Retrospective: Launching Upscale Wine Club

A few years back, my client Chateau Montelena needed to launch a very high end wine club called "Ultramont". The marketing director called me and asked me to be a part of the team that would publish a hand made book to entice clients to join. It was a new concept for the winery and they wanted to draft their most well heeled patrons into a yearly subscription of wine, food pairings and special events. 

I love the Chateau at Montelena, but the light never hits the face of the stone building, so I knew it was going to be tough to make it look spectacular without some sort of lighting. Luckily budget was not an issue, so I convinced them to let me hire a lighting crew from the film industry to illuminate the entire Chateau at sunset.  Tim Bellen is a director of Photography in Hollywood, but lives here in Sonoma County so I called him in to help. The lighting crew arrived with huge truck full of lights and reflectors as well as 2 gaffers and a lighting director. I felt like a movie director with a cast of thousands - even though there were only 4 of us.


You'd be amazed how long it took to get all the lights inside and out to suggest a busy Chateau ready for guests. We lit it up the night before to see how it would look, then came back and re-lit it to be ready to shoot the next evening at sunset. The magic moment usually occurs about 20 minutes after sunset, when the ambient light in the sky turns blue, yet there's still detail on the Chateau and the lights from within are not too overblown. I play with my color balance settings, going from daylight to tungsten and bracketing until the exposure and color look right.

After we finished the front of the Chateau, I wanted to do a shot peeking through the window at a table all prepared for dinner. I was looking for a Beauty and the Beast kind of overblown scene that someone spies on longingly. We set the table for an elegant feast with large bottles of wine and candelabras. It took a while to get the right settings on the lights in the room so that it would look like the candles were the main source of light.
For this we needed a scissor lift to get me up to the second story so that I could look down through the window. The tricky thing about scissor lifts is that they move and for a shot like this you need a long exposure. It took a while to get just the right angle and proper exposure. The old window casings and glass reinforce the sense of history that we were hoping to impart.

We spent the morning working on interiors in the Chateau. The old barrel room faces north and never gets any direct light through the windows. Our crew set up high intensity lights outside the window to stream in like sunlight. Getting the angle just right took a while, because we wanted to illuminate the right wall of stone as well as the tops of the barrels.  We had to add a light in the far right corner to illuminate the faces of the barrels.


Inside the Chateau is a small room with a wrought iron gate that I thought would be perfect for a bottle shot.  Again we were going for that feeling of discovery, as though the person viewing it was longing to be a part of the scene. Selective focus is a great way to pull the viewer in. Chateau Montelena has a cult following because of their history, fine wines, and beautiful surroundings. We chose a blue and yellow palate of lighting to enrich the stone. The cool blue filters on the lights contrast perfectly with the warm yellows of the tungsten spots and automatically set the scene up as rich and cinematic, just the look we wanted. 

Next we moved into the caves. These were newly constructed in the past few years, but they looked old, so we kept to the same theme and color palette - blue & yellow lights accentuating the texture of the stone or in this case stucco. Because the caves made an arc, it was easy to set up lights at the end of the cave to draw the eye to the smoky blue texture at the end. Blue filters were added every 6 or 8 feet in between the barrels to add color and pattern to the arc of the ceiling. 


The final result was a hand sewn monograph designed by Michele LeBlanc of LeBlanc Design. It was mainly the photographs with a bit of copy and spoke to the exclusivity of this club and the desirablity of becoming a member.  
It was a really fun project for me because I had a client that trusted me to bring in the team necessary to create a very high-end product. We created timeless photos to evoke an old world experience of luxury and and sumptuous entertaining. I learned a great deal from the lighting crew and enjoyed being part of a larger team for a while. So often I'm out there on my own working solo. It was exciting to see it all come together.   

All photos Copyright M. J. Wickham  To see more of my location work click here: