An hour and change drive from San Francisco, you will find the the home of the crown jewel of American winemaking, Napa Valley. The unique mixture of climate and landscape has been an ideal place to grow grapes for hundreds of years. Early European immigrants started the winemaking industry only for it to fall on its knees due to Phylloxera, a pest/parasite that eats vines. Then a one-two punch of Prohibition and the Great Depression almost completely wiped out the industry. Only after World War II did a few entrepreneurs take advantage of the unique area and again begin to cultivate the land for its incredible winemaking potential.

Fast forward to 2019, Napa and its winemaking industry has grown tremendously. Tour buses now frequent the once empty, dusty sunbaked country roads that cut through Napa vineyard plots. However, there still are nooks and crannies of Napa that have maintained their laid back bohemian charm.

Portrait of Howard Backen - Adsum
Howard Backen

A man that encapsulates the Napa that we love is architect Howard J. Backen. A man described as a, “tall, boyish-faced, sandy-and-white haired architect who has an unassuming manner, a ready laugh, and prefers jeans and plaid flannel shirts to all-black designer attire.” Howard J. Backen's interest in Architecture started at the age of five, after moving to a rural town in Oregon. Sifting through his uncle's drawings, he sparked an interest that stayed with him and eventually led him to enroll in a Bachelor of Architecture program at the University of Oregon. Before starting his firm Backen, Gillam and Kroeger, he created the architecture firm Backen, Arrigoni and Ross (BAR), which operated out of San Francisco for 35 years. BAR's work can be found in the entertainment industry leading design on the Disney Sound Studios and the MGM Studios theme park. Backen's work at BAR transcended into many Architectural mediums including, Student housing at Stanford, The Delancey Street Foundation Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco, and spearheading architectural design for a new store at the time called Pottery Barn.

From the Land - Adsum

In the Rizzoli produced 2013 publication From the Land: The Architecture of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger, their residential and commercial works are highlighted in a beautiful full bleed coffee table book. Their work shaped some the most revered wineries in the entire Napa Valley. As mentioned in the foreword by Diane Keaton, many of the builds are not less is more. Doors functions as frames, and blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor. The book details with deep consideration how Backen takes spaces and transforms them into architectural masterpieces.

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Edge Hill Winery

A few highlights from the book include Harlan Winery, Stags Leap Residence, and the Ovid Estate Winery. Building what Howard deemed, right for the weather, site and region, the Harlan Winery was supposed to be a juxtaposition to the grandiose wineries that were being built at the time. It was all about building the “biggest and fanciest monuments” when Howard and Harlan owner Bill Harlan set out to build the winery. Their creation of salvaged wood and stone mimics a monastery and blurs feelings of being indoor or outdoor. Buildings mesh seamlessly with the environment instead of standing out. Flipping through pictures of the Stags Leap residence, you get a feel for how much thought Howard puts into the who, what and why of every build. It’s mentioned if Gandalf from Lord of the Rings had a house in Napa, Stags Leap residence would be it.