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Wine in a Box

Azure – Christopher Hume –

If wine weren’t enough to attract visitors to the Niagara Region, now there’s something else: architecture.

First came the stunning Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate, completed in 2001 by Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects.  Now Stratus Vineyards has opened next door, designed by architect Les Andrew of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and the Toronto interior design firm Burdifilek.  Both frankly modern structure, Stratus and Jackson Triggs look to the future while avoiding cliches references to an imagined past.  That approach makes a lot of sense; after all, Ontario wines have only gained international recognition in the past decade or so.  Their best years could well lie ahead.

Daivid Feldberg, President and CEO of the office systems company Teknion, founded Stratus in 2000 with the aim of creating a small but distinct vineyard.  Stratus will never be as large as some of its competitors: it aims to produce just 10,000 cases of wine annually, compared with 10 times that at other Ontario wineries.  But that, too, is by design.  According to Stratus Director of Hospitality and Retail Suzanne Janke, “We’re a boutique winery.  The idea is to take winemaking in Niagara to the next level.”

That means enormous attention has been paid to detail.  Stratus prides itself on being one of a handful modern wineries to eschew mechanical pumps in ffavour of good old-fashioned gravity.  According to those sensitive to such nuances, allowing the fruit to be moved by nature rather than by machines means less bruising and better flavours.

Architecturally, Stratus is commited to the virtues of simplicity and sophistication.  But initially, clean lines and a modern look were nor what Feldberg had in mind.  The new winnery owner first approached Andrew with the idea of doing something closer to a faux chateau, the kind of architectural caricature already widespread in Niagara.  Though at first Andrew tried to accomodate Feldberg’s wishes, he made it clear he didn’t think a chateau was the right approach.  Not only would it cost more, it would make Stratus look ersatz.

“The client basically fired everyone from the project, then rehired me because I had told him the truth,” reports Andrew, who trained at Manchester Polytechnic in england and immigrated to Canada 1981.  “I told him the best thing would be to create a simple, elegant box with a kind of minimalist theme, nothing showoffy.”

As it turned out, Andrew was right.  From the outside, Stratus is a basic as a structure can be and still be considered architectural.  Clad in western red cedar siding, it avoids any hint of corporatism by going beyond the bare necessities of utility and entering the realm of aesthetics.  The walls reach a height of nearly 11 metres, punctuated with large swaths of glass that connect the building to the 22-hectare vineyard.

Though the cedar will silver with age, the other exterior colours don’t venture much beyond black and white.  Nothing interupts the outer surfaces save for a horizontal row of windows that extends along the main facade – a model of restraint.  The southern exterior faces the vineyard and offers a more domestic image.  A small stone terrace with a gas firepit serves as a gathering place, and large windows connect the indoors with out.  Inside, the building is divided among the winemaking facilities, the main display and tasting area, and two side rooms for private events.  Designed by Diego Burdi and Paul Filek, the space is intended to bring 21st-century flavour to wine tasting.

“We did a tour of the region,” Burdi explains, “and the retail looks like leftover government liquor stores.  i wanted to approach it differently, do something memorable, sex it up a bit.”  Well known for their redesign of Holt Renfrew’s flagship in Toronto, they keep things sleek and basic by using a pared-down palatte of black, white and grey.  The space is defined by elegant dark shelves that display Stratus’ discretionary wine selection, reaching almost to the ceiling double-height room.  Cool yet cozy, it feels like a library but without requirement for silence.  The hard surfaces of the shelves and white marble bar contrast with the whitewshed oak beams.  Clearly, this is a place of pleasure, informal but self-aware.

“The idea was to make a consistent design statement from the engineering o fthe winemaking operation to the labels on the bottles,” Feldberg days.  “Not only do we want to make great wine; we want to create an experience for the visitor.”  That kind of thinking led Feldberg to make Stratus as environmentally sensitive as possible.  “It’s a matter of responsibility,” he says.  The winery was designed to meet LEED Silver standards.

“LEED meant a hell of a lot of hard work,” Andrew admits.  “We were into construction before we decided to go for full-blown certification.  That raised the project costs by about 10%, but it was well worth the effort.  “We started by situating the winery on the footprint of existing buildings: a small house, a barn, a chicken coop and a Quonset hut,” he explains.  The hut was dismantled so the steel could be reused, straw bales were brought in to filter soil out of the runoff, and a retention pond was dug for overflow.  Twenty-four geothermal wells were also put in (each about 70 metres deep)  According to Andrew, they work beautifully for a winery, because there are times when the building needs to be heated but the fermentation area had to remain cool.

During construction, recycled reinforcing steel was bought from local suppliers, and every subcontractor was required to certify that they were not bringing any pressure-treated wood onto the site, since certain chemicals are known to cause corkiness in wine.  Smoking was even banned, which wasn’t easy.  “It’s an incredibly clean building, even clinical,” says Andrew.

Though Feldberg jokes that he went into the wine business “in a moment of insanity,” he has no regrets.  “I’ve always loved the Niagara Region,” he explains.  “I find the wine industry is passionate, and unlike most businesses the people are here to help one another.  It’s a lot of fun.  I think Niagara has the potential to become another Napa.”

That could signal some fine vintages ahead – definitely an accomplishment worth toasting.

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