Joseph Phelps Vineyards: Transforming a Historic Winery


Image: Bruce Damonte

By Hans Baldauf, Principal, BCV Architects

This month, construction on our Joseph Phelps Vineyards winery project will draw to a close and we will have the pleasure of watching the public interact in a completely new way with a building that has been the signature of the winery for over forty years.

BCV is fortunate to count among our projects a number in which we have had the opportunity to transform landmark buildings. In these projects we find ourselves dancing with a building’s past – one which we spend time coming to know so that we can re-envision the building for its new life. With these projects, a new future is inexorably linked with the history and DNA of the building.

It is interesting to think about this renewal in the context of winemaking, as wines are a yearly act of this process. Each year the fruit of the vineyards is transformed by the winemaker, carrying on a tradition and style of winemaking and yet evolving based on the nuances and opportunities of the raw material. Each year brings a new release of Insignia at Joseph Phelps.

This process is different from a renovation in which a building’s system and functions are updated or an addition in which a new part is added – rather it is the act of taking what is old and infusing new life into it without losing its essence – and I would argue that to be successful we must actually reveal aspects of its essence that were previously obscured.

The Ferry Building Marketplace

Our first project of this type was the creation of the Ferry Building Marketplace, which we completed with SMWM and Page and Turnbull. Here, as part of an overall renewal of the building, BCV took the ground floor (historically used for baggage handling) and created a market hall.

The Ferry Building marketplace, organized along the central Nave, brings together a range of specialty food purveyors under one roof.

The Ferry Building marketplace, organized along the central Nave, brings together a range of specialty food purveyors under one roof.

By cutting away portions of the original building nave floor, the new space was connected to the old space above. In this way the concourse, no longer used by the public, once again became part of the daily life of the city. A series of shallow, tile-covered arches and gates that define the market hall help one see the original brick arches and traditional wood grilles (clathri) in a new way – and the light washing down from the restored skylight unifies the new space. For generations of Bay Area residents, the Ferry Building was a civic landmark passed through on the way to and from a trip across the Bay. Today many ferry riders pass through the building – only now on the lower level – and it has become the beloved epicenter of the San Francisco food world. Old and new are brought together in a complete transformation.

Market Square

Leaving the Embarcadero and traveling up Market Street, one soon arrives at Market Square, which occupies the city block between 9th and 10th streets. It was built as the Western Furniture Mart in 1937 (with later additions) as a building for showrooms catering to the interior design trade and was closed to the general public.

Market Square seen from Fell Street (left) and the new Market Street lobby (right). Images: Bruce Damonte

Market Square was purchased by Shorenstein Properties in 2011 to be renovated into offices for technology companies, with Twitter signing on as lead tenant later that year and subsequently leasing most of the building. Shorenstein recognized the importance this city block could play in the revitalization of a long neglected part of San Francisco – and in particular the importance of activating the ground floor of the building. Working with RMW architecture & interiors, which led the work on the office portion of the building, BCV created a series of ground floor halls which give public access to a building which was once a closed fortress. The central hall is a two volume space cut out of the fabric of the 1930s board-formed concrete structure of the building. Here we were able to reveal that the original structural columns of the first two floors were a single unit, and once shown as such, provided a sense of scale worthy of this massive civic space. Stevenson Hall now connects the historic building lobby on the north with the old Stevenson Lane, transformed into a public commons by CMG Landscape Architecture.

Images: Bruce Damonte

Salvaged wood from a World War II-era rooftop addition is used to contrast the concrete structure and create the walls that define the ground floor halls. Modern steel portals with rolling mesh grilles complete the system of enclosure, creating a new set of public spaces that have created a new civic heart for this emerging San Francisco neighborhood.

The ground floor of Market Square is both modern and historic – it reveals the existing structure of the building that was buried under plaster (and in some cases mirrors added in the 1980s) and uses salvaged material from the building itself to define a new future. San Franciscans are now able to enjoy a building that was long enclosed to them as part of everyday life.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards

When Bill Phelps interviewed BCV and Don Brandenburger to transform the original John Marsh Davis-designed winery, I expressed the great sense of responsibility that came with working on a building that is an icon to so many. I had my own powerful memories of visiting the site – the awe one feels encountering the huge trellis that breaks between the two buildings and leads to the spectacular view of Spring Valley. I was privileged to attend the Chez Panisse tenth birthday party, held at the winery in 1981. This event and many like it showed what an extraordinary site it was and could be for providing a unique Napa Valley experience. A number of years ago, winemaking production and barrel storage had moved downhill to a new building, providing the opportunity to transform the old production areas to receive visitors.

An aerial view of the original winery building at Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

An aerial view of the original winery building at Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

I had been aware of John Marsh Davis’ work. He had designed Rutherford Hill (when it was Souverain) and Chateau Souverain and I knew his dramatic house on Stinson Beach because friends had rented it – but I felt that I needed to understand more. Davis had passed away in 2009, but Bill Phelps put me in touch with his niece, Katy Song, and our subsequent conversations and research have led to an ongoing project which I hope will result in a book on the architect’s work.

However, at a certain point each architect must begin on the project at hand with the knowledge he has. Our task was to transform a production facility into a place to greet, educate and allow guests to enjoy a visit to the winery.

Image: Bruce Damonte

Image: Bruce Damonte

One’s experience is transformed the moment you park your car through a new entry sequence designed in collaboration with Smith and Smith Landscape Architects. The new entry path winds through Redwoods and Oaks on the eastern slope, providing glimpses of the winery, and brings the visitor to the eastern end of Davis’ trellis. The encounter is almost startling, as the trellis comes close to the hillside and one glides just below it, down a new stairway and to the center of the original building.

Image: Bruce Damonte

The Reception Hall at Joseph Phelps. Image: Bruce Damonte

The public functions of the winery have now been consolidated on the north side of the buildings. A glazed door reveals a white-stained, wood paneled reception hall, where guests check-in for a variety of unique tasting experiences.

The Gallery Hall. Image: Bruce Damonte

The Gallery Hall. Image: Bruce Damonte

The heart of the north building is the grand Great Hall, defined by two massive wood trusses that echo those used by Davis to support the great entry trellis. Paneled in board-on-board, rough sawn vertical grain Douglas fir, this room is the central living space for the winery and can alternatively be used to host all-winery staff meetings and grand banquets. Five massive wood and glass light fixtures run down the length of the room – a riff on Davis’ wood fixtures in the original Oval Room. At the north end is a glass-enclosed barrel room where winemakers will give select patrons barrel tastings of the various vintages currently being offered at the winery.

The Oval Room. Image: Bruce Damonte

The Oval Room. Image: Bruce Damonte

The Great Hall acts as an organizing space for the ground floor. To the east is the Founder’s Room and its terrace, which celebrates the winery’s founder, Joseph Phelps. To the west is The Library, where temperature-controlled cases display over forty years of wines made by Joseph Phelps Vineyards. The long steel and glass walls of this room allow views in from the Great Hall and of the giant oblong barrels that line the Oval Room. The Oval Room was added to the original John Marsh Davis building four years after it was built, to accommodate large oak winemaking barrels and to provide a space to hold large receptions.

Image: Bruce Damonte

Image: Bruce Damonte

We have re-envisioned this room by opening it up to spectacular views of Spring Valley to the west through the addition of a trellised portico. The great oak ovals have been restored and subtly rearranged to provide three entry points into the room, allowing visitors to appreciate the sculptural quality of the massive structures. One of the hallmarks of the original space was a long shelf around the room that Joe Phelps used to display the empty bottles of significant wines that he and his family enjoyed with friends over the years. These have been returned to their place of honor and show the range of his exploration of the great wines of the world.

The winery has always been interested in the exploration of wine and fine dining, and a new commercial kitchen off the north side of the Great Hall connects to a dining room off the Oval Room. At the opposite end, the Insignia Room celebrates the signature wine produced by the winery. All three rooms open onto a new western terrace, with its spectacular view over Spring Valley.

The winery does not have a typical tasting bar; instead, the various rooms described above are used for in-depth seminars led by wine educators. Each of these rooms is purposely very different from the other in scale and decoration, as to provide a series of different experiences to winery visitors over multiple visits. Less formal tastings are held on the terrace. At the center of the terrace is John Marsh Davis’ original trellis, which has been relocated to reinforce the cross axis of the building from the Founder’s Room through Great Hall, Library and Oval Room.

The volume of the original building allowed for the addition of a second floor of offices above the ground floor. Here we were able to provide the Phelps staff with offices of the caliber that Davis created for a much smaller number of employees that linked the north and south buildings. A dramatic new stair at the northeast corner of the building provides the principal access to this floor (and allows a direct connection to the ground floor kitchen – the social heart of the winery). The second floor is arranged around a central skylit space that is the structural extension of the Great Hall below. At the north end is a large dining/meeting room that opens onto a balcony overlooking the redwood grove on this side of the building. Glass enclosed offices line the east and west sides of the gallery spaces. The western offices have a large dormer which provides sweeping views of the western hills of Napa Valley.

The south end of the offices interconnects with the original stair up to the bridge offices. In order to make the entire building accessible, we inserted an elevator into this location to serve both the new office floor and the original bridge of offices. To make this work, the vertical mass of the elevator is paired with a dormer that gives beautiful views from the bridge landing.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards President Bill Phelps in the Library off of the Great Hall and Oval Room. Image: Bruce Damonte

In many respects a visit to the Joseph Phelps winery is a completely new experience but one which we believe will resonate with those who have long-term associations with the property.