, museums, galleries and art-filled wineries. Many established nonprofit institutions, including the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville and the Di Rosa Preserve in the town of Napa, are regular stops for locals and schoolchildren. But they receive only a small part of the more than 4.5 million annual regional visitors. (The museum's average annual attendance is 12,000.)

For local arts advocates, it's time for a change. Two years ago, Williams and a handful of Arts Council board members formed the Public Art Committee to address the absence of a public-art plan for Napa County. After studying the cultural plans of similar-sized cities nationwide, the committee received approval in January for its Community Cultural Plan for Napa County, a four-year public-art plan that will serve as a road map for promoting and expanding the arts.

It's a laudable victory. But with county funding approval still pending (a proposed "percent-for-art" ordinance would allocate 1% of new public or private construction costs to public-arts programming), it probably will be several years before its effects on cultural tourism, including an arts-marketing campaign aimed at tourists, are seen.

Until then, the best approach for finding the county's hidden -- and not-so-hidden -- art gems is not unlike the best tactic for discovering a little-known winery: Ask the locals.

"We're really a regional museum with a clear mission to provide regional art and explore the environment and history of the valley in ways that interest the local community," says Ann Mosher, the Napa Valley Museum's interim executive director. "But we also have a caveat to provide a window to the world for residents, to give them the opportunity to see art they might not otherwise."

This year, that caveat is the traveling exhibition "The Art Books of Henri Matisse," a display of original illustrations and text from four of the artist's books. Historically, exhibitions of works by pop-culture artists such as Matisse often result in blockbuster turnouts, even at small institutions.

Luring those millions of wine country tourists to the recently renovated Yountville museum is a challenge, even with exhibitions by big-name artists. Mosher hopes this year's third annual Festival del Sole, a summer music fest that brings Joshua Bell, André Watts and other classical performers to town, will attract Matisse fans. Many concerts take place at the Lincoln Theater, across the street from the museum.

"The pre-concert wine receptions at the museum get them in the door to see the art," says Mosher.

Where are all the people?

Across the valley at the Di Rosa Preserve, Kevin and I expected a packed house. It was a glorious sunny afternoon, an excellent day to explore this unusual 217-acre nature preserve with more than 2,000 indoor and outdoor works by a range of Bay Area artists, including Robert Arneson, Lewis deSoto and Peter Voulkos.

But the property was empty, save the resident peacocks fanning their feathers as we passed. So we hopped on the open-air bus and enjoyed a private two-hour "discovery" tour, content to spend a little time inside the mind of eccentric former owner and avid collector Rene di Rosa before returning to the tasting rooms.

The tug for wine country tourists isn't limited to nonprofit arts organizations.

"People are up here on a wine country vacation for that gourmet experience," says Oliver Caldwell, co-owner of private galleries in San Francisco, New York and the year-old Caldwell Snyder Gallery in downtown St. Helena. "They're not looking for fine art in this tiny [agricultural] town of 3,000 people. . . . Why do you think I have those metal horses in the window?"

The brightly colored, life-size scrap-metal horses by artist Doug Owen are the reason Kevin and I ventured inside. Caldwell also turns to live music to bring in the crowds. An early-May charity fundraiser and gallery reception for Rusty Wolfe, a Nashville artist and former songwriter for Johnny Cash, will include a live music performance by the artist and Caldwell's JumpStart classic rock band.

"Hey, if you rock out, people will come," Caldwell says.

Other local gallery owners have taken a more direct -- and quieter -- approach to attracting wine country travelers: If art collectors won't come to you, go to them.

Ira Wolk, one of the seven Public Art Committee planning members and owner of St. Helena's I. Wolk Gallery, converted the former beauty salon of the exclusive Auberge du Soleil resort in Rutherford into a gallery five years ago. Wolk also procured the 80 sculptures by California artists (all for sale) scattered throughout the 33-acre property, which includes Olive Grove Sculpture Garden.

The catch? The public is welcome at the beauty-salon-turned-gallery, but only resort guests or serious buyers may visit the Olive Grove Sculpture Garden. But as Kevin and I discovered, the term "serious buyer" is loosely interpreted. When we called to ask about the garden, the gallery assistant said simply to make a dinner reservation at the restaurant and she'd arrange a private pre-dinner tour. Food and wine for art's sake? We were happy to oblige.


The next morning, Kevin was eager to hit a few wineries, but I still had the art bug. We compromised by choosing a few of the gallery-lined tasting rooms.

At Artesa Vineyards & Winery in Napa, we were drawn by the museum-like architecture, but it was the glass and installation pieces by resident artist Gordon Huether inside that kept us there all morning.

At Mumm Napa in nearby Rutherford, Kevin toured the rotating exhibition in the hallway, glass of wine in hand, while I checked out the 30 original Ansel Adams photographs in the permanent-collection gallery.

We capped the day at the Hess Collection in Napa for a tour of owner Donald Hess' private collection of works by Magdalena Abakanowicz, Anselm Kiefer, Robert Motherwell and other noteworthy artists. Even here, at large wineries with notable art collections and large crowds, the on-site galleries were surprisingly empty.

After a long weekend of art-filled wine tastings, it was the two markedly different properties owned by Craig Hall, founder of Hall Financial Group in Dallas, and his wife, Kathryn, that inspired us most.

"When we bought the property in 2003, I had eyes for incorporating art into the redevelopment -- it's something I always try to do," Craig says. "But it was Kathy who felt the person best suited to carry out the vision was Frank Gehry."

After four years of architectural revisions and county permit hurdles, construction has begun on a $100-million winemaking facility. When completed in late 2009 or early 2010, it promises to be a towering example of the now-ubiquitous Gehry style of undulating architecture, although without the high-shine titanium of Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Here, the trellis-like roof will resemble wood to complement the landscape.) The Halls, who say they've long since run out of space for their own art collection, are buying and commissioning new works for the building's interior.

"We're constantly collecting -- whenever we see something that really stretches us, we're drawn to it," Craig says. "We bought a piece two years ago that's literally in storage waiting for the new winery."

Meanwhile, a temporary gallery houses Gehry's models and blueprints; visitors can sip wine and ponder the man behind them. In an area where the historic art of making wine is typically the main attraction, it's a fascinating juxtaposition.

"Tradition and technology -- we think it's a metaphor for the experience of both wine and art," says Kathryn.

A few miles away, the Halls' Rutherford winery stands in stark contrast to the bustling, grandiose St. Helena property. Nestled on a quiet hillside beneath their home, the small guesthouse/entertaining suite is filled with family photos and, of course, more artwork.

It's a notably conservative space compared with the " 'Star Wars' tank room," as Craig calls it, below. The steel tanks are aligned side by side in a semicircle for a bank-vault-like effect, with red light sculptures by Thomas Glassford bursting overhead.

Our tour guide led us through the "Inspector Gadget"-style steel-vault door into the classic brick-and-mortar wine caves. Kathryn, former ambassador to Austria during the Clinton administration, commissioned a crew of Austrian stonemasons to build the caves from bricks that were reclaimed from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each bears a stamp of the monarchy. "The idea was to open the doors of this room filled with sophisticated, stainless-steel technology and head back into the Old World again," Craig says.

Along the central nave of the cave are archways with stainless-steel artworks (to withstand humidity) by sculptors George Tobolowsky and Andrew Rogers. At the end of the tunnel is an expansive dining room with a Donald Lipski and Jonquil LeMaster crystal-bejeweled tree-root sculpture dangling above the dining-room table. Our guide instructed us to sit and relax as he poured us several single vineyard Hall wines.

As we sipped a Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" piping through the room, we fully understood how art, like wine, reflected the life not only of its maker but also of its collector.