Dunne on Wine

Sage Architecture: The go-to designers for wineries in the foothills

Paul Almond and Pam Whitehead of Sage Architecture Inc. have designed several wineries in the Mother Lode.
Paul Almond and Pam Whitehead of Sage Architecture Inc. have designed several wineries in the Mother Lode. Special to The Bee

Aside from planting a vineyard, the start of a winery in the Sierra foothills often involves converting basement, garage or barn into a crushing, fermenting, bottling and barrel facility. A more fanciful and spacious structure can come later, when the wines sell – so goes the frequent reasoning.

In recent years, however, aspiring vintners with the means and a fixed vision of where they want to go with their dream have been appointing the knolls and slopes of the Mother Lode with smart and fully realized wineries right from the beginning.

For several vintners, the go-to architects have been Pam Whitehead and Paul Almond of Sage Architecture Inc. in Sacramento.

Drive through Shenandoah Valley in Amador County, for one, and you can’t miss the soaring steel and glass of Andis Wines emerging from the top of a hill looking like a wedge-shaped art museum.

A little farther to the north, on the opposite side of Shenandoah Road, is Helwig Winery, perched on a hill like a small subdivision, four clustered buildings that seamlessly blend elements of the modern and the rustic.

And still farther to the northeast is the snazzily restyled tasting room of Renwood Winery along Steiner Road.

Other winery projects moving from the offices of Sage Architecture to the dirt of Northern California include a new tasting room for Iron Hub Winery in Shenandoah Valley, a resortlike complex for Starfield Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County and another multifaceted design for Heringer Estates in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta.

Whitehead and Almond form an energetic and talkative couple. He’s wiry and intense, chipper and quick. She’s tall and fit, and just slightly more reserved in delivery.

They’ve been a team for 25 years, working together at another firm before founding Sage Architecture 15 years ago. Whitehead, a native of Massachusetts, earned her master’s degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota. Almond, a native of Sussex, England, also earned his architectural degree at the University of Minnesota. They met on campus, then split for warmer California, and particularly Sacramento, with its active construction scene.

“Before we started our firm we’d worked together on the same projects for 10 years,” Whitehead says. “We found that our skill sets are very complementary, and that we had a level of trust.”

“So we got married,” Almond adds.

To walk into their tidy and bright office, tucked into a commercial grove between Howe Avenue and the American River southeast of Cal Expo, is to be struck by how quiet the place is. They have no employees. They do virtually everything themselves, including taking several of the photos of their projects that hang on the walls and the dozens of models that line shelves.

“We work 5 feet from each other all day, talking specifically about projects,” Almond says.

He explains why they go without partners and assistants: “We don’t want our attention distracted from our work.”

Their division of labor runs more or less with Almond taking care of overall design while Whitehead addresses a project’s details and handles the operational side of the business. He talks of design as if he were a sculptor, shaping and tailoring a project to accommodate a client’s desires. He builds all the models that he feels are critical for a client to grasp the essence of a project before construction starts.

Much of their time has been spent on residences, and one of their homes served as an introduction to the wine trade. They designed a hilltop house with a strikingly original, sweepingly curved roofline for grape grower Ann Kraemer in her vineyard off Shake Ridge Road east of Sutter Creek.

Not long after, Andy Friedlander, a commercial real estate developer from Honolulu who was scouting the Sierra foothills for a potential vineyard and winery site, visited Kraemer, liked her home and asked about her architect.

That led him to Sage Architecture. He retained Whitehead and Almond to design what would become his Andis Wines in 2010.

Friedlander is delighted with his winery. “We love the building. It’s a landmark building, and it meets our green expectations,” he says. “They are imaginative, creative and into sustainability. I’ve had no problem recommending them.”

The work to design a winery differs from the couple’s customary residential assignment in part because a winery is both a production facility and retail outlet. Vintners tend to be concerned with both the efficiency of their cellar and the aesthetic impression the winery gives visitors to the tasting room, they’ve found.

“We can’t go into a new project with assumptions that we know everything,” Whitehead says. “Every winery owner and tasting-room manager does things differently.”

To get a grip on a vintner’s architectural goals, they’ve developed an extensive questionnaire that addresses not only technical matters but the character and hopes of the principals. They want to know who is going to be doing what, and how. They ask how the owner wants visitors to feel as they enter the building. “Every winery owner has his priorities and quirks,” Almond says.

For a project that might take two years of design, the first six to eight months are apt to be spent talking and touring wineries, vineyards, tasting rooms and wine caves with the principals. The more details that can be resolved early, the less likely there’ll be changes once a project gets underway physically, they believe. “We’ll be talking about the size of a sink before we start a design,” Whitehead says.

Not that spontaneous alterations won’t happen along the way. The Helwig project, for one, called for caves to be excavated in the hill below the buildings. While that was underway, the dirt that was being removed was dumped along the edge of the site, suggesting the slopes of an amphitheater.

Almond recalled that owner David Helwig remarked early on in their deliberations that he wanted a winery where guests would like to “hang out,” so Almond suggested adding an amphitheater to the grounds. “Absolutely,” Helwig responded.

Today, the Helwig amphitheater hosts weddings, summer concerts and other special events. That includes Triumph Uncorked, a fundraiser for the Triumph Cancer Foundation, a fitness program started by Whitehead for cancer survivors.

Each winery the couple designs uniquely represents the owner’s values and aspirations, but Sage structures tend to share several aesthetics – expansive views of the surrounding vineyards, sunny tasting rooms and energy conservation.

“Some architects are chosen for their style, and while most of our work involves a modern aesthetic, it isn’t always the same; it’s an interpretation of each client,” Whitehead says.

“Each project represents our ability to listen, so it will reflect an owner’s character. That’s part of architecture’s mission,” Almond adds.

Still, a Sage-designed winery isn’t likely to be credited by mistake to another architectural firm, if for no other reason than the couple’s signature fondness for towering windows, expansive views and roofs that rise and stretch. Their sweeping and projecting roofs are meant to help shade a tasting room in summer and bathe it with warmth in winter, as well as open up the view. “We want roofs lifting up and out of the way of what you are looking at,” Almond says.

They chose the name “Sage” for several reasons, other than agreeing that they didn’t want to use their own names for the firm.

“We just like the sound of the word,” he says.

She finishes: “We wanted a name to represent thoughtfulness, to be thought-provoking, and because sage is a plant to show our interest in green construction.”

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.