"A Reality Dream"
Winery Lake and the di Rosa Collection
Essay by Tessa Decarlo
From Local Color: The Di Rosa Collection of Contemporary California Art by Rene di Rosa. ©1999
“ Art is a reality dream that carries the viewer into an expanded world created jointly by the artist and the beholder.”
When Rene di Rosa first saw the property that today houses the di Rosa Preserve, it was a working farm in an area so rural that regular phone service had replaced privately operated crank-box “ farm lines” only a few years before. Cattle ranged the hillsides, while the fields below were planted with oats and barley. What is today a large lake was then a small pond that provided water to irrigate the fields. The old stone barn that later became di Rosa’s art-filled home was used for storing grain and, occasionally, grinding it into meal using a small mill powered by a tractor motor.
Rene with "Seated Woman with Vase," Viola Frey. Photo by Sybilla Herbrich.
In the decades after he brought the property in 1960, di Rosa transformed this rolling farmland into a kind of earthly paradise, a paradise built along the lines of his own whimsical and extravagant nature and consecrated to his own appetite for company, conversation, and, above all, visual beauty. But if the estate he called Winery Lake is a deeply personal creation, it has always had an extraordinarily ambitious public aspect as well. For on these acres di Rosa brought into being two grand enterprises: first, one of the world’s most highly regarded vineyards, and second, a nature preserve of spectacular beauty housing the world’s most extensive collection of the art of Northern California.
Like the region it celebrates, like the art that fills its indoor spaces and spreads across its hills, like the man who created it, the di Rosa Preserve embraces the clash of public and private, nature and artifice, ego and altruism, cool distance and deep feeling, low humor and high seriousness, seeking in the intersection of opposites what is most dynamic, satisfying, and real. “Give me slashing colors, and I will need a peaceful blending,” di Rosa wrote in one of the leaflets he hands out to visitors. “Offer me sweet coloration, then, please, stir me to the strife of life. Yes, awaken me to the yin and yang of living, as reflected in art that mirrors life – my life, my very own life. “
I. EARLY YEARS
Di Rosa’s own life embodies that clash of opposites, for this dedicated grape farmer and champion of Northern California had a quintessentially urban and East Coast background. His mother was an heiress from St. Louis, his father an aristocratic Italian who served as that nation’s consul general in Boston, where Rene di Rosa was born in 1919. The marriage did not last, but both parents remained close to Rene, their only child, who early on displayed a zest for making grand gestures and cocking a snoot at convention. He arrived at Yale with a string of polo ponies, recalled novelist John Leggett, his college roommate, and made what may have been his first art purchase at the university’s art school, where he commissioned a student to paint a female nude to hang in his room. The finished picture “had one of the ugliest, coarsest faces I’d ever seen,” Leggett reported, “but full-on bare breasts and genitalia. Needless to say, all our fellow undergraduates crowded into the room for a look.” In response, di Rosa went out and bought several foxtails of the sort that boys put on their bicycle handlebars. “He affixed these fox-tails to the picture’s strategic areas,” Leggett said, “and announced that the people who wanted to look underneath had to pay a fee.”
After graduating in 1942 and serving in the Navy, di Rosa returned to the East Coast, determined to become a writer. He managed to publish a few short stories (one, in a small men’s magazine, concerned the amorous exploits of two wine salesmen), but what he has sardonically called “my Great American Novel” eluded him, In the late 1940s he moved to Paris’s Left Bank in pursuit of inspiration, although his novel refused to get written, he encountered there an artistic bohemia that deeply impressed him. It was also in Paris that he made his first serious art acquisition, a painting of a green nude with bright red lips that now hangs in the Preserve offices.1
Not long afterward di Rosa abandoned Paris and his novel and relocated to San Francisco to take a job as a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, then one of four daily newspapers in the city. He lived near the Co-Existence Bagel Shop and frequented the City Lights Bookstore and other proto-Beat hangouts. “But I didn’t really connect with the bohemia I was seeking, the artists in revolt,” he said many years later.
By the end of the 1950s di Rosa was feeling rootless and purposeless. His first marriage had broken up and he had decided that journalism was not his calling. The death of his father left him with a small inheritance, and he decided to use it to escape what he called “the fleshpots of San Francisco.” “I wished to investigate an existence closer to Mother Nature and Father Soil,” he later wrote. “I searched and searched for real farmland.” What he found, and bought in 1960, was the ranch that became Winery Lake.
II. RENE PLANTS ROOTS
The region known as the Carneros, after the sheep that once grazed there, runs across the southern end of Napa and Sonoma Counties, edging the northern end of the San Francisco Bay. Today it is one of the best-known appellations in California’s wine country, but when di Rosa first ventured there the area’s rolling hills and gentle valleys were given over to cattle, prune orchards, hay, and grain.
There were vineyards in the area’s past, however. In 1855 William Winter bought a ranch carved out of the huge Rancho Huichica land grant and planted seventy acres of grapes. (He planted olive trees as well, quite likely including the venerable olives at the di Rosa Preserve.) In 1884 the property was purchased by two Frenchmen, Michael Debret and Pierre Priet, who renamed it Debret Vineyard and built a large stone winery in 1886.
But the phylloxera root louse that destroyed most of Europe’s
vines as the nineteenth century wound to a close also devastated
the vineyards in California, including Debret’s. The land passed
into other hands, and grapes were replaced by prunes, tomatoes,
and grain. During the Prohibition
era the owners kept a few cows for show but secretly hauled
grapes to the old winery and produced “moonshine” brandy,
reportedly of very high quality. Later the stone building
was used to grow mushrooms
and then became a granary.
He embarked on an energetic program of reconditioning the ranch’s soils and planting high-quality wine varietals most likely to do well in the Bay Area. He traveled to the nearby University of California, Davis, a world leader in viticultural research, to study modern grape-growing techniques. He expanded the pond to a thirty-acre lake and used the dark topsoil from the pond bottom to enrich the soils of his hillside vineyards. He turned the old stone winery into an imposing house and named the estate Winery Lake.
From the beginning he touted the virtues of the Carneros, and Winery Lake in particular, as a source for outstanding wine grapes. His fondness for showing up at fusty Napa Valley wine events wearing overalls, oversized bow ties, billed caps emblazoned with comical mottos, and sometimes even a gorilla suit fed his reputation as a man willing to flout conventional wisdom, while the quality of his grapes convinced even the skeptics. Winery Lake became one of the first California vineyards prestigious enough to appear on a wine label, and before long di Rosa was able to command some of the highest prices ever paid for California grapes.
III. ART AND GRAPES
Although he took his new career very seriously, di Rosa often grew bored during the lectures on viticulture at UC Davis. “I resented the science surrounding what I had thought would be a dig-a-hole-plant-a-vine exercise, and I found myself wandering off to the art department,” he later wrote. As it happened, Davis’s art division was a hotbed of emerging talent: among the instructors there in the early 1960s were Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Manuel Neri, and William T. Wiley. What particularly appealed to di Rosa was the young artists’ exuberant sense of humor. “It’s one thing to view an artwork and weep,” he wrote later. “It was another, and for me a new sensation, to see a picture that (provoked) a teary feeling, except that here a smile, a chuckle, or a laugh moistened the eye.
“I didn’t have the money to collect established artists, but I took satisfaction in helping artists who were then unknown,” he recalled. “I wanted to help them become the artist I had failed to become.”
Just as di Rosa was one of the first to plant grapes in the Carneros in the 1960s, and a winemaker in the forefront of the Napa Valley wine renaissance of that era, he was also one of only a handful of Bay Area collectors who were then buying work by local artists. In fact, di Rosa became a sort of reverse chauvinist, swimming against the trend of western collectors seeking validation from back East. “Wealthy museum trustees, influenced by their museums’ curators, travel to New York to acquire approved art, while many rich New Yorkers still fly to Europe for art,” he wrote. “This attitude long ago aroused my desire to support our neighbors, the creative underdogs.” Northern California art created in the second half of the twentieth century has remained the focus of his collecting ever since.
Although di Rosa may have failed as a novelist, he was creating a masterpiece of another sort at Winery Lake. He added a stone tower to the house and in it installed a huge church bell he picked up at a warehouse sale of odds and ends that William Randolph Hearst hadn’t gotten around to using for his castle at San Simeon. He introduced flocks of peacocks and geese and built an island in the middle of the lake, complete with palm trees. In addition to filling the house with art reflecting his own antic sensibility, di Rosa commissioned sculptures for the gardens and fields all around it. The artists themselves were brought to Winery Lake too, for dinners, picnics, and parties where the host often challenged his guests to discuss everything from the meaning of a particular piece of art to the nature of existence. “There was always plenty of wine and good food and conversation,” recalled Jim Melchert, who created the first site-specific work on the estate in 1965. “I had the impression that Rene wanted to make a place that was a paradise – a wonderful place for people to come and gather.”
IV. THE PRESERVE
During the 1980s di Rosa found that art was commanding more and more of his attention, while his enthusiasm for the day-to-day business of grape farming was waning. By that time he was married to his third wife, Veronica, a Canadian-born painter and sculptor. She shared his passion for art, entertaining, and Winery Lake, and the couple continued to add works by old friends and new discoveries to their house and grounds. In 1982 they created the Rene & Veronica di Rosa Foundation with thoughts of someday making their home into an art and nature preserve.
Then in 1986 Seagram’s, owners of Sterling Vineyards at the northern end of the Napa Valley, offered to buy di Rosa’s vineyards, a total of about two hundred thirty acres, for a price that reflected Winery Lake’s immense wine-world cachet. The di Rosas retained two hundred seventeen acres, fifty-three of which now make up the Preserve, including the house and lake. What had been a dream for the distant future was now a real-world possibility.
Their plans had to take into account Napa County’s strict prohibitions against building nonagricultural facilities on farmland – safeguards that the di Rosas themselves campaigned for. But supporters of the di Rosas’ “art park” noted the importance of the site as a wildlife preserve, home to over a hundred species of herons, coots, terns, owls, woodpeckers, and other birds. In addition, the significance of the di Rosa collection drew endorsements from museum directors all over the United States for a project that David Ross, then-director of the Whitney Museum in New York, called “a great treasure for all of us who love and are concerned about the future of American art.”
In 1991, in the midst of the planning process, Veronica di Rosa died in a tragic hiking accident while the couple was vacationing in France. The project then became a memorial to her as well, and Rene di Rosa pursued the project with even greater energy. He allayed concerns about possible impacts on area agriculture by strictly limiting the number of visitors to the Preserve and granting permanent open-space easements on the property to the Napa County Land Trust. County officials unanimously approved the project in late 1992.
Since the collection had vastly outgrown the di Rosas’ home, plans for the Preserve included construction of two large galleries and a tunnel-cum-chapel between the house and the second gallery, designed around Paul Kos’s Chartres Bleu. But by the time the di Rosa Preserve: Art and Nature opened its doors in the spring of 1997, di Rosa’s collecting had outstripped the new facilities as well. The flyers2 he periodically hands out to visitors must be continually updated to reflect the collection’s ever-rising total, and new pieces (many young artists, some the first works they’ve ever sold) are constantly appearing in the Preserve’s galleries, gardens, and sculpture meadow.
Far from losing its personal character in the transition from private home to public art venue, the di Rosa Preserve remains as idiosyncratic as its founder. The house is still filled with memorabilia of Rene and Veronica di Rosa’s lives there, and their friendships with many of the artists they collected. The lack of identifying labels on the artworks in the Preserve is another reflection of the collector’s defiantly anticonventional spirit. “This began with going to museums and watching people glance at the painting and go up and study the wall label,” di Rosa explained. “Without wall tags to read, people have to really look at the art.”
Where most collectors would have flattered themselves by presenting only the best-known artists and most valuable pieces, di Rosa, who boasts he has never sold a work of art, has put the entire collection on view (or at least as much of it as there is room for), from outstanding works by world-famous artists to efforts by fledgling unknowns.
“This collection is an artifact in itself, and an adventure in self-discovery rather than connoisseurship, investment gamesmanship, scholarship, or any of those ‘-ships’ that sail from some port other than the heart,” explained di Rosa’s longtime curator, Richard Reisman3. “People can feel the passion that lies behind this place, because it’s not just the artists’ passion but Rene’s.”
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