A Gehry Hotel in Basque Wine Country

A Gehry Hotel in Basque Wine Country

Javier Salas Mirror-steel flourishes shape the exterior of the Hotel Marquées de Riscal Javier Salas
Javier Salas Mirror-steel flourishes shape the exterior of the Hotel Marquées de Riscal
Javier Salas
In Spain’s Basque country, a venerable Rioja wine estate is banking on a superstar architect to raise its profile with a fresh take on the luxury hotel. Christopher Petkanas checks in and drinks up.

Having trained his mind on (deep breath) shopping centers, suburban offices, museums, performing arts centers, department stores, houses, universities, a hockey rink, and a retreat for cancer patients, it was only a matter of time before he got into watches (for Fossil), liquor bottles (for Wyborowa vodka), jewelry and tabletop (a resounding 692 SKU’s for Tiffany), and, oh yes, the hospitality business. In October, four years late and reportedly $10 million richer, Frank Gehry saw his Hotel Marqués de Riscal bow outside the rural medieval village of Elciego, in the Basque country of northern Spain, with 43 rooms he also designed, a mammoth Caudalie Vinotherapie spa, and a 150-seat restaurant with Francis Piniego, a young Turk among Spanish toques, rattling the saucepans. In the months leading up to the opening of the hotel, which raises its tousled head among the Rioja vines of the 148-year-old Herederos del Marqués de Riscal winery, rubberneckers scaled the entrance gate, racing to see who could get pictures of a medusan building that had already attained the status of a landmark on the Internet first.

Starwood, which manages the property as part of its top-shelf Luxury Collection, is targeting it at that anything-for-a-thrill, no-price-too-high, no-distance-too-far subset of travelers who are appreciatively known as hotel freaks and are catnip to marketers. Sleep here and die. But the company might also want to think about crowd-control measures to handle tourists who lack the means or even the basic inclination to spend the night at the hotel but are not going to be denied this particular piece of eye candy.

Remember how 20 and 30 years ago people who had never given 30 seconds’ thought to an I beam or a fascia made the pilgrimage to John Portman’s iconic atrium hotels, like the Marriott Marquis in New York, just to gawk?With Riscal being greeted in Spain with as much excitement as the release of a new Almodóvar movie, that scene is about to be replayed in Elciego, population 900, whether it likes it or not.

The village is conservative, humorless, unsentimental, immaculate, sleepy, and beyond timeless, with a ravishing cathedral and a proud dourness that after four days I actually wound up finding kind of charming. Garlands of choricero peppers take the sun on wrought-iron balconies. In observance of the antique Basque custom, sunflowers are hung over thresholds to keep the wrong kind of spirits from entering. The residents of Elciego are still working out their feelings about Gehry’s building. Perhaps they may not always call it la cosa—"the thing." Riscal’s outreach message is that what’s good for it is good for the region. But that hasn’t stopped dark rumors from circulating. According to some of the smaller mom-and-pop bodegas, once checked in, guests are not allowed out, lest they be tempted by other people’s grape juice.

Whatever the realities of a stay at Riscal, which for many will be more successful as a design experience than a hotel experience, Starwood could not ask for an easier sell. Gehry, 77, is the most celebrated American architect of his time—the author of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Nationale-Nederlanden Building in Prague, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and the future LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy cultural foundation in Paris. (Riscal plans Gehry tours that will take in both the winery and the museum.) Marshaled on his shelf is every award that matters: the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor; the Japanese Praemium Imperiale, the art world’s answer to the Nobel; and the AIA Gold Medal, the top tribute of the normally hidebound American Institute of Architects.

But this is Gehry’s first realized hotel. Ian Schrager hired him to design one on New York’s Astor Place after falling out of love with and firing Rem Koolhaas and the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron, but the building had not even reached the schematic stage when it was abandoned after 9/11. Grand Avenue, a mixed-use development project by Gehry currently under way in Los Angeles, will feature shops, restaurants, and a 16-acre park, as well as condominiums and a hotel in a 47-story glass tower. Mandarin Oriental is mum on the subject, but he says the company is handicapped to run it.

Shorthand for what is now regarded—a little too expediently and amid charges of "logo-tecture"—as the Gehry style, Riscal’s cocky, loony tunes unruliness (or the appearance of it) has its roots in the modest pink Dutch Colonial bungalow the architect remodeled for himself in Santa Monica in 1978. The house was taken back to the studs, then wrapped with corrugated aluminum and chain-link fencing; Cubist shapes look as if they are "crawling out" (Gehry’s words) of the existing structure. He still lives there. It’s an unnerving place.

Riscal also replays Gehry’s love of titanium, which he first used to clad the careening walls and restless whorls of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997. (Until then, it had been deployed mainly by the aircraft industry.) "The [museum’s] seeming disorder—a chaotic collision of forms—has no architectural precedent," the critic Witold Rybczynski wrote. In its reprising of titanium, as well as its location just 90 minutes south of Bilbao, the hotel is affectionately seen by the Spanish as a follow-up to the Guggenheim, as a homecoming poised to do ever greater things for the brand of Gehry in Spain. That’s assuming there’s anywhere higher for him to ascend. For if he was a star before creating the Guggenheim, he later became a demigod. In Bilbao today, strangers think nothing of walking up to him and asking him to lunch. Others reach out to touch him as if he were, say, Antonio Banderas, or even Joaquín Cortés.


Depending on who you talk to, the architecture critic of El Pais or the Elciego shopkeeper, the Basque politician or the sunbaked vineyard worker, Gehry’s design erupts with sublime grace or horrific violence at the Riscal winery, which owns the hotel and is banking on selling a trillion bottles of gran reserva on its back. Unless my calculations are wrong, it would take 411 years at full occupancy and with annual rate increases of 72.5 percent, plus pet supplements in a third of the rooms for half the time, for the hotel to recoup its investment if rooms and logowear were the only things it had to sell. However the beans are counted, marriages between Spanish vineyards and marquee architects are "in the air" as a powerful branding tool, says Gehry. Three of Riscal’s neighbors—Ysios in Laguardia, Baigorri in Samaniego, and Viña Real in Haro—have important new buildings, by Santiago Calatrava, Iñaki Aspiazu, and Philippe Mazières, respectively. None has lodgings, but they do make a nice loop of visits and tastings.

"Why did Riscal build a hotel?Certainly not to improve tourism. It’s to sell more wine," general manager Michel Nader told me. "How do you sell more wine?With a new image, a new dynamic. When guests leave us happy, they buy five or six cases, and they tell their friends. On the other hand, if something goes wrong during their stay and they end up not liking the place, I suppose it could be bad for the wine."

The approach to the hotel is up the narrow ramp of a small hill, with vineyards on the right and handsome, severely tailored offices and production facilities—many from the 19th century—on the left. You catch teasing glimpses of the building on the dry and scratchy way into Elciego, but this is the first time you see it head-on, in all its tangled glory, lifted above the ground level on thick columns, a small overhung plaza at the entrance. The second, third, and fourth floors are composed of rectilinear sandstone elements buried in a knot of curvilinear ones made of titanium and mirror-finish stainless steel. Whatever your sympathies, or antipathies, the hotel stops you dead in your tracks.

Unlike at the Guggenheim, titanium is not integral to the structure. If you hired King Kong to unravel and peel away all the fat, luscious ribbons of metal, you’d still have a complete, fully functioning building. Those anxious to assign inspirations to the design will be pleased to learn that Gehry did indeed choose pink titanium to signify red wine (the color is often deeper, depending on meteorological conditions) and gold to represent white wine and bottle netting. The undulating ribbons are not, however, a metaphor for the foil on a bottleneck, as so many have confidently concluded without bothering to ask, but rather for wine flooding out of a bottle.

"The idea was to make a hotel that takes advantage of the vistas, which are extraordinary," Gehry says, referring to the vineyards, the San Andrés cathedral, the Valdezcaray mountains to the south, and the Cantabrian mountains to the north. "The titanium and steel are purely sunshades, or sun visors, framing the views." On the breakfast terrace one morning, I made a scribble of the aperture created by the overlapping visors, looked away to take a bite of toast, and looked back to discover I had sketched the outline of a dove by Braque. "Riscal is flamboyant; to me it looks like flowering tresses in the wind, a beautiful apparition sitting on top of this small plateau, visible from all directions and participating in the life of the town and winery."

Terence Riley’s swan song earlier this year as chief curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was an electric show of 53 models and photographs of newly built, under-construction, or about-to-be-built commissions in Spain, including Jean Nouvel’s steel-and-glass expansion of the Reina Sofí a museum in Madrid; Koolhaas’s riverside conference center in Córdoba; Enric Ruiz-Geli’s Hotel Habitat, which will be cloaked in a mesh matrix of LED solar-hybrid cells when it opens in 2007 in Barcelona; and Gehry’s Riscal.

"The hotel is in the same family as the Guggenheim, a refinement of his experimentation with fluid forms, which is not to say a clone," notes Riley, who is now director of the Miami Art Museum. "Silver titanium became such a trademark of the Bilbao project that Gehry looked for other means of tweaking that experience. During the Franco dictatorship, when tourism was Spain’s largest source of foreign income, the government ran an ad campaign promoting beach vacations. Now, of course, North Africa and the Caribbean are much cheaper for that kind of thing, and there’s a recognition that people will not continue to go to Spain to lie on a beach and drink sangria. So the country is turning to cultural tourism, to art, gastronomy, music, dance, and architecture."

The fact that Gehry’s model in the MOMA exhibit did not show the hotel’s annex, which is also all but absent from the winery and Starwood’s Web sites, tells you everything you need to know about it. I wish it weren’t true, but Riscal has a dirty secret. The main building houses the restaurant and only 14 guest rooms; in a classic case of bait-and-switch, the remaining 29 rooms and the spa are in a facing bunker-like wing, in stucco with a canal-tile roof and linked by a footbridge, that is as deadpan and triste as the principal structure is expressive and gay. (The model leaves the bridge hanging in the air like a diving board.) Gehry, a busy celebrity with 150 employees, did not design the annex. When I talked to him, he didn’t even know his office had. The building gives the impression that the owners ran out of money or, worse, that the architects ran out of ideas.

The good news is that decorative attention was lavished equally on all of the accommodations, which go beyond streamlined to attain a kind of mega or meta sleekness, and that to make up for their location many in the addition are bigger. The exterior’s snaking forms are quoted in wall lights and extravagant burnt-caramel leather headboards that climb 15 feet to the ceiling. (The common corridors do a wriggling little dance of their own.) The bedrooms are separated from the halls and bathrooms by a pocket door, a nice touch. About those bathrooms—I hate to think how many Brazilian quarries were devastated to dress them in dark green, polished maritaca granite. Gehry’s Cloud Lamp, a puff of nearly tear-proof polyester he came up with while fooling around with some paper cups and a stapler, looks like a balled-up piece of paper. The nice thing is that you can reshape it any way you like without worrying about getting a note under your door from reception asking you not to play with the furnishings. The other benefit of the Cloud is that when you are aching to return to the hotel but can’t quite make the trip to Elciego, it allows you to re-create the Riscal experience at home. Design Within Reach sells a version for $490. These are swaddling, sleep-in rooms—except that there are too many temptations to keep you in bed beyond nine.


"I’m not a connoisseur of hotels, though I stay in a lot of them and could easily spend the rest of my life at the Gresham Palace, the Four Seasons in Budapest," says Gehry. "I designed this as a place I’d like to go myself. The rooms are all about the windows. These open, and there are window seats that follow the zigzagging contours of the glass, and a little desk, all creating a private niche. The view is part of the room. My hope would be that hotels can be more of an experience that feels like the architecture of the building. Maybe this one will open someone’s eyes that things can be done differently."

Alas, Gehry’s room description applies only to those in his building, where I was booked for my entire stay. But at the last minute I decided to also test-drive the annex (not exactly gumshoe reporting, you’ll say, but I was already in my pajamas and had to carry my toothbrush and eye mask across the bridge). Because they face the village, the most desirable rooms in the main wing are 101–104 and 112, 114, and 115. Those in the annex are boxy and endowed with less personality, though 116, 117, and 118 have thrilling reach-out-and-touch views of the mother cell; 128–144 turn their backs on it, and 119–127 have partial views.

In both buildings Gehry and his associates have occasionally forgotten that they were designing a small hotel and not a public institution. Many of the materials and fittings were selected to withstand the wear and tear of maybe 10,000 people a day, numbers Riscal will never see. Only four rooms have terraces—a curious choice in a Mediterranean country hotel with an explicit tie to the outdoors. The fluorescent lights that blink on when you open a closet door and the elevators that operate with magnetic key cards do not feel very luxurious. If as a result the hotel can seem a little businesslike, a little chilly, the service picks up the slack. The staff is young (everyone seems gloriously under 30) and touchingly determined to prove themselves worthy of working in Gehry’s temple to wine and, close behind, food.

The restaurant serves ancient, soul-stirring Riojan dishes like croquetas bechamel and monkfish, clam, and chickpea stew, as well as wizardly, off-the-wall creations like sea bass with crystallized red wine and Iberian ham-and–tomato seed ice cream (croutons on the side). Francis Paniego, who survived two apprenticeships with that mad-scientist-who-if-you-have-to-hear-his-name-again-you’ll- scream, Ferran Adrià, was hired for his possibly unique ability and willingness to deliver ancestral preparations alongside the kinds of anarchic ones that, in recent years and for better and worse, have made Spanish cooking so fashionable. Paniego has a funny story. In Spain, his mother, Marisa Sánchez, is a legend. Echaurren, the hotel-restaurant in nearby Ezcaray where even after retirement she is still an appraising presence, has been in her family for 400 years. In 2000 Paniego opened his own place, El Portal, under the same roof, sharing a kitchen with Echaurren. Señora Sánchez’s menu flies the flag of tradition. Paniego, who shuttles between El Portal and Riscal, where he will oversee the cooking school that opens next year, peppers his with dishes incubated in a Freshlife Automatic seed sprouter (not a joke).

I had always thought Caudalie’s wine- and grape-themed products and treatments one of the hokier concepts in spa-dom, but my beauty-editor friends tell me I can’t totally dismiss it, so I’m bowing to them. In the mid 1990’s the company pioneered oils and unguents with polyphenol, found in grape seeds and shown to be effective in fighting free radicals in things like cigarette smoke and sunshine. I still think the Barrel Bath, which is nothing more than a whirlpool tub encased in planks, is dumb. But hats off to the Riscal spa, which, even after you’re done ogling the hotel, still produces a wow. Every treatment room has a burnished or charred liana—a woody vine from the Amazonian rain forest—rising sculpturally in a moodily lit vitrine from a carpet of stones. Cranial massages and reflexology are offered in a square, freestanding "mystery" enclosure of chunky wooden slats, the whole lifted on blocks above a floor of tiny turquoise tiles. Dozens of bamboo poles, hung to waist-level on cables from a wire grid, surround a circle of wet rocks. Walking on these stones is prescribed as a remedy for "heavy legs" (a peculiarly feminine complaint, apparently), if you can stand the pain. The curtain of poles contributes nothing, not even a shield from the humiliating regard of other curists when you fall off the rocks and cry "ouch." But they do look great, a triumph of mise-en-scene.

If, like me, you love wine but usually find winery tours dull and same-y, with little regional variation in the script from Sonoma to St.-Émilion, Riscal’s could change your mind. Maybe it’s the elevator that speeds guests directly (and exclusively: day-trippers use another entrance) from inside the hotel through one of the supporting columns to the four-million-bottle aging cellar and a plant that pumps out more than 845,000 gallons of wine a year (only a fraction of it grown on land owned by Riscal). A command center you half expect to see an Ian Fleming villain enthroned behind is furnished with a mile-long computer console that looks as if it could launch a space shuttle, or at least blow up a small mountain. Ground control, fermentation achieved, check.

Famously, Riscal has preserved bottles from every year since the vineyard’s inception. I’m not normally vulnerable to wine porn, but the hoary subterranean vaults where these historic vintages are stored really are amazing. In 1999, a single bottle of the 1871 brought $3,870, more than four times the high estimate, at auction at Christie’s London. The Wine Spectator heaped 99 out of a possible 100 points on the 1945. Riscal’s biggest export market is the United States, where it is associated with easy pours like rueda verdejo, a young white that sells for as little as $7.99. But the company also wouldn’t mind becoming better known for its premium wines, such as Baron de Chirel Reserva, a limited-production red made only in years when the grapes—manually selected from vines over three decades old—are judged eligible. This, of course, is where the hotel comes in.

To help persuade Gehry to accept the job, Riscal gave him a gift of a bottle from 1929, the year he was born. "It was very sweet of them," he says. "It’s not the best, but I’m not a wine expert. I liked it. The hotel would never have happened if it weren’t for the Guggenheim, which, I have to remind everybody, people were very upset about when it was first presented. One guy said they should kill me. It scared the hell out of me. But all that went away. Now when I walk down the street in Bilbao people want to hug me. I hope that happens in Elciego. The hotel is a very small building. The critical mass of the winery is huge compared to this little flowering thing. Maybe that’s what I would ask the locals to call it: ’the flowering cosa.’


WHEN TO GO

Winters are dry, making travel on the small roads between Rioja’s towns easy, but spring is milder—and greener. Wine-related festivals happen in June and September; for more information, go to www.elciego.es.

GETTING THERE

Iberia Air serves Logroño Airport via Barcelona and Madrid; Air France flies directly to Bilbao.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Marqués de Riscal
1 Calle Torrea, Elciego; 800/325-3589 or 34/945-180-880; www.luxurycollection.com; doubles from $570.

WHERE TO EAT

Echuarren el Portal
On the other side of the kitchen from his mother’s acclaimed restaurant, Chef Francis Paniego’s casual 40-seat establishment boasts a 300-bottle wine list and dishes such as roast duck with crepinette and candied pear. 2 Calle Héroes del Alcázar, Ezcaray; 34/941-354-4047; dinner for two $125.

Enreviñas y Olivos
An 18th-century house reimagined as an atmospheric, antiques-filled wine bar. 12 Cuatro Cantones, Laguardia; 34/945- 600-911; dinner for two $125.

La Cueva
A local favorite, dishing up oversize portions of pork-studded lentils in a warren of vaulted rooms. 36 Calle Barrihuelo, Elciego; 34/945-606-440; dinner for two $25.

Vinoteca La Ermita
Gourmands should hit this shop off Elciego’s Main Square for fresh asparagus of Navarra, Idiazabal cheese, and wines from top producers such as Viña Salceda and Murúa. 7 Plaza Mayor, Elciego; 34/686-863-207.

WHAT TO DO

Tours of the Rioja Alavesa wine region led by historians, architects, and designers can be organized by the hotel.

Iglesia de San Andrés
The 16th-century building has both Gothic and Renaissance characteristics. Tickets are available from the Elciego Tourism Office (34/945-606-166).

Museo del Vino
The cellar-like museum is housed in three buildings; stay for a full day of tasting and grape-growing instruction. Plaza Bretón de los Herreros, Haro; 34/941-310-547; free tours.

WINERIES

Baigorri
Basque architect Iñaki Aspiazu’s glass-and-wood pavilion blends seamlessly into the surrounding river delta. Km 53, Ctra.Vitoria-Logroño, Samaniego; 34/945-609-420; www.bodegasbaigorri.com.

Viña Real
The cylindrical cedar-and-steel building by Philippe Mazières is a nod to the vintner’s gravity-driven wine production. Km 4.8, Ctra. Logroño, Haro; 34/945-625-255; www.cvne.com.

Ysios
Book ahead to tour this curvilinear metallic structure designed by Santiago Calatrava. Camino de la Hoya, Laguardia; 34/945-600-640; www.domecqbodegas.com.

WHERE TO SHOP

Rojo Tomate
Whimsical clothing boutique. 5 Santiago Lope, Ezcaray; 34/636-306-421.

Hijos de Cecilio Valgañón
A locally renowned outlet for traditional handcrafted wool throws and shawls. 12 González Gallarza, Ezcaray; 34/941-354-034.

WHAT TO READ

John Radford’s The Wines of Rioja and The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Wine profile individual producers and recommend particular vintages.

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