The extraordinary outdoor sculpture experience at the Donum Estate begins as soon as the gates swing open and you enter its 190 acres of vineyards, grassy hillsides, ponds, and woods. Driving slowly up a tree-lined gravel road, you head straight toward Jaume Plensa’s immense elongated female head (Sanna, 2015), which serves as a sentinel, perhaps, or simply a tantalizing preview of other works to come.
Donum was founded by winemaker Ann Moller-Racke in 2001, with the goal of producing the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A decade later, Hong Kong-based Danish businessman and art collector Allan Warburg became the vineyard’s majority owner. Over time, he fell in love with the rural beauty of the place and began to imagine the possibilities of an open-air art collection that would be both global and diverse.
Artworks began to arrive in 2015. Today, the collection includes signature pieces such as a dot-covered bronze pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama, an immense spider by Louise Bourgeois, one of Anselm Kiefer’s lead airplanes, and a colossal version of Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2011). (Images of Ai’s work currently grace Donum’s wine labels, which change annually.) There are works by artists from around the world—several from Asia, where Warburg and his wife have lived for decades, as well as from the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, and Europe. Many are made out of stainless steel or bronze—even when they are not the artist’s usual materials—as a concession to the Napa Valley’s intense summer heat and cold winter rains.
Sites were chosen for a variety of reasons. Richard Hudson’s Love Me (2016) and Keith Haring’s King and Queen (1987) stand at the vineyard’s high points, visible from miles away. But the placement of Doug Aitken’s Sonic Mountain (Sonoma) (2019) was determined by weather; a grove of eucalyptus trees protects its hanging steel chimes from winds that can reach up to 75 miles an hour. And Arik Levy’s BigRock, an abstract stainless steel form, nearly disappears into a field of lavender, where it reflects the long purple stems in its angular facets.
Tours of the sculpture collection, guided by the winery’s highly trained docents, begin at Donum Home, a visitor center built in 2017 on the site of the old farmhouse (the property, like many in the valley, was once a dairy farm). A short walk passes the Kusama pumpkin and two very different works based on trees. Marc Quinn’s monumental bonsai tree Held by Desire (The Dimensions of Freedom) (2017–18), which offers a commentary on how humanity attempts to dominate nature, is rendered in exquisite detail out of three tons of bronze. Each leaf was made by hand, resulting in a work so convincing that it almost blends into the landscaping.
A second tree, tucked into a line of California’s ubiquitous palms, remains hidden until the docent points it out. Made entirely from fragments of charred tires, Douglas White’s Black Palm (2011) speaks against colonialism’s assault on the land through the extraction of resources. This position, your guide informs you, aligns with Donum’s mission to practice sustainable agriculture and organic and biodynamic farming. Only 72 acres of the property are planted; the rest support a rich variety wildlife, including owls and bees (for whom homes are provided), as well as otters, coyotes, hawks, and a plethora of small birds.
The line of palms leads to a pavilion specially built to house a magnificent inhabitant—an immense Louise Bourgeois spider. The first such piece that she made, it is constructed out of recycled steel pipes; later versions were cast in bronze from this original. Its limbs spread out in front of floor-to-ceiling windows that offer views of the vineyards below. Two other works share the space—a hanging piece by El Anatsui that invokes a fishing net, also made of recycled materials, and an unusual wall-hung steel sculpture by Bourgeois.
At this point, you climb into an ATV, and your guide drives you to the vineyard’s highest point, topped by Richard Hudson’s immense heart-shaped sculpture. Like Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, the polished surface of Love Me reflects a panorama of its surroundings—in this case, bucolic hills and distant mountains, with a tiny sliver of San Francisco’s tallest building behind them. A deep hemispherical divot in the front of the heart suggests that it has been punched by some colossal force, and a walk around to the other side reveals a u-shaped projection, as if the heart’s core has been pushed out. Hudson has said that the piece is about the creation of the universe from a black hole, but it also seems to suggest how a heart, rather than breaking, can absorb the force of loss or rejection and eventually rebound.
As the tour continues, the looping dirt road takes you past many more sculptures, including Elmgreen & Dragset’s haunting, Pieta-like The Care of Oneself (2017), a naked man holding his twin in his arms. This is soon followed by Thomas J. Price’s quietly powerful 2020 sculpture of a young Black woman, her eyes on the phone in her hands. She stands nine feet tall, so that she will always be visible, unlike the individual on which she was modeled. Other nearby works include an intriguing 2018 bronze by Wim Delvoye of digitally distorted dancing bacchantes, their figures stretched as if moving at great speed. Further up the hillside, overlooking one of the ponds, Subodh Gupta’s gleaming People Tree (2017) combines elements of traditional and contemporary life in India. The banyan tree, with its distinctive aerial roots, is revered as a sacred symbol of eternal life. Gupta has formed the crown of his stainless steel banyan out of simple containers made of the same metal. These objects, which are found everywhere in India, have become something of a signature for Gupta, who also used them to create another sculpture for Donum—an immense, invitingly tipped wine bottle.
Doug Aitken’s Sonic Mountain (Sonoma), one of the collection’s highlights, nestles nearby in its small grove of eucalyptus trees. Commissioned for the site, it makes use of the so-called “Carneros breeze,” a cooling afternoon wind that moderates the blazing summer heat and makes the valley perfect for viticulture. Three concentric circles of hanging stainless steel tubes—365 in total, one for each day of the year—create an ethereal, random music as they resonate. Their faint chimes are accompanied by the sound of the wind and birdsong from the surrounding trees. It would be pleasant to stand there and listen for a while, but the tour moves briskly along.
Coming back toward the center of the property, visitors can walk through Gao Weigang’s meditative maze of brass-coated steel tubes and puzzle over Ghada Amer’s beautiful and poetic sphere, whose hidden text—100 Arabic words connected to the idea of love—is only revealed in shadows cast on the surrounding gravel. Situated in the same field of lavender, Sopheap Pich’s Morning Glory (2017) is a delicately monumental representation of the flowers, which are eaten in his native Cambodia. And there is Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads—an imposing set of 12 massive animal heads that replicates a group designed by 18th-century Jesuits for an imperial palace. Ai’s version questions ideas about authenticity and authorship, since the originals, looted from the palace in the 19th century, are now coveted by collectors when they turn up at auction.
Only a few steps from this area, the recently completed Vertical Panorama Pavilion, designed by Studio Other Spaces (the office founded by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann), expands the collection in a unique way. From the outside, it resembles a tent-like canopy composed of hundreds of leaded glass rectangles hovering just above the ground. The structure as a whole was inspired by circular calendars, and the colors of the glass (in shades of green, blue, and brown) were determined by local yearly averages of temperature, sun, wind, and humidity—the most important weather factors for the estate. As you approach, the curving path to the pavilion reveals, at the last moment, that Eliasson and Behmann had the ground beneath the canopy excavated to create a circular area of packed earth furnished with comfortable seating and a small kitchen. Above, a northern-oriented oculus opens to the sky. Looking out from this cool retreat, you can take in a 360-degree view of the vineyard, the mountains beyond, and even the San Pablo Bay—all at ground level.
The tour of all of these works of art—of the sights, sounds, and smells of the vineyard—is not complete without a tasting. As Allan Warburg has put it, “It is important to remember that Donum is a winery with a sculpture collection—not a sculpture collection with a winery.” For Warburg and his wife Mei, the idea has always been to “take art, put it into a beautiful landscape, and enjoy it with a glass of great wine…the experience is more powerful than if the three are enjoyed separately.” In fact, the only way to view the sculpture collection is to book one of a variety of tastings/ tours, which vary in duration from one to three hours.
The use of the word “experience” is important. Increasingly, people seem to be seeking something more from their encounters with new places, even when art is involved. From Meow Wolf’s immersive light and sound installations to the Van Gogh rooms that bathe visitors in the artist’s colors and brushstrokes, “experience” tourism has become a category for art lovers. At Donum, extending an invitation to visitors means sharing that kind of unique, multisensory journey: seeing some of the sculptures up close, tasting the vineyard’s fine wines and sampling some exquisite small bites of food, and learning about the estate’s agricultural goals. It is worth noting that the docents who guide the tours are deeply knowledgeable about the wine, and they have also learned enough about the art to keep all visitors engaged.
As I prepared to leave, my guide gave me a farewell gift of a small bundle of lavender. Like the grapes, he explained, the lavender is harvested on the estate, as is the honey from several hives of bees and the olives from a small grove of olive trees. Vegetables grown in the organic garden on site are combined with these ingredients to create the small bites that accompany the wine tastings. (Donum has recently received organic certification for all four of its estate vineyards.)
This multifaceted winery is clearly a passion project for Warburg, who admits that “no sane businessperson would ever do this”—this being the creation of a winery that hosts a collection of some 50 pieces of sculpture, a farm, and even a small animal sanctuary. The word Donum means “gift” in Latin. What Warburg offers visitors to this unusual place is the gift of a simultaneous experience of wine and art in an extraordinarily lovely landscape.