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There’Is More Than Wine Growing In The Wine Country

BY THOM ELKJER, wine editor

They are landmarks of the wine country, rising from the valley floor, sun-baked hillsides and leafy glades. Surrounded by vineyards on the outside, on the inside they offer extraordinary sensory delights created by dedicated artisans who measure their progress in years, not hours or days. They draw visitors from the world over, who take away vivid memories they will not soon forget.

Wineries? Not quite.

In many ways, great gardens are more emblematic of the California wine country than winery buildings, which so often showcase French illusions or Italian dreams rather than the exuberant natural environment of the Golden State. In a wine country garden you find the same passion you find in the wine cellar, the same attention to detail, the same deep connection to the earth and its eternal yet ever-changing seasons. Among the flowers and trees, just as among the bottles and wine glasses, you need your nose as much as your eyes, and a bit of time to appreciate things that aren’t immediately apparent.

 My favorite wine country gardens are those that have grown up over the years, tending to their creators as much as they were tended. Consider Molly Chappellet’s riotous flower garden around her home above Lake Hennessy, Al Brounstein’s waterfall gardens among his vineyards on Diamond Mountain, the native and lavender gardens Sandra and Bill MacIver built around Mantanzas Creek winery in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley. None of these green-thumbed vintners simply trucked in the plants and hired an army of gardeners. Instead they let themselves be drawn into their passion for growing something in addition to grapes.

Napa Valley: An Outdoor Studio




If you prefer formal gardens created from grand designs, make sure to visit Ferrari-Carano Vineyards in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. This five-acre garden features more than 30 species of trees, including numerous exotic and dwarf species plus some of California’s only thriving Portuguese cork bark oaks. Everywhere you look you see gardens linked by footpaths, footbridges, and colored borders. Many of the individual beds complement a centerpiece of trees with flowering shrubs and grasses, in turn bordered by annuals. In early spring thousands of tulips and irises fill formal French parterres, or ornamental beds, and I’ve never visited when there weren’t roses in bloom. The serenity of the gardens is rarely broken, because Ferrari-Carano’s squad of full-time gardeners almost never picks up a power tool — even hedges are trimmed by hand.

Just as unusual — for a completely different reason — are the gardens at Benziger Family Winery near Glen Ellen. Benziger’s 85-acre ranch is one of America’s few biodynamic vineyard operations, which dispense with poisons and synthetic fertilizers in favor of natural balance to keep vines healthy. This balance includes carefully constructed, habitat-rich gardens that attract birds and beneficial insects, which in turn feast on the pests. Benziger’s informative, entertaining vineyard tours attract human visitors throughout the year. - TE

Scrubby, rocky Pritchard Hill must have seemed a sun-baked desert to Molly Chappellet after the manicured lushness of Beverly Hills, where she and her husband Donn lived before moving north in 1967 to get into the wine business. They immediately began planting trees to shade their one-story ranch house, and a vegetable garden to help feed their six young children. As the children and the vineyards grew, Chappellet found her garden evolving too. Beneath the leafy canopy provided by her maples, dogwoods, magnolias and camphor trees, she began planting flowering shrubs, annuals, and beds of roses. “Like most new gardeners, I was in love with color and was always buying more flowers than I really needed when I went to the nursery,” she laughs.

“As Molly came to know the property more intimately, she began to let indigenous plants and “volunteers” claim more of the garden. She added more subtle hues to her palate, setting the silver-green of an olive grove against the yellow-green of a terraced vineyard, accented with the blue-green of cypresses. She also let a “wild garden” flourish, until the artichokes reached eight to ten feet tall and clouds of ferny fennel fronds made the area almost impassable. Still, she would merrily lead groups of visitors through this filigree forest, jauntily carrying a Chinese paper parasol decorated with painted butterflies. “Go ahead and touch the plants,” she would tease people. “They are trying to touch you!”

“Schooled from an early age in the fine arts, Chappellet talks about gardening the way artists talk about their paints and clay. “I’m working much more sculpturally now,” she says. “Form and texture have become just as important as color.” In one spot, a low border of spiky succulents guards a group of delicately-colored, feminine-looking roses, while a mature loquat tree reaches out a protective arm and shade-loving shrubs huddle nearby. It really does seem like a living sculpture, and the pale salmon of the rose petals which would be lost in most gardens—fairly sparkles in the afternoon sun.

“Chappellet’s wine country garden continues to evolve. The wild garden, for example, is gone, and Molly is not yet sure of what is going in its place. “I’m seeking simplicity in every area of my life, and that’s reflected in the garden,” she muses. “I don’t put grand plans down on paper these days. I walk around and feel what would give the most satisfaction—to me and to the garden – throughout the year.””

Symphonies of Water

Boots and Al Brounstein started building Diamond Creek winery just a year after the Chappellets arrived in Napa Valley. Back then cows roamed the valley floor and the heavily forested western hillsides were for looking at, not planting on. But the Brounsteins were not to be denied, creating a vineyard oasis out of a defunct orchard surrounded by dense brush. Al in particular, has an aesthetic streak that he expresses in landscaped pavilions, flower gardens, and waterfalls. The latter are not puny fountains but wonderful waterworks that turn leafy glades into moist symphony halls of sound.

“The winery business is a great excuse to build waterfalls,” Al once joked as he whizzed me around the property in a golf cart. In fact, he planted his fourth and final vineyard above a small lake he created by damming Diamond Creek, and then built waterfalls flowing into and out of it. Sitting on a stone bench beneath tall trees with waterfall music behind him and the lake before him, he now muses, “Why would I want to be rich and famous when I can sit here and have this?”

“One might say the same from any one of a dozen vantage points on the property. It’s actually a deep, steep-sided gully that the Brounsteins terraced and graded in a way that emphasizes its natural shape, rather than changing it. One can wander in the sun among roses and grape vines, or stroll in the shade among native trees and grasses, and the view is constantly shifting. The only other constant is the sound of water somewhere nearby. Years from now, on future visits, that gently persuasive sound will be Al Brounstein whispering in our ears, reminding us about what really matters.

A Sense of Enclosure

“The most striking feature of the gardens at Matanzas Creek Winery is the field of 4,000 lavender plants that leaps out of the landscape as you approach. In early summer, when the lavender is in bloom, it’s one of the purplest — and buzzingly hypnotic — gardens anywhere. Thousands of bees are pollinating millions of flowers, and depending on the direction of the sun, the acres shimmer with indigo. The idea for the lavender came to Sandra and Bill MacIvers not out of a book, but out of necessity.

““There was empty space in front of the winery that we sometimes used as a parking lot,” Bill recalls. “It needed something, but it wasn’t big enough for a vineyard.” The “something” came to Sandra in 1991, in a flash of inspiration: “I was looking at the space,” she says, “and suddenly I saw it covered in lavender.” That’s how we see it today. And past the lavender we discover that there are five other gardens on the grounds, including a shade garden under indigenous oaks, a water garden for cool respite from summer heat, and a pathway garden lined with mysterious plants and more recognizable perennials.

“Born of memory, these linked gardens form a path to Sandra’s childhood in New Orleans, where her grandmother, Edith Stein, had established grand gardens around the family mansion known as Longue Vue. To walk in those gardens is to inhabit the living past, because so many of the trees, plants, and lawns remain from the days when Stein and her husband Edgar entertained the elite of New Orleans and the nation. “There is this wonderful sense of enclosure in the gardens at Longue Vue,” MacIver says, a touch of longing creeping into her voice. “It’s like a series of outdoor rooms, one after the other.” It’s the same at Matanzas Creek today. While some visitors head straight indoors to taste the wine, others find themselves lingering in one garden or another, inhaling aromas and drinking in vistas, lost in an outdoor room of their very own.

Thom Elkjer has been writing books, essays and articles about wine and the wine country for more than ten years, including features in Wine Spectator, Wine Country Living, and the James Beard Award-winning wine and food section of the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in the wine country with his wife, fine artist Antoinette von Grone.

Recommended Gardens in Napa and Sonoma

Wine Country Gardens

Benziger Family Winery
1882 London Ranch Rd.
Glen Ellen, CA

Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts
500 First Street
Napa, CA

Clos Pegase
1111 Dunaweal Lane
Calistoga, CA

Sterling Vineyards
1060 Dunaweal Lane
Calistoga, CA

8761 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA

Matanza's Creek Winery
6097 Bennett Valley Road
Santa Rosa, CA

1001 Westside Road
Healdsburg CA

23570 Arnold Drive
Sonoma, CA

1350 Acacia Drive
Oakville, CA


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