Combining the Beauty of Nature and Art

Napa Valley is full of impressive art at wineries, public spaces, galleries, and resorts, but nothing compares to the collection at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art in Carneros. And there’s no better way to appreciate it than a guided hike on its 217 acres among its expansive outdoor sculpture galleries.

The legacy of the late Rene di Rosa and his late wife, artist Veronica, the center lies on one of the first large vineyards in Carneros. Di Rosa bought 465 acres in 1960 and planted it when most wineries were skeptical of growing grapes in the relatively cool area. Since then, the region has proven itself perfect for grapes that produce sparkling wine, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

Rene di Rosa (1919-2010) was a writer and a passionate collector of contemporary art. His vineyards let him create a world-class collection of art from Northern California. He and Veronica (1934–1991) used the proceeds from the sale of his vine- yards to build an “art park” for the greater public to access and enjoy.

The property encompasses an extensive gallery and visitor center by the 35-acre Winery Lake, once a small pond for irrigation. This gallery itself is worth many hours of contemplation; it houses   a rotating selection of art. The present art count is 1,830 pieces from mid-20th century to the early 21st century, though, like all art institutions, it continually buys and sells its works.

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From this gallery, visitors are  taken by a shuttle past the “front lawn” and massive abstract sculpture garden, to a cluster of buildings  which  include  the  di Rosa’s former residence and a large, garage-like administration building, which also contains some art pieces. The house, currently under restoration, used to hold an overwhelming collection of art in spite of being the di Rosa’s residence, but the pieces were removed when fires threatened a few years ago. Behind and beneath the home is another large gallery.

The walk between the home and the garage leads visitors on a 1/3 mile path which offers breathtaking views of an expansive valley that serves as the canvas for the bulk of the sculptures.

All of the work is created by contemporary Bay Area artists, some famed and others lesser-known. Some are hyper- local, including glass art from acclaimed artist Gordon Huether. A large glass house is missing a few panes, and birds have happily taken up residence.

Birds are omnipresent in the valley, including hawks and eagles, keeping close eyes on the gophers and squirrels that have turned up soil building their burrows. Guests can visit the sculpture meadow alone, but a guide enhances the experience significantly.

Rene di Rosa had a bit of a quirk: he didn’t believe in labels or explanations on the pieces, feeling observers should experience each piece for its unique appearance.

Every piece has a story, some fantastic, from the red Volkswagen hanging from a tree to a 65-ft. tall obelisk of office filing cabinets. Each drawer contains part of the artist’s beloved ancient sports car, which couldn’t meet clean air regulations, so was flattened, dismembered, and “filed” away, a satirical memento to all the process and red tape.

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While the docent guide carries a thick reference book about the pieces to assist with inquiries, visitors are asked what the pieces represent to them, each with their personal interpretation. One suggests a dragon of rusty iron, and others, shiny swaying skyscrapers from San Francisco, or even the Transamerica Pyramid.

The heart of the tour encompasses a gentle walk around the meadow, but with a guide, visitors can step over a rope barrier at their own risk to continue on a steeper path up the side of a small mountain. The path winds around a dramatic sculpture on a small knoll of red steel beams slightly decorated by irreverent birds. The view is very different from the valley below as visitors wind around the piece.

The trail continues through a paddock formerly housing Scottish highland cattle from Long Meadow Ranch and a steep incline, which leads to more dramatic pieces. From the top, the view encompasses the sculpture garden and the rolling vineyards, and on a clear day, as far as San Francisco.

The return takes a slightly divergent path, which leads to a massive, ancient Greek style gate. Nearby a grove of olive trees and a cluster of tables offer shade for those wishing to take a break.

The two-hour adventure ends with a short ride back to the entrance and gift shop, which are worth visiting to explore more pieces of two-dimensional art.

If there is time for refreshment  after the tour, two of Carneros’ award-winning wineries, Domaine Carneros and Artesa beckon nearby. Both offer still and sparkling wines representative of the local terroir served with small bites and more spectacular views of Los Carneros.

The two-hour hikes with a guide at di Rosa are booked by appointment on Friday and weekends. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


FOR MORE INFORMATION // 707-226-5991

5200 Sonoma Hwy, Napa, CA 94559


Article By: Paul Franson