Photo by Erhard Pfeiffer

Art Amongst the Vines

Rene di Rosa's masterpiece is sharing his extensive collection with the public

By Abigail Sawyer

Rene di Rosa has made a life of rebelling against convention. He has also amassed one of the most compelling and extensive modern art collections this side of the Sierras, which he proudly shares with the public who come from all over to visit the di Rosa Art & Nature preserve in southwestern Napa County.

All 1,700 pieces (and climbing) in di Rosa's collection were born in the Bay Area. Well, maybe not all of them. In a very few cases, di Rosa admits to being so taken with an outside piece that he decided to buy it, but that is the exception. For the most part, if the artwork wasn't actually produced in the greater Bay Area, the artists lived, taught or worked in or around San Francisco at some point in their lives.

But you wouldn't know any of this from viewing di Rosa's collection, which was opened to the public for guided tours in 1997. Just as wine connoisseurs are known to conceal the label on a bottle in order to judge it more it objectively, a visit to the di Rosa Art & Nature Preserve gives people an opportunity to experience a blind tasting of art. By and large, scores have been high.

"When you walk into a museum and see all that blah, blah on the wall, the subtext seems to be, 'You can't negotiate this without our help,' " di Rosa explains in the book Local Color, The di Rosa Collection of California Contemporary Art, published by Chronicle Books last spring. Di Rosa wants to share his art with others, not his thoughts or experts' opinions on what art should be. The pieces stand or hang on their own in the four galleries, without labels to inform or distract the viewer from the experience. Curious visitors can consult binders in each of the galleries which tell them the artist and date of completion for each piece.

Di Rosa was born in Boston, the only child of the Italian consul general. He spent his childhood there and graduated from Yale University. After college, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He came to San Francisco from Paris in the early 1950s. While in Paris he had tried and given up on writing his version of the Great American Novel, but on the Left Bank he had found a cultural and intellectual community where he felt at home. He also met and married a frustrated ballerina whose father would not allow her to reveal herself in a tutu.

"I believe it was a '46 Studebaker," di Rosa responds when asked what brought him West. "And I was with my French wife, who didn't drive." Conveyance notwithstanding, di Rosa had secured a reporting job with one of San Francisco's then four dailies, the San Francisco Chronicle.

The pair settled in North Beach just ahead of the Beat Generation and went about trying to find the city's Greenwich Village/Left Bank counterpart. "I was looking for something in San Francisco that didn't yet exist," di Rosa says. "In Paris, I had drunk wine with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, but I soon learned that the left bank of the Sacramento River was not the same as the left bank of the Seine."

Di Rosa's wife was also frustrated. She tried to get involved in San Francisco's ballet community but soon learned she was too old. "She was frustrated with San Francisco's lack of sidewalk cafes and 'interesting people,' " di Rosa says. She began flying back to Paris frequently and ultimately decided to stay there. The marriage ended and di Rosa stayed on in San Francisco, making frequent trips to the East Bay where he had found a community of nonconformists and artists with whom he felt comfortable. But the desire to get away intensified.

"I came looking for something in the country, and after looking and looking and looking, I found a place in the Napa Valley where I knew no one," di Rosa says.

It was 1960, and the Napa Valley was not yet a world-famous wine region. The double assault of the root-eating louse Phylloxera at the turn of the century and Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, had put the brakes on the region's wine industry. But di Rosa's new purchase was a piece of the past that had been a vineyard estate pre-Phylloxera.

Here were 460 acres and a deserted stone winery building which had held livestock, mushrooms and moonshine in the years since being abandoned by the two Frenchmen who had built it; it would eventually house di Rosa along with a good chunk of his collection. The property was located in the Carneros region of southern Napa County, notably cooler and windier than the rest of the Valley. Conventional wisdom, and the Napa County farm adviser, said at the time that grapes would not grow there, but di Rosa in his characteristic rebellious spirit knew grapes had grown there 100 years earlier and decided he would make them grow again.

He enrolled in viticulture classes at the University of California at Davis, where he met many of the artists whose work would become cornerstones of his collection. "Most of the courses in viticulture were so beyond me I would end up going to the art department to hang out," he explains. Despite his lack of farming experience and resistance to apply himself to his viticulture studies, di Rosa achieved considerable success as a grape grower. Thanks to di Rosa's determination and help from experienced wine pioneers, the experiment paid off.

"I started out selling grapes to home winemakers," di Rosa says, "and ended up selling them to over 50 wineries." Indeed, being able to state that your grapes came from di Rosa's Winery Lake vineyard came to be worth an extra dollar or two on the bottle. Soon, other wine grape growers joined di Rosa, Louis Martini and Beaulieu Vineyards in the Carneros region, which became home to some of California's first successful Pinot Noir plantings.

Di Rosa says his love affair with art began in Paris, where he bought his first piece, an oil painting of a female nude, green on a green background. This painting hangs today in the office of the di Rosa Preserve. The art obsession picked up speed during his years at Davis, where he got to know Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Paul Kos, Robert Hudson and other now-famous artists, many of whom created 10 or more works apiece in di Rosa's collection.

"I began selling grapes and had more money, so I began to buy more art and more expensive art," di Rosa says. In 1986, Rene and his wife of 12 years, Canadian-born artist Veronica di Rosa, sold all but 23 acres of the Winery Lake estate to Seagram's, which farms the vineyards for production at its Sterling Vineyards winery near Calistoga.

Having made several million dollars in the sale, the di Rosas embarked upon their longtime dream of creating a foundation and opening the collection to the public. Unfortunately, Veronica died in 1991 while she and Rene were vacationing in France. Though she never saw the new galleries completed, Veronica's spirit lives on with the foundation, and her presence is felt in the many pieces she created. Most of Veronica's work in the collection is displayed outside and in the old stone winery, converted to a house in 1963, where she and Rene lived.

The home (see below), almost exactly as it was when the di Rosas inhabited it (Rene remained there until the collection was opened to the public in 1997), is now one of the four galleries on the tour. Many visitors remark that they could never live in a home so filled with art, much of it unsettling. They are surprised to learn that Rene did just that for more than 30 years, a fact that reflects his philosophy about where art belongs in our lives. "I hope that (visitors) now feel that art is not some lofty 'should' -- but can be a real part of living."

The di Rosa Art & Nature Preserve is open by appointment. It is closed all day Friday and Sunday and on Saturday afternoons. Reservations can be made by calling (707) 226-5991. Cost for the tour is $10 per person. Visit the di Rosa Preserve web site at www.dirosapreserve.org.

Photo by Stefan Kirkeby