From a lively festival to many lovely paintings, there's more to this wine country than meets the tastebuds.
By LAURIE M. FISHER
California wine country overflows with as much artistic diversity as varieties of grapes in the vineyards.
Stunning architecture, a plethora of art galleries, scattered public sculptures and carefully designed culinary presentations make a visit to Sonoma and Napa counties as pleasing to the eye as the palate.
One annual festival that brings blends the culinary, visual and performing arts is the Sonoma Salute to the Arts.
This year's kick-off event theme was & quot;Life is a Cabernet, & quot; an appropriate play on words for a wine country charity soiree. The event, held at the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, attracted more than 400 locals and tourists eager to sip wine, sample cuisine and enjoy an assortment of entertainment.
Grand greeting: A gorilla in a pink tutu greeted guests as they were handed a wine glass and plate. Strolling down a shaded walkway, visitors could sample and compare the nectar from more than 25 wineries represented at the event. Culinary offerings ranged from specialty sausages and wild boar stew to fresh tomatoes, basil and mozzarella cheese drizzled with virgin olive oil. Lovers of sweets combined dessert wines with chocolate truffles, amaretto biscotti or lemon mousse tarts.
Between tastings, the crowd bid on paintings, photographs or sculpture displayed in white tents in front of the winery. Meanwhile, one entertainer, dressed in half a tux and the other half an evening gown (think Victor/Victoria) pranced through the party.
A Liza Minnelli impersonator, flown in from New York for the occasion, belted out soulful ballads. A few yards down, a male and female aerialist swung through suspended hoops and flowing ribbons. The skillful gymnastic choreography made onlookers' jaws drop more than a few times.
Festival: The next day Sonoma Square, an 8-acre tree-shaded plaza, filled for a two-day fair. Wine, microbreweries and restaurants joined artists selling their wares. Performers entertained with music, dance and theater on several open-air stages. Exhibitors sold pottery, jewelry, photography, sculpture and paintings.
For those who seek a more intimate mix of wine and artistry, visit Artesa or the Hess Collection wineries in Napa Valley. The art of wine making is taken to another level.
Designed by Barcelona architect Domingo Triay and executed by Napa Valley architect Earl Bouligny, Artesa winery is built into the hills of an 352-acre estate overlooking the Carneros region of the valley.
A winding driveway leads through the vineyards, past manicured gardens and fountains into the entryway. A circular pulsating fountain is surrounded by a metal sculpture.
The combination of man-made art provides a picturesque foreground to the valley of vineyards in the distance. Visitors climb up a staircase of cascading waterfalls to yet an another panoramic view. When the haze lifts, guests may see the distant San Francisco bay.
Artesa means craftsman in Catalan, the language of Barcelona and the owners of the winery. Inside the visitors center, the craftsmanship of artist in residence Gordon Heuther intrigues the visual senses while the wine enhances the experience.
The founding principal in an architectural glass design firm, Heuther creates site-specific installations. At Artesa, Huether constructed works using glass, metal and canvas. Visitors can peer through the many round glass lenses in one work and discover a different perspective of a large bronze sculpture of a Madonna and child that stands in front of an inner courtyard reflecting pool. The sculpture, by Spanish artist Marcel Marti is a reproduction. The original resides in the Rondel Cellars in Spain.
Blending styles: The Hess Collection combines historic stone architecture with a large modern painting collection. Built in 1903 out of limestone quarried from surrounding land, the facility was established as a winery. It reopened as the Hess Collection in 1989.
Next to the wine tasting room, a glass elevator lifts visitors to the second floor lobby. Guests can take a self-guided tour through the second and third floor galleries which house 143 contemporary pieces by well-known artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell among others.
Many of the pieces are comments on society and tend to evoke responses from those trying to interpret the art. For example, a red-orange fiber art wall hanging that resembles a primitive shield is positioned next to a three-dimensional sculpture installation of burlap headless bodies, entitled & quot;Crowd. & quot;
Another three-dimensional sculpture employs modern technology to project the video image of visitors onto a television screen. A close look reveals that a doll's eyes enclosed in the plastic case hide the lens of the video camera.
Not to forget the primary purpose of the building, huge glass windows over the winery bottling line give tourists a peek at the art of the wine-making process.
Hess Collection is at the end of a long winding road, off the main thoroughfare Route 29 that is home to many of the wineries in Napa. The art alone is worth the drive.