Califonia Bountiful

Visual vintners

Mar./Apr. 2015 California Bountiful magazine

Winemakers present label art in tasting room galleries

Most of us will acknowledge that we sometimes select a wine because we are drawn to the label. Some wine labels are like small-scale pieces of art—and just as appealing. That's the concept embraced by the following three California winemakers, with wine-tasting rooms that serve double duty as galleries to showcase the artists and artistry behind their labels.

Darcie Kent is both a fourth-generation vintner and artist who creates wine labels and other original art on display in her winery's tasting room and gallery in Livermore.

Where palette meets palate:
Darcie Kent Vineyards Wine Gallery, Livermore

Purple décor highlights the blasts of colors on the walls and labels at the Darcie Kent Vineyards Wine Gallery in Alameda County. Here, visitors settle in for fine wine and views inside and out: The remodeled ranch house is a tasting room and art gallery, with front and back porches that overlook vineyards and a barn once owned by Bing Crosby.

"The majority of our customers come in—some bring picnic lunches—and hang out for several hours while they taste the wine and buy wines to drink," said Darcie Kent, both a fourth-generation artist and vintner. "It's a really relaxed atmosphere and much more like a wine bar than a tasting room."

Kent, husband David, and daughters Amanda and Kailyn opened the estate winery and vineyard in 2013, although Kent started her brand and winemaking in 1996. She carries on a family tradition that started with her great-grandfather: He came from Switzerland in 1875 and managed vineyards, made wine and painted his own wine labels, just as Kent does today.

This award-winning artist paints every label for her namesake vineyard's wine and also creates labels for other wineries. Kent's label for Mutt Lynch Winery's Unleashed Central Coast Chardonnay, for example, was selected as one of Forbes' "Coolest Wine Labels for 2014." Kent paints versions of her labels, along with other original works, to show and sell in her gallery.

"The art in the gallery focuses on local scenes of the Livermore Valley," Kent said, describing vineyard landscapes, portraits of animals, and views of Mt. Diablo and the Bay Area. Of melding her passion for art, business and heritage, she said, "It combines my love for art and painting with our love of wine."

Kent nods to the gallery as a way to "express the beauty of both the wines and the vineyards through sight, taste and smell."
"I want to express what's in the bottle and am very conscientious about the color choices," she said, explaining how she paints sauvignon blanc labels in purples and greens compared to chardonnay with pinks, yellows and purples, or cabernet and zinfandel in reds and other bold colors.

"I'm working with the temperatures of the paint as well as trying to express the beauty of the vineyard," she said, adding that Darcie Kent Vineyards has 45 acres of winegrapes planted and also acquires grapes from other local vineyards.

Charlie Spinetta and his late wife, Laura, started the family winery and wildlife art gallery in Amador County.

Art and agriculture:
Charles Spinetta Winery and Wildlife Art Gallery, Plymouth

It was a different start for Charlie Spinetta. A former forestry consultant and timber producer, Spinetta didn't initially purchase Amador County land to grow grapes, nor did he imagine himself an art dealer and gallery owner. But a decision in the 1970s "to put some vineyards" on his property's rolling hills and follow the winemaking footsteps of his grandfather evolved into a successful family winery—with a tasting room amid a two-story wildlife art gallery and a complete frame shop.

"There are so many people who, including myself, are scared to walk into an art gallery, and I own one and I've had it forever," Spinetta laughed. For that reason, his display of about 450 framed pieces begins upon entrance.

"People have no idea; they walk through that door, and they can't believe they are now in an art gallery," he said.

Always an outdoorsman, Spinetta looks back to a day of hunting in the 1980s with award-winning artist Joe Garcia, who offered to paint a game-bird wine label for the burgeoning Charles Spinetta Winery brand. Spinetta cancelled printing of a different label and instead began working with Garcia, whose illustration of a mountain quail remains on Spinetta's petite sirah.

Artist Sherrie Russell, with her own share of credits and awards, soon began painting for Spinetta, and today Russell's and Garcia's art—from quail to owl to duck to deer to swan and more—adorns Spinetta Winery's range of varietals, such as barbera, zinfandel, muscat and its original "Zinetta" blend.

These artists' labels and art pieces, along with works by other artists, also dress the walls throughout the first-floor tasting area and second-floor exhibit hall. 

"The gallery became a very major part of our business because we have these neat labels," Spinetta said. 

He said the gallery was a passion of his late wife, Laura, and together they created a family legacy that he and his three sons Jim, Tony and Michael, continue today. In addition to buying, selling, framing and displaying art—plus growing 75 acres of grapes and making estate wines—the Spinetta family sponsors an annual student wildlife-art contest and supports art-and-agriculture educational efforts.

Art and wine are alike in many respects, Spinetta said, adding, "I make sweet wines and that's almost a sin. But it doesn't matter what it is, you've got to like it. At the end of the day, don't worry about the artist or the name on it; it's got to make you happy."

Joe Benziger created one of his wine labels, although he traditionally commissions custom art for each vintage. Photo courtesy of Imagery Estate Winery.

The art of fine wine:
Imagery Estate Winery, Glen Ellen

Similar to the launch of Spinetta Winery's label art, where winemaker meets artist, Imagery Estate Winery owner Joe Benziger had a chance encounter with renowned artist Bob Nugent in 1985. Imagery Estate was Benziger's vision for developing small, experimental batches of select wines in Sonoma County.

He and Nugent eventually discussed a chardonnay that had sparked Benziger's imagination for a custom wine label, and Nugent painted a unique image called "Vine Triptych." Segmented for three labels, it creates one visual piece when the bottles are placed in a row.

As Benziger explored with more varietals, Nugent enlisted fellow artists and soon, Imagery Estate was commissioning custom-art labels for each vintage. One of the first artists was Timothy McDowell, who painted views from the Benziger Family Ranch, including its hillside replica of the Parthenon. Through the years, that image has remained the one requirement for the art, and today Benziger receives some 300 requests annually for an opportunity to create an Imagery Estate wine label.

"Other than that, the artists who are selected have complete freedom on the label," Benziger said. "And if they are chosen, their art is on the label no matter what." It's his way of pushing creativity to the edge with virtually no limits, he said.

The original artwork is retired after its use on a specific vintage and added to Imagery Estate's collection, which now comprises more than 400 pieces crafted by about 250 artists. The collection is quite valuable and not for sale; instead, 120 pieces are displayed throughout the tasting room and rotated every month for all to enjoy. The art itself blends modern with classic and ranges from abstract to realistic, with subdued to vibrant color schemes.

Such diversity also characterizes Imagery Estate's wines, which include both traditional and nontraditional varietals and blends. Benziger describes growing 11 types of grapes—including white burgundy, malbec, barbera and sangiovese, to name a few—on 30 acres in the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak appellation in the Alexander Valley at elevations of 2,600 to 2,800 feet.

"These varieties really like those conditions up there," he said. From those grapes, Benziger produces 500 to 2,000 cases of each vintage. 

"We attract those who are not scared away even though it's not just the traditional varieties," Benziger said. "I think they appreciate tasting new things and discovering new wines, and they love the contemporary art and feel of the place."

Joyce Mansfield 

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