Elmgreen & Dragset, The Care of Oneself, 2017. Artwork © Elmgreen & Dragset

Art and vines: The stuff of legacy

Allan and Mei Warburg’s Donum Estate vineyard in California is home to a collection of figurative sculpture that’s as rich and complex as its acclaimed Pinot Noirs. Claire Wrathall was offered a tour

Tucking into crispy duck pancakes in a Chinatown restaurant in Bangkok, a city shaped by the Chinese in the 18th century, the 12-year-old Allan Warburg had an epiphany. The year was 1979, and Thailand was not yet the holiday destination it has become. ‘No one in my school had ever been to Asia,’ he tells me. But Warburg’s father, an engineer, had taken the family travelling. ‘I thought: this is incredible!’ he recalls. ‘I got very interested in Chinese history and culture and started to read all I could about it.’

If, to paraphrase the Chinese proverb, every journey begins with a single step, that meal inspired a career that has led Warburg, by way of Taiwan, Kunming, Xiamen and Beijing, to Hong Kong where he now lives, and on to Sonoma Valley in northern California. That’s where we are sitting today, amid the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines of the Donum Estate, seven miles south-east of the town of Sonoma, surrounded by Warburg’s collection of predominantly figurative sculpture.

Such is his friendship with many of the artists he collects that several have flown in for the weekend, among them Ai Weiwei, Zhan Wang and Yue Minjun, for two days of wine-tasting, long lunches and dinners in celebration of the art and those who created it.

Allan Warburg and his wife Mei with Louise Bourgeois, Crouching Spider, 2003 (detail). Artwork © The Easton FoundationVAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

Allan Warburg and his wife Mei with Louise Bourgeois, Crouching Spider, 2003 (detail). Artwork: © The Easton Foundation/VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2019

Those three artists have a particular presence in the vineyard. The first piece to be installed was Zhan’s Artificial Rock No. 126  (pictured below), a reinvention of a ‘scholar’s rock’ — one of those curiously eroded rocks revered by Chinese intellectuals — rendered in mirror-finish stainless steel. So highly polished that one cannot see where its metal sheets were welded together, it challenges the viewer to ponder how traditions survive in a changing and increasingly technological and artificial world. It has a special resonance in a vineyard where the award-winning wines are made in batches of just a few hundred cases, and every bunch of grapes is picked by hand.

Zhan Wang, Artificial Rock No. 126, 2007-13. Artwork © Zhan Wang

Zhan Wang, Artificial Rock No. 126, 2007-13. Artwork: © Zhan Wang

At the entrance to the vines, Yue’s Contemporary Terracotta Warriors  stand guard, and elsewhere you’ll come across a detachment of another 25 of his model soldiers (below), their mouths agape. In the tasting room hangs one of his laughing self-portraits, along with a painting by Liu Xiaodong and a neon by Tracey Emin. (A monumental bronze of Emin’s own torso stands by one of the estate’s two ponds, both havens for waterfowl. ‘She’s quite a character,’ Warburg says. ‘She loved it here when she came.’)

Yue Minjun, Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005 (detail). Artwork © Yue Minjun, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Yue Minjun, Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, 2005 (detail). Artwork: © Yue Minjun, courtesy of Pace Gallery

Beyond the animal pen (the 220-acre estate also incorporates an organic farm, with donkeys, chickens and sheep), Ai Weiwei’s series of 12 great bronze animal heads (below), each representing a sign of the Chinese zodiac, is arranged around a large disc of grass inscribed by a lawnmower with concentric circles, a place so sacred that no one is allowed to enter it lest they disturb the chi.

The heads have become something of an emblem of the wines Donum produces: Ai’s drawings of them are found on the wine labels to denote the year (2018, the vintage for which the grapes were being picked as we explored the estate, was the year of the dog).

Ai Weiwei, Circle of AnimalsZodiac Heads, 2011 (detail). Artwork © Ai Weiwei, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Ai Weiwei, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, 2011 (detail). Artwork: © Ai Weiwei, courtesy Lisson Gallery

Warburg was studying business at Copenhagen University when he embarked on extracurricular Mandarin lessons. ‘It was extremely difficult,’ he says. ‘It’s impossible to learn Chinese in evening school.’ 

On graduating, he went to Taiwan for a year. ‘All my parents’ friends said, “What? Studying Chinese? Is he a communist?” There was no idea then that it might lead to other things.’ But it proved a tough language to master: ‘I’d thought a year would be enough to become fluent, but it is definitely not.’

He didn’t give up. Having returned to Denmark to take a master’s degree in economics, he then enrolled at Yunnan University, where, as one of just six foreign students, he had no option but to communicate in Chinese. And having finally mastered the language, he didn’t want to leave.

‘I felt this blossoming of creativity that just kind of exploded. There was this fantastic energy among the artists’ — Allan Warburg

So he sought a job that would enable him to stay, working for the East Asiatic Company. ‘It doesn’t exist any more, but it used to be the largest company in Scandinavia. I was in the consumer products division, and we were distributing Mars products: confectionery like M&Ms and Snickers, and milk powder and pet foods. I was responsible for selling them in northern China.’

It was a tough brief. The Chinese had no appetite for chocolate, disdained milk, and few kept pets, the ownership of dogs having been banned during the Cultural Revolution. But it opened Warburg’s eyes to the nation’s potential as an emerging market.

‘A childhood friend and I wanted to start something ourselves, so we looked at the opportunities and decided fashion was interesting. Fashion did not really exist in China at that time.’ It struck them as a way of selling a ‘European lifestyle’ to an emerging market keen to look west.

Allan and Mei Warburg on the Donum estate with Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock No. 126 (2007-13) rising from the vines. Artwork © Zhan Wang

Allan and Mei Warburg on the Donum estate with Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock No. 126 (2007-13) rising from the vines. Artwork: © Zhan Wang

The partners approached the Danish fashion company Bestseller, owned by the Holch Povlsen family, and formed a joint venture in China. ‘The family retained 50 per cent,’ explains Warburg, ‘and we owned the other 50 per cent. And that’s been the shareholding since we started.’

They launched Bestseller Fashion Group China in 1996. ‘Too early, but it meant we got a couple of years’ learning in before competitors started arriving. We were really some of the first movers. There were some other brands which are basically not there any more.’ The idea was not to manufacture: there was nothing to teach the Chinese about that, says Warburg. ‘Look at the value chain. If you look at where the most profit is, it’s not in manufacturing. By building brands, you can create the products consumers want to buy.’

Within a few years, the company was growing exponentially, more than doubling in size each year. And now, 23 years on, it employs more than 50,000 people, embraces brands such as Only, Jack & Jones, Vero Moda and Selected, all household names in China, which it sells in more than 7,000 stores across the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and now Malaysia.

‘I’m encouraging my boys to be interested in art, and hopefully one day they will take it on’ — Allan Warburg

The years leading up to and immediately after the millennium were an exciting time to be in Beijing, as the first independent art galleries — Red Gate, for example — opened, and 798 Art Zone, aka Dashanzi Art District, the 1950s electronics and munitions factory that became a complex of artists’ studios and galleries, began to thrive.

‘I felt this blossoming of creativity that just kind of exploded,’ he says. ‘There was this fantastic energy among the artists. They were so passionate. And just the fact that you were interested meant you could visit an artist’s studio to look at their work. A lot of that has gone now. There are still great artists but the sense that, wow, things are happening, has faded. It was a very special time to be there.’

Warburg began to collect, modestly at first, ‘because obviously my money was in the business, so it was limited to what I could afford. None of the artists I bought from back in the early days are famous now. But I’ve kept everything I bought.’

The colours of Gao Weigang’s Maze (2017) echo those of the surrounding grasses. Artwork courtesy the artist and Allan WarburgDonum Estate

The colours of Gao Weigang’s Maze (2017) echo those of the surrounding grasses. Artwork: courtesy the artist and Allan Warburg/Donum Estate

As the company thrived, he started buying more serious artists. ‘I became very close with Zeng Fanzhi,’ he says. ‘We still know him well and have bought a lot of his works over the years. And Zhan Wang: I bought my first sculpture from him in 2007.’

At Donum there are also pieces by Liu Hui and Gao Weigang — a maze constructed from hundreds of brass-coated stainless-steel tubes, the colours of which echo those of the surrounding grasses. ‘It’s not so easy to find your way out after wine,’ says Warburg, as we pick our way through it before lunch.

Warburg’s fellow Scandinavians are also well represented in the collection: Elmgreen & Dragset, Jeppe Hein, Jens-Flemming Sørensen, Fredrik Wretman and Danh Vo, who fled Vietnam by boat, was picked up by a freighter owned by the Danish company Maersk, settled in Denmark and took Danish citizenship.

His contribution consists of three parts of his masterwork, We the People, for which he made a full-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, cast in bronze, which he then cut into 383 pieces. Vo said at the time of its making, between 2010 and 2014, that he hoped viewers would bring their own perspective to the ideals the original statue represents. ‘But I think it has a clearer meaning now,’ says Warburg, an emigrant himself.

Richard Hudson, Love Me, 2016. Polished mirrored steel. Height 8m, unique. Artwork © Richard Hudson

Richard Hudson, Love Me, 2016. Polished mirrored steel. Height 8m, unique. Artwork: © Richard Hudson

It helps to explain his ambition to ‘make the collection as global as possible’. Arrive at Donum, and the first pieces you see are a giant bronze pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama and a towering bronze bonsai tree, Held by Desire (The Dimensions of Freedom), by Marc Quinn. Warburg speaks animatedly of the fabrication of its tiny, infinitely complicated leaves, made in a Madrid jewellery foundry.

Elsewhere among the 40-odd works you’ll find pieces by Doug Aitken (Chime, made specifically for the Donum Estate), Lynda Benglis, Wim Delvoye, Fernando Botero, Keith Haring, Jaume Plensa and Louise Bourgeois — the original Crouching Spider, from which the series was cast; it is made of steel so it needs to be kept indoors to prevent rust, hence the gallery that has been built to house it. It’s a work that Warburg feels resonates with the winery because of the ‘very necessary’ role arachnids play in keeping the insect population in check.

Nearby is one of Anselm Kiefer’s crashed fighter planes, Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory). Warburg peers into its shattered nose cone, out of which sprout models of poppies. ‘I think there may be a beehive in there,’ he notes. (The message of peace recurs in several works — Ghada Amer’s The Words I Love the Most, for example, and Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s knotted-gun Non-Violence.) The fact that Kiefer’s plane is made from lead, however, is a cause for concern, and the ground around it has to be regularly tested in case traces of the poisonous metal leach into the soil and threaten the wine.

Keith Haring, (foreground) King and Queen, 1987, with Richard Hudson, Love Me, 2016, in the background. Artworks © Keith Haring Foundation; © Richard Hudson

Keith Haring, (foreground) King and Queen, 1987, with Richard Hudson, Love Me, 2016, in the background. Artworks: © Keith Haring Foundation; © Richard Hudson

Other works evoke plants. Surrounded by 3,800 lavender bushes, Sopheap Pich’s Morning Glory  refers to the plant many Cambodians were forced to subsist on during the terror and genocide of the 1970s. 

As their names suggest, Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Mikado Tree  and Subodh Gupta’s People Tree  both evoke trees, although each has been fabricated from everyday objects. And Douglas White’s thought-provoking Black Palm is a palm tree, lifelike at first glance, that was created from blown-out tyres he collected from the side of the main highway in Belize, a country like many others in the tropics cultivating oil palms as a biofuel, at the expense of indigenous rainforest. It stands, appropriately, in the car park, among an avenue of real palms.

If all this makes it sound like a sculpture park, Warburg is at pains to point out that Donum is primarily a wine estate — and a very good one, which at least for the moment can only be visited if you make an appointment to taste its rare and expensive wines, mostly pure Pinot Noirs in the style of complex Burgundian Grands Crus.

It was never a particular ambition of Warburg’s to diversify into wine. ‘I guess you know the old saying that the only way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big one,’ he says. ‘When you throw in art, this becomes even more true. Trust me, no sane businessman would do this.’ But wine is a long-held passion, inherited, like his interest in art, from his parents, who collected 19th- and early 20th-century Danish paintings, including works by Peder Severin Krøyer and Paul Fischer.

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‘I definitely get [my interest in wine] from my dad,’ he says. ‘He has always loved it, especially Bordeaux and Burgundies, so I grew up with them. But he’s 85 years old now and can’t taste that well any more, so it has to be big Australian Shirazes and’ — he grimaces — ‘very, very strong wines.’

When Donum came up for sale in 2010, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. ‘I knew the wine very well. My brother had met Anne Moller-Racke [the distinguished German winemaker who founded Donum and whom Warburg continues to employ] many years before. He had been importing Donum wines to Denmark and had heard from her that it was up for sale because of the financial crisis. There was nothing wrong with the estate. And I thought: it’s a great wine. The land is very cheap. I’ll buy it, and maybe one day I’ll sell it. So I bought it.’ 

‘The only way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big one. When you throw in art, this becomes even more true’ — Allan Warburg

They took possession towards the end of 2011. And seven years on, he has now said Donum will never be for sale and has been acquiring more vineyards in Anderson Valley and Russian River.

It makes a good counterbalance to his other business. ‘Fashion is fast,’ Warburg says. ‘But wine...’ It can take two or three years just to prepare the soil, and even after the vines have been established, they won’t produce grapes that are good enough for Donum’s wines for six or seven years. ‘Though we can make rosé and other things with them, and we sell some of the grapes to other people.’

Even after the wine is made, it needs years to mature in cask and then bottle. ‘We’re very, very focused on quality. And anyway, it’s about so much more than profit or ROI or cash flow. It’s about love, passion, beauty and creating something unique.’

Warburg’s only regret is that he gets to spend so little time here: just five or six weekends a year. He doesn’t yet have a home on the estate (he is staying at the local Fairmont when we meet). ‘It is frustrating,’ he says. ‘I wish it was nearer, but there aren’t any beautiful vineyards around Hong Kong.’

And the apartment on Victoria Peak in which he lives with his wife and their two sons could never accommodate sculpture on this scale. ‘But we will spend a lot more time here in the future, and I hope my boys come to appreciate it. I’m encouraging them to be interested in art, and hopefully one day they will take it on.’ Fashion may be fleeting and quickly forgotten, but art and vines are the stuff of legacy.