The idyllic vineyards and vistas of Northern California's wine country inspire a dream house built against the odds

Five minutes into their first conversation, Andy Katz and Ellen Riendeau knew they were destined to be a couple. “I told him my dream was to live in Sonoma County,” Riendeau says of that fortuitous encounter at a Christmas party in Colorado, where they both lived. “And he said, ‘That’s my dream too!’ ”

Katz, a fine-art photographer who has published books on such places as Tuscany, New Zealand, and the Burgundy region of France, had long felt a connection to wine-country landscapes, in particular those of Northern California. Riendeau, a freelance graphic designer, had made multiple visits to Sonoma and had fantasized about moving there to stomp grapes. Six months into their relationship, they were visiting friends in the Alexander Valley, just outside the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, when fate intervened. “I looked out at the view and said, ‘I’d love to live here,’ ” Katz recalls.

Half-jokingly, his friend suggested the home down the hill: a dilapidated house that stood on an unkempt 4.8-acre parcel. “There were shot-out cars and cans of oil all over the place. It was straight out of Deliverance,” Katz says. Even so, he went over the next day and asked the owner if it was on the market.

Neither Katz nor Riendeau had any experience building or remodeling a home, and they freely admit they had no idea what they were getting into when their offer was finally accepted. Still, armed with a combination of blissful ignorance and blind faith, they set out to build the home of their dreams. 


Selecting an architect was the first order of business. The couple chose James Trewitt and E.J. Meade of Boulder, Colorado-based Arch 11, who are known for their strongly contemporary urban homes. “I had always been drawn to modern homes in magazines,” says Riendeau, “so I saw this as an opportunity.”

They took the original house down to the foundation and started over with a 2,700-square-foot, three-level loftlike structure to maximize the experience of the surrounding countryside. “When we bought it, the only room with a view had a TV in the window,” Riendeau says. “We just wanted as much light and as many windows as possible.” In the new design, every room ― even the master closet ― opens onto a memorable vista, and spaces flow into one another with minimal interruption.

Given Riendeau’s love for cooking and the couple’s circle of chef friends, the kitchen is the center of the home. Their pride and joy is the Mugnaini wood-burning oven, which was craned in before the kitchen was framed. “We didn’t even have a roof ― for a while it was just four walls, two steel beams, and a pizza oven,” Riendeau says, laughing.

A well-developed sense of humor was the essential factor in getting through the three-year construction process, which was fraught with stress and unforeseen calamities. Pipes burst in the basement a week after the floors were installed; the septic system was irreversibly damaged by a backhoe; a worker ran over an electrical line and set off a small fire. “We had just plain bad luck,” Riendeau says. Some mistakes were also a product of sheer inexperience, like the time they painted the interior in the dead of winter, leaving an empty house with closed windows and no ventilation. “When we returned, the paint had fallen off the walls,” she recalls. The home’s final price tag was three times their initial budget, and the couple often found their finances stretched to the limit.

Their design education was costly and hard-won, but the couple rose to the occasion. Katz fulfilled his longtime goal of growing grapes by planting 3 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines on-site; their second harvest is just behind them, a fact that fills them with wonder. The life they envisioned has come to pass. As Riendeau says with a bit of awe in her voice, “We pinch ourselves every day.” WHAT THEY LEARNED

Once a complete neophyte to the design process, Ellen Riendeau acted as the home’s interior designer. “I started by looking through magazines for products I liked, then shopped online because I didn’t have time to visit showrooms,” she says. Here are three of her tips.

Create a color palette from nature
Leaves, rocks, and other natural objects from around the property inspired Riendeau’s choice of furnishings and finishes. The bamboo floors reflect the golden hues of the surrounding grasses; the rich tones of the cabinetry and sofa were inspired by madrone and manzanita bark.

Don’t impede the view
The bench in the corner of the living room, the low-backed chairs and sofas, the platform bed in the master suite, and the airy shower-stall doors were all chosen to preserve the vineyard panoramas. And instead of pricier glass tile for the shower, “it turned out that plain white tile worked best, because it didn’t compete,” Riendeau explains.

Invest in the things you touch
“Spend more on the stuff you come into contact with frequently ― drawer pulls, doorknobs, the floor,” Riendeau says. “Also give yourself little luxuries in the areas where you spend the most time ― for me it’s the kitchen, since I love to cook.”

Designer: James Trewitt; architect: E.J. Meade; both of Arch 11, Boulder, CO (303/546-6868).