Caves de nos jours

Design byHugh Aldersey-Williams

A viticulturist's home is his chateau. Even on terroir where no chateau ever stood, one used to have to pretend. So it was that one of the emblems of California's wine country became a gothic mansion built by Berringer Brothers. But the symbolism is changing. A winery crawl round Napa Valley today provides an accidental synopsis of movements in modern architecture. Sterling Vineyards nods pointlessly to Le Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel. Robert Mondavi's massive winery is in the style of a Spanish mission. Michael Graves imported classicism from Tuscany - to which Napa bears only the faintest similarity - for Clos Pegase. Cordoniu, the Spanish-owned cava winery, is a kind of Aztec hilltop, abounding in geometric mystery and with water cascading in rivulets. It owes a little, but again not much, to the architecture of Carlo Scarpa. Opus One, an extravagant joint venture by Mondavi and Rothschild, occupies a postmodern palace. The wines must pay the architects' fees. A bottle of Opus One costs well over £100 in a restaurant.

The new Dominus winery, by the Swiss firm of Herzog and de Meuron, the architects of the Bankside Tate Gallery of Modern Art, is austere in comparison to the referent architecture of its neighbours. Indeed, it would be austere in comparison to many a prison. Its impact is on the other senses. The walls are made of the wire cages containing rocks used to embank alpine roads or make sea defences. This builds in a huge thermal mass-architectural jargon for the ability to absorb heat. Dominus is cool as a cathedral within.

There is a visual pay-off, too. The rocks are carefully graded. The larger ones with the bigger gaps between them are in the cages at the top of the walls; the smaller ones pack densely at the base. This means that sunlight filters through the upper levels, reducing their visual weight as surely as the placement of string courses round a classical villa.

None of this would look much on a label, though. New wineries present designers with a challenge in the absence of historic architecture, the use of which is in any case regarded as the French prerogative. Californian, Australian and New Zealand wine-makers - Anglophones all - want to be as different as possible.

There's plenty of scope. Compared to the packaging of most food and drink, the wine label is a haven of sanity, blessedly free of the clutter of ingredients, health warnings, things added and things taken away. It may not last. The rot has already started in the United States. First came the health warnings, one a blanket diatribe on the dangers of the grape, another more measured, aimed at pregnant women. Now, with research suggesting that modest quantities of wine may do less harm than good, the makers want to accentuate the positive. The labels may end up looking like transcripts from a debating society. Meanwhile, there is room to doodle.

Even the French have occasionally broken their own rules. Nicolas made good use of illustrators between the wars. Rothschild has commissioned Picasso, Miro and Warhol, among others, for its celebrated annual art labels. But this is tokenism, something for jours feries, not design for everyday. The use of "artwork" has now been devalued in Britain as wine consumption has grown and supermarkets have developed their own brands, asking large design groups to provide a marketable look. The result is a predictable style based on a riot of colour and an imprecision of line. The reeling, spluttering pens of Ralph Steadman and Ronald Searle have been busy in the field.

More sophisticated arrivals are taking a cooler approach. The up-and-coming Seresin vineyard, owned by Michael Seresin, a New Zealander who made his name as a film director and cameraman, has a design that is simply a wine-dark handprint laid gently on to each label. It was created by Mike Dempsey, whose work is familiar from posters for the English National Opera.

The chardonnay has an olive-green hand, the pinot noir a purple, and the dessert wine (a "sticky" in antipodean wine-speak) a caramel orange. (Similar thinking appears in the same designer's identity for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport unveiled last month). The idea came from a caveman's handprint, perhaps man's first tentative exploration of his potential for graphical creativity. Since Seresin's grapes are hand-picked (unlike those of the big Californian and Australian companies or the locally dominant Cloudy Bay) the motif seemed right. "I got him to give me a handprint and sign his name several times. I wanted the label to be very personal," says Dempsey. Seresin's print even appears on both ends of each cork.

Ah yes, the cork. The traditionalist French won't hear of anything else. But wine experts say plastic stoppers can do the job better. The synthetic corks come in bright colours, providing a further point of differentiation for New World wine makers. Some even drop the foil round the neck of the bottle so you can see them in all their glory. For faint-hearts, though, they also come in "cork-look" plastic.

Even wine merchants are becoming design buffs. John Armit, who distributes Seresin in Britain, produces catalogues that look like art monographs, quietly authoritative in Gill Sans. Pearce Marchbank, his designer, chose to focus on Armit's suppliers. One year each grower was asked for a favourite poem. Last year, they were made the subjects of "insightful, psychological portraits", says Armit, "not the usual wine thing of the Burgundian in his cellar". Not that Armit is above a bit of postmodern irony: a photograph of Pamela Anderson was used to promote "two fine Californians". Allowing for the odd moment of madness, these businessmen offer a delightful antidote to the market-researched big boys with their arbitrary art. "Both Pearce and I are individuals working for individuals," says Dempsey. It's a rare thing in the world of food and drink.