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Vallejo Adobe’s fresh look

Walk in to the Adobe tasting room of Three Sticks Wines and it feels as if being welcomed into someone’s home. A warm glow washes the rooms and there are intimate seating areas inviting one to sit down, look around, relax and enjoy really good wine.

It is precisely the way the co-founders and owners wanted guests to feel, and it’s why they hired renowned designer Ken Fulk to revitalize the ancient structure.

Fulk is no stranger to Sonoma and wine country – locally, he has curated events for Hamel Family Wines, and design work on a four-story Sonoma Valley lakehouse set on 600 acres for a tech entrepreneur couple, for example. Now he is reimagining the famed Cloud Club in the Chrysler Building in New York City.

He was the perfect pick in the minds of Three Sticks owners to transform the Adobe from humble home to the experience it is today.

Prema Behan, co-founder, and Bill Price, co-founder and owner of Three Sticks, welcomed Fulk to a virtual reintroduction of the Adobe recently. It was an opportunity to take advantage of the power of the visuals of the Adobe and the Zoom-culture of virtual experiences to reminisce about how they worked together to tell the story of the winery and the space where guests enjoy their wines.

Some years ago, Behan told Price that it was time to move out of the quaint little building they had been working in and conducting tastings and find somewhere to truly represent the brand.

“He said, ‘OK, then it needs to be historic. If I’m going to invest my resources, I want to preserve something’,” Behan recalled. One day Behan came across the Adobe on West Spain Street, a rare find on the real estate market.

It’s not just any little building in downtown Sonoma. Built in 1842, it was constructed by Capt. Salvador Vallejo, brother of Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo who founded the City of Sonoma and laid out the central Plaza.

Other “caretakers” – or owners – such as Gregory and Harriet Jones purchased the property in 1947 and restored the property they called Little Casita. Forty years later they sold it to Robert and Leslie Demler who cared for it for the next 15 years. Price and his wife, Eva, purchased it from the Demlers in 2012. Shortly thereafter, they enlisted Fulk.

To see Fulk’s work – he is a designer of spaces and experiences – is to sense it, to allow one’s eyes to travel a space and absorb his vision.

“Every job we do, we really do tell a story. I often refer to them as movies. We begin with a narrative, and we literally write the words,” Fulk said.

Price said the only instruction he gave to Fulk was that he didn’t want it ”to feel like a museum, like cobwebs behind a wooden bench.”

Fulk took it to heart. The Adobe wasn’t just about the historic structure – though he lives in historic houses and has “always been attracted” to them. Fulk said he embraced the Prices and Behan and the concept they wanted to achieve there.

Fulk and his team’s work there is “sort of a love letter to you guys to the history of the building.”

Behan said the Adobe “feels very alive, like there’s an alchemy here. The essence of that was here before any of us” but Fulk’s design emphasized it and made it more “alive.”

A visitor favorite – and one of Bill Price’s favorites – is a small shelf that holds fragments from a dig done on the property. Discovered through the dig there are porcelain figurines, old horseshoes, glass bottles, and other pieces displayed just as they would be in someone’s home.

“I loved what that brought to the Adobe,” Price said.

Fulk wanted the Adobe to channel all of its “different inspirations,” including the “rich trade” brought from Mexico to California, he said.

“It needed to feel like a great collection. It needed to feel deeply personal. It needed to feel like someone had inhabited the space,” Fulk said. “The places that impact us the most, the ones that we carry around with us are opinionated and interesting and peculiar and quirky, and we wanted the space to have that layered look.”

He and his team, including lead designer Daryl Serret, achieved that look through elements like handmade terra cotta tile, tooled leather to remind one of the rugged history of the region, and incorporating materials of the period such as iron and other metals, and he blended it – as is his signature – with modern touches. A mirror framed in a rounded gold crown, for example, represents technology in the world today, Fulk said.

The colors of the walls were “a big decision,” Fulk said because it could affect the enveloping feel of the Adobe. Arriving at just the right color was a series of trial and error. “It truly was a secret sauce.”

The wall color couldn’t be “too dark, too yellow, too peach…it wanted to feel like the earth,” Fulk said.

“I think we nailed it,” he said, adding that it “glows” in the daytime and it “twinkles” at night. “It evolves throughout the day,” Fulk said.

No changes were made to the footprint of the main building and all the doors are original. Vallejo looked up at the same beams that support the ceiling today.

The tiny kitchen, made as a lean-to, Price said, was typical of more modern times than Vallejo’s, was not enlarged or altered much.

Fulk thought that the shade of yellow that was there was “a little precious,” and when he started chipping away at the paint on the cabinets, Price was amused by the variety of colors – yellow, green, brown -- that were peeled away. In the end Price said he pleased with the result that Fulk achieved in a warm, deep red. Fulk said he thought it should “feel rustic,” and didn’t want to “blow it out” to make a “fancy kitchen” because it wouldn’t fit with the rest of the property.

Fulk said that as much as he appreciates the Wine Country look and feel of contemporary wineries and tasting rooms, he admires the commitment the Prices made in restoring and preserving the Adobe.

Renovating the space “wasn’t an easy thing,” Fulk said noting that “many people would have given up along the way.”

“(Price) believed in it enough” to follow it “on a very crooked path…and he didn’t cut corners.”

Along Price’s “crooked path” were several appearances before city officials to gain approval for what he was trying to accomplish. One roadblock came in the form of a 1950s-built garage that the winery now uses for storage and elegant dinners and tastings, thanks in part to Fulk’s transformation.

It was falling down. And because of when it was built it was considered “historic,” Price said. The city had not encountered a project quite like this before, given that there are few structures as old as the Adobe. They didn’t quite know how to rule on Price’s project, he said, but ultimately they found a solution to the garage, which is now among the favorite event spaces on the property.

Through some challenges, Price said the team ultimately came up with a solution that was “thicker” than a traditional adobe. The adobe was covered by cinder block and another layer of adobe brick added to that to keep the look and feel consistent with the original Adobe.

“I would have to say that is my favorite space on the property,” Fulk said. “It has a barnlike, almost cathedral feeling when you walk into it with the exposed rafters and the vaulted ceiling” and you “see the adobe.”

Then there is what Fulk calls the “genius” of the “door within a door.” Traditional sized doors are nestled within a set of giant doors that can open the space to the outdoors.

“They’re just so beautifully made,” Fulk said of the doors.

Fulk’s vision and execution, he said, would not have been possible without the commitment of Bill Price, whom he called “a gem of a human being.”

Accenting the exterior are murals painted by Rafael Arana, who started out as an artist in residence for Fulk’s company. Once he saw Arana’s work he wanted to hire him full time, Fulk said.

Arana’s 8-foot by 22-foot tableau features various elements of the history of California, including an image of Vallejo and his horse.

Three Sticks’ outdoor patio spaces that include some plants previous owners installed makes it possible for tastings to continue during coronavirus business restrictions.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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