Premium Fit

The principles of green design dovetail almost  perfectly with the organic process of fine wine-making.

Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario

Client: David Feldberg
Interiors: Burdifilek
Architect: Les Andrew

At Stratus Vineyards, a boutique winery in the Niagara Peninsula region of southeastern Ontario, windmills turn slowly in the chilly November wind, pulling warm air onto the surrounding vines. It is one of the last days of harvesting, and half a dozen laborers are handpicking grapes that have been nurtured carefully for months. Inside, on the top floor of the cavernous production building, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes vibrate along two sorting tables; workers hover nearby, nimbly picking out any unsightly specimens before the fruit drops into one of the huge fermentation vats lining the building’s northern wall. After six weeks the wine will be drained into a nearby cellar, where it will age in French-oak barrels for at least two years. But even then the wine cannot merely be bottled. Stratus’s winemaker will conduct hundreds of blind tastings to find the perfect combination of ­varietals—as many as seven in a single wine—to produce Stratus’s signature red and white blends.

It is an exhaustive process, and David Feldberg—the winery’s president and founder—seems a little in awe of all the effort it took to get the operation to its current state. “A winery is not for the faint of heart,” he chuckles. In a dark gray suit and a navy shirt open at the collar, Feldberg looks less like a wine wonk than a corporate executive—which he is: since 1994 Feldberg has been president and CEO of the Toronto-based furniture behemoth Tek­nion. But Stratus is no mere vacation-home hobby. Since founding it in 2000, Feldberg has insisted on the best practices in premium wine-making: a low yield of high-quality fruit; handpicking and double hand-sorting; a gravity-flow system that eliminates pumping (which might bruise the wine’s flavors). “Everything we do in the vineyard is designed for quality,” he says. “The whole process, it’s all done in a caring and quality way.”

But while the focus was always on making the best wine, Feldberg’s ambitions for Stratus extended beyond the production floor. Thanks in part to the interest in environmentally friendly design sweeping through the furniture industry around the millennium, he committed to making the winery a model of green design. Canada’s LEED system was in its infancy as the project broke ground, and at Feldberg’s urging, Stratus’s architect, Les Andrew, seized the opportunity to use geothermal heating and cooling, maximum daylighting, local materials, storm-water management, and a host of other eco-building techniques. In 2005 Stratus became the first building to be LEED-certified by the Canada Green Building Council (it earned a Silver rating), and it is still the only LEED-certified winery in the world.

But the most noteworthy aspect of Stratus’s green building effort is not its success navigating the requirements of LEED. Rather, like one of the win­ery’s signature assemblages, Stratus successfully integrates disparate elements into a seamless whole. Instead of foisting green design onto the brief, Feldberg worked closely with his core team—Les Andrew; the interior designer, Diego Burdi; and Stratus’s winemaker, Jean-Laurent Groux—to ­create a building that would allow them to make the best possible wine and offer the best experience to surround and support the tasting (and selling) of that wine. And green design helped them do that.

From the beginning, the architecture was driven by the wine-making process. “It was a gravity winery, and there are height restrictions in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so we had to create the maximum height we could within the restrictions of the zoning,” Andrew explains. The resulting four-story, 18,500-square-foot box that houses the production facilities is also unusually large given Stratus’s relatively low annual yield. (It produces about 10,000 cases of wine a year; some of its neighbors produce ten times that amount.) But to circumvent pumping, the equipment itself had to be movable, and this required space. The destemming and sorting machine is on wheels so that grapes can be dropped directly into the fermentation vats (the only pieces of equipment that are immobile). And near the center of the building, elevator tanks carry the wine to the top of the building to facilitate continuous gravity-feeding.

Just as the form of the building was dictated by the wine-making, so too was the geothermal heating-and-cooling system tailored to Groux’s needs. “That is a great tool for a winemaker,” Groux says. “Because with the geothermal the same media is going to allow you to cool or to heat.” In fact, the ground-loop system—which is powered by 24 wells drilled to an average depth of 225 feet—is ideally suited to a winery. “In the late fall,” Andrew says, “when you’re actually processing wine, you need to warm the building but you need to cool the wine.” In the cellar, the French-oak barrels must be kept at a constant temperature of 57 degrees and 80 percent humidity. And if Groux needs to adjust the temperature, it’s a breeze. “It’s just a switch—you know, it’s on the computer,” Groux says. “I can even do it from home.”

Accommodating the wine-making process also saved Stratus from an early design direction that, in retrospect, could have been disastrous. Initially, Feldberg was interested in the sort of faux-château architecture that many North American wineries have swooned over. “The first winery we designed was a very château-looking winery, full of towers and marble,” Groux says. “But we couldn’t make super-premium wine the way we wanted in there.” So the team did a complete reverse, embracing a minimalist program that consists of basically two connected boxes, one for production and a smaller one for retail and tasting. The result is a much more elegant and functionalist solution than the turreted Francophilia seen elsewhere in the region.

The interior design followed suit, maintaining a certain austerity while adding luxurious touches. In the tasting rooms, unusual materials immediately capture the eye: walls of oiled end-grain mesquite in one room, a textured ceiling of engineered-wood planks in the other. The main retail space is airy and bright; windows connect visitors both to the vineyards outside and to the production floor. Here, as throughout, the wine is foremost. “We found that a lot of other wineries start becoming like variety stores, selling all this other stuff,” says Burdi, creative director of the Toronto-based firm Burdifilek. “And we just focused on the wine.” Indeed, the retail space houses an impressive stock of 7,200 bottles of wine, most of them contained within a central core of shelving that is almost sculptural in its arrangement. (Burdi says he was inspired by Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculptures.) “I wanted people to really feel good about the environment that they were tasting our wines in, and to come back,” Feldberg says. “And I wanted a sense of discovery about the whole wine-making process.”

Keeping wine tourists happy is certainly an important consideration, given the Niagara Peninsula’s burgeoning viticultural industry. Slate magazine’s wine columnist, Mike Steinberger, compares the region to Long Island and Oregon, other former oenological backwaters that are now enjoying huge leaps in wine quality and increasing international notice. “I think there is a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of optimism, about the region’s wine prospects,” he says. Ironically, the bright prospects of Stratus and its neighbors are thanks in part to global warming. “It’s unquestionably true that wine-making is becoming easier the farther north you go because of warmer growing seasons,” Steinberger says. (By the same token, global warming threatens to wreak havoc in traditional wine bastions such as Bordeaux.)

Still it’s hard to worry too much about looming climate change when you’re standing at Stratus’s marble tasting bar, sipping a flight of wines made from grapes grown among the neat rows of gnarled vines outside. The best wines are said to express terroir, or a “sense of place”; they should embody the particular characteristics of the geography, the growing conditions, and the wine-making process. At Stratus the wines are still too young to make grand claims about terroir. But the design of the winery has certainly succeeded in creating a sense of place: it suggests seriousness and a single-mindedness about its product. And it looks good. Smart design can’t guarantee quality wines, but in an industry where success is measured over decades, even generations, it seems an excellent start.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: January 2008

Recent Programs