On any given summer day, the mercury can soar to more than 90 degrees in the vineyards of Dry Creek Valley, while it hovers steadily in the 60s in San Francisco. Those extremes help explain why a San Francisco couple and their three children sought a minimalist weekend house in the wine country—the polar opposite of their traditional color-drenched Edwardian in the city. “The house is an extension of the landscape and vice versa,” says landscape architect Gretchen Whittier, who collaborated on the project with Kate Stickley, both partners in the firm. “It was very much about the activity on the outside coming inside and blurring the lines between the two.”
With Whittier and Stickley on the job outside, the couple turned to the same team—architect Stephen Sutro and designer Claudia Juestel—behind the renovation of their city house to work on the country concept. “In our San Francisco home, the rooms have bright, rich colors to counterbalance the foggy weather,” the wife says. “In this Sonoma County home, the drama and excitement are all outside, with the view and the vines and the changing seasons. We wanted to build a place that would celebrate the outdoors.”
Modern architecture, with its clean lines and lack of ornamentation, was the natural choice to achieve that goal, says Sutro, who worked with the firm’s studio director Jenai Medina Bourke. “The owners wanted the design to be minimalist and clean, with natural materials, so it wouldn’t compete with the site,” says Sutro. But first, the duo had to figure out where on the 32-acre vineyard property to place the house. Using a 3-D model study of the land, they finally found what they were looking for: a hill in the northwest portion of the property. “There’s a wonderful view to the north, which was fantastic because the northern light is so beautiful,” says the architect. “Having that view is also the best because we’re not too worried about heat gain on that side.” That was important since the owners’ top priority was to build a passive house, with a design that would naturally keep cool. Sutro achieved this with elements such as deep overhangs, soaring ceilings clad with warm cedar, heavy insulation and plenty of cross ventilation.
The architectural team positioned the house on the middle of the hill rather than on top, so that it would be more integrated within its surroundings and meet the area’s planning regulations. That option proved more complicated to construct for builder Danny Bernardini and superintendent Jeff Wollmer, as they had to remove 300 dump trucks’ worth of earth and build 15-foot-tall retaining walls to create a terraced niche for the two-level house and grounds. “We benched the site to nestle this home and patio area within the vines—it was a cool challenge,” Bernardini says. Wollmer notes that they used the excavated soil to build a wide path for the construction vehicles; the vineyard maintenance crews still use the path to harvest grapes that are sold to local wineries. “It was important that all the material remain on site,” Wollmer says.
The property played an equally important role for Juestel in designing the interiors. “The house has amazing views in all directions,” she says. “Our goal was for the interiors to be understated viewing rooms for the beautiful nature outside.” To do so, Juestel worked with a restrained material palette and kept color accents to a minimum. Inspired by “the changing hues of the leaves in the vineyards,” she says, “we narrowed the colors down to a fresh green and a yellow-orange.” Because the main public spaces are in one open area—marked by expansive sliding and folding glass doors—the curated palette keeps the design feeling cohesive.
When it came to furnishings, the designer chose “simple sculptural shapes” and included vintage pieces and organic surfaces. She echoed the walnut kitchen cabinetry, for example, in the live-edge black walnut end tables and walnut coffee table in the living area. Wheeled dining tables (so they can move between the indoor dining area and the terrace outside at a moment’s notice) were locally made from reclaimed barn wood similar to the home’s exterior cladding. The fabric used for an outdoor pillow comes inside to cover a fireside bench, while a creamy linen upholsters the living area’s sofa and armchairs. “Nothing is jarring,” Juestel says. “Everything flows.”
That flow is always pointed outward, where Whittier and Stickley used grasses and other native plantings to frame the breathtaking views, making sure that none of the selections attracted pests or diseases that would threaten the surrounding grapevines. The wife also asked the duo to plant masses of roses and lavender “instead of a lot of different things.” The roses are especially appropriate because they are used in vineyards all over the region. “They’re the canary in the coal mine,” Whittier says. “They’re susceptible to the same pests as the vines, but they show damage much sooner.”
The whole house encourages a connection with the landscape and a sense of relaxation, one that is encouraged by the couple, who mostly discourage their three children— and their houseguests—from using electronics while they’re visiting. “We wanted a simple getaway for our family,” says the wife. And that’s what it has become, as the pool, the surrounding gardens and long bike rides are the main forms of entertainment. The house, she says, has become a perfect base camp—“no muss, no fuss.”