Cycling Sonoma and Designing Sustainable Wineries


With news that Sonoma County intends to become the first 100% sustainable wine region in the world, it seems only fitting that we explore it by bike. moss visited the region to explore some of the current sustainable practices and taste some of the wine, of course. This sparked some thoughts about how design and layout of winery buildings (something curiously left off the Sonoma County plan) can further the mission.


I first had to get our loaner bike for the day. Spoke Folk Cyclery is housed in a sweet Quanset hut just south of downtown Healdsburg, they set me up with a familiar Specialized road bike. Off to Dry Creek.

First stop was Quivira Vineyards & Winery where they subscribe to biodynamic growing and an understanding of the vineyard eco-system. The wine should be a part of the habitat, they say, not a monoculture. The main intent of biodynamic practice is to have the heaviest soil possible. Celebrating the land, or terrior, helps to create the best fruit for the wine. The practices extend beyond the grapes to the chicken coop, compost piles, and vegetable garden. And they don’t stop there. As some of the more evangelical biodynamic farms do, Quivira buries the bull horn. Refreshingly, Quivira sees themselves as farmers, and not just makers. The key to great wine is a great grape which can only exist in the healthiest of soils.

TASTING NOTES: While I enjoyed the premier grape of the winery, Zinfindel, I was partial to the spiced earthiness and ripe plum of the Mourvedre.

winery tour collage 1

After a 250′ gain up Canyon Road towards the north end of Dry Creek, on to Ridge Winery.  The highlight at Ridge, aside from the Petite Syrah ‘Lytton Estate’ (notes of vanilla, orange, currant), was their strawbale winery building.

Much like our Borrego Springs project, the strawbale walls are merely infill, but produce an R-40 insulation value with what would normally be an agricultural waste product. Straw bale can be used in practically any climate (the oldest known standing structure in Nebraska is over 100 years old), but seems to be at its best in the dry heat of California. The building was oriented to take advantage of the even northern light and was shaded on the south by a 15′ deep overhang which acted as a beautiful tasting terrace overlooking the hundred year-old vines.

TASTING NOTES:  Loved the sweetness of cherry with some licorice of the Carignane. Paired well with my warm fig bar.
winery tour collage 3

All this drinking required a snack stop at the Dry Creek General Store. While most people were taking things to-go for winery picnics, we ate on the charming veranda overlooking the vine-planted hills. The general store looks of another era, probably because it was built many eras ago. 1881 to be exact, when it was a true general store like the many that dotted the western frontier. The store, now owned by Gino Gallo (yes, those Gallo’s), has an adequate food menu featuring many local ingredients, lots of cookbooks, and other trinkets that aren’t particularly about Sonoma. But that didn’t stop us from buying some fun little glass pigs. All that said, Dry Creek did have quite the environmental issue in 2010 when the Northern California River Watch sued Gallo and the store for polluting the Russian River due to a shoddy septic system. The case was settled in 2010 for $10,000 and remediation of the poor plumbing.

This brings us the Sonoma’s, and all of California’s #1 problem; water. California has been surviving on borrowed time ever since Mullholland turned on the tap in 1913. All buildings, but especially wineries which are typically located on rural land, can be designed to control the flow of rainwater and lessen the need for irrigation.  Instead of constructing a building in a landscape, we can construct a structure that IS the eco-system.

winery tour collage 2


– Just like any building, the structure should not supplant nature, but be a part of it. This means creating an interaction between the landscape and the building. Vegetated roofs are a good start and a great way to keep stormwater on site, however, the rest of the building must also act like a tree. The roof’s overhang can perform the function of a tree’s leaves by shading the openings and ground below. The building facade can also be designed to funnel water to a specific location for easy collection. Lastly, the building should do its part to attract beneficial wildlife to the site. Even acting as a trap crop for grape-nibbling birds.

– Introduce companion plants, preferably drought tolerant perennials, to the landscape of the vineyard. Interrupt the monoculture of the grapes by planting where stormwater runoff can be minimized.

– Typically buildings are constructed above the ground plane, but given the rolling topography of Sonoma County, parts of the winery can easily be earth sheltered or constructed partially below grade. The earth is the best, and free, insulator we have available. The amount of mechanical cooling can be reduced, or eliminated altogether, by locating the winery’s fermenters below grade. The practice of earth sheltering the fermentation process has been used for centuries in Loire Valley, France among other places.

winery tour collage 4

– Along the lines of the point above, rely on passive design strategies not just technological innovations. High efficiency conditioning systems and photovoltaic arrays are great, but they are expensive. And especially expensive when they are used in place of passive and smart design practices. It would be much less expensive to design a properly situated and tight envelope building first, and then add a smaller amount of gadgets to make up the gap and achieve net-zero.

– Ensure that the visiting public can interact with the farming practices. At several wineries I’ve visited the public space and entry sequence are separate from the vineyard. However, the building and exterior areas should create interactions with the grapes. Think about how the public enters the site and their path from there to the building.

bike on canyon road