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Chris Smith: The sculptures rising from Paradise Ridge Winery are making it Burning Man West

How fitting it is, how ethereal, that a world-class and growing array of imposing Burning Man sculptures should find their way to the hillside perch of the art-smitten, up-from-the-ashes Paradise Ridge Winery.

The newest arrival to the Byck family’s incinerated and rebuilt winery north of Fountaingrove Parkway is part of an intricate, towering wooden temple that was intended to be a major draw at Burning Man 2020 until the pandemic forced its cancellation.

Creators Laurence “Renzo” Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse conceived the temple, “Empyrean,” as eight arms of a great star, with a flame at the center.

The artists and a crew of helpers have erected two of the arms, facing each other like wings, on a promontory a short walk from Paradise Ridge Winery and its existing sculpture gardens, graced by a number of sculptures previously displayed at Burning Man.

“The end result is pretty spectacular,” said winery co-owner Rene Byck.

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THE SPOT WHERE the portion of Empyrean stands commands a sweeping view of the Santa Rosa Plain. The 40-foot-tall structure is visible from below for miles.

Having elements of a temple intended for Burning Man on the property, to enjoy and to share, is making Dr. Walter Byck, the co-founder of Paradise Ridge, smile.

Scanning the 155 stunning acres of vines, winery buildings and pieces of sculpture, Byck said, “I think this is a treasure. I want to make it as much a community asset as possible.”

The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s’ “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)
The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s’ “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)

Though Byck and his son and daughter, Sonia Byck-Barwick, are hosting Empyrean, the structure’s appearance at the winery is being managed by the builders of the piece.

Volunteers with the artists are making Empyrean available to visitors from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Visitors can walk among the nearby sculptures every day from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. But because docents must be present when people are alongside Empyrean, that visitation can happen during more limited hours and only on weekends.

Anyone interested in learning more about the piece can go to empyreantemple.com/empyrean-santa-rosa. Telephone inquiries about visiting the temple should not be directed to the winery but to 415 810-9016.

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JUST HOW LONG the two elements of Empyrean will be at Paradise Ridge is uncertain.

It is yet to be determined if COVID-19 regulations will allow Burning Man to take place this year. Burning Man is the free-spirited, art-bedecked experiment in self-reliance and communal effort that, in most years since 1991, has for a bit more than a week preceding Labor Day turned a barren expanse of ancient lake bed northeast of Reno into a temporary, dust-blown city of up to about 80,000.

Each year, the most highly anticipated and well-attended events at Burning Man are the burning of the year’s towering effigy and of the temple. Before the temple is set afire, “Burners” fill it with mementos of and notes to lost loved ones.

The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)
The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)

Empyrean creators Verbeck and Lisse were preparing to build the piece last year when they learned the pandemic had forced the cancellation of Burning Man 2020. If Burning Man 2021 gets a green light, they intend to complete the construction of the piece and truck it to the ephemeral Black Rock City in time for opening day on Aug. 29.

As to whether Burning Man will or won’t take place this year, a notice at the event’s website, burningman.org, declares, that “it’s simply too early to make the call. As of today, the COVID-19 pandemic still presents too many unknowns.”

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FROM COLORADO, Empyrean co-creator Verbeck said it’s possible the structure at Paradise Ridge will be removed later this year for inclusion in a temple to be assembled at Burning Man, or it could remain at the winery indefinitely.

Whatever happens with the piece, Verbeck, an architect and artist in Boulder, said he’s better off for having met Walter Byck and his family, who opened the winery in 1994.

Verbeck told of being on the winery property for 110 days of construction and assembly. And at least once a day, he said, Byck came by and said something akin to “Renzo, I’m the luckiest man alive … look what I have here.”

The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)
The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)

Verbeck said of the Bycks, “I think they’re the most benevolent, supportive patrons of the arts I have ever met in my my life.

“They have given us a lot and they asked us for nothing.”

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ART IS EQUAL to wine at the Bycks’ winery. The family has for years placed sculptures about the grounds in partnership with the Voigt Family Sculpture Foundation and other organizations.

The sculptures stand in tribute to Walter Byck’s wife and the co-founder of Paradise Ridge, Marijke Byck-Hoenselaars, who died in 2006. Pieces in and near Marijke’s Grove include Burning Man works by David Best of Petaluma, who created more Black Rock City temples than anyone else, and by Burning Man veteran Bryan Tedrick of Sonoma Valley.

The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)
The portion of Renzo Verbeck and Sylvia Adrienne Lisse’s “Empyrean” temple constructed at Fountaingrove’s Paradise Ridge Winery. (Rand Larson)

A perpetual favorite on the winery grounds is the great, steel word LOVE, a creation of Reno’s Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg. Beloved, too, is the old woman’s shoe that the Oakland sculpture team Five Ton Crane dubbed “Storied Haven.’”

Sculptures of steel fared far better than the winery itself when the Tubbs fire roared in on a hot and windy Sunday night in October of 2017. Flames devoured the winery, then hurled embers downhill toward the doomed Journeys End Mobile Home Park and sprawling Coffey Park neighborhood. Walter Byck and his children had the winery rebuilt and hosted a welcome back celebration in December of 2019.

Paradise Ridge co-owner Rene Byck loves to look at the sculptures, and at the initial portion of Empyrean, for their beauty and impact, and because of how happy it makes his dad to invite visitors to come enjoy them. And how happy his late mother would be.

“It’s something my parents always wanted to do,” he said. “Share their piece of paradise with the public.”

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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