Paul Draper of Santa Cruz winery Ridge is building a house of straw – or more precisely, a barrel hall.

The respected Californian producer – a former Decanter Man of the Year – has come up with an innovative design concept for a new barrel hall at his Lytton Springs winery in Healdsburg, where Ridge’s classic Zinfandel is grown and produced.

At Healdsburg, builders are halfway through construction of what, at 4,200 square metres, will be the largest straw bale building in the world. Using straw for construction is no new-age fad – it was used in the early 1900s in the American Midwest where no wood was available for building.

At Ridge they are using rice straw which is very dense, making it less flammable and giving it a very high insulation value. It has no nutritional value so it doesn’t attract rodents or insects.

The architects and engineers found themselves faced with numerous challenges, the main one of which was putting together a structural system to support the bales in what is an earthquake zone. They came up with a separate structural framework in-filled with the bales which are held in place by wire mesh between vertical and horizontal supports.

The final step is to plaster the walls inside and out, with adobe made from clay from the vineyards. The finished hall will be substantial, with a ceiling high enough to stack the barrels eight high.

Ridge’s winemaker Johnny Olney said, ‘We wanted a building that was ecologically sound, constructed from recycled materials, and one that would keep energy consumption low. Basically we are building a cellar above ground that will be cooled by blowing in night air. At Ridge we’ve always tried to highlight the direct link wine has with the earth. It only makes sense that we maintain that relationship in the cellar.’

Written by Jill Norman in California6 December 2001