Almost any day in California’s Napa Valley is a good day, even in the winter when the vines that cover so much of the region are bare. The scenery is still beautiful and the fresh air is rejuvenating. And if you know where to look, there are special Napa tours and experiences that go beyond the more commonplace tastings in the wineries along the famous wine routes of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
Mr. TWS and I recently delved a little deeper into the essence of Napa with an insider’s look at Long Meadow Ranch Winery (LMR) in their Full-Circle Experience. On this tour we got to spend several hours with the friendly experts at this family-owned and operated business (which includes a ranch, a winery, and a restaurant) as they immersed us in their “full-circle” philosophy, the term that LMR uses to describe their responsible farming approach.
We got first-hand insights into their approach and mission during this innovative award-winning tour which is much different than any I’ve experienced in Napa; however, there were certain aspects that were wonderfully reminiscent of a few of our excursions in Italy last summer. The tour also took us literally full circle. Come along on our virtual recap tour and find out what I mean.
Let’s start at the beginning
We began by meeting our hosts at Logan-Ives House at Long Meadow Ranch Winery and Farmstead on Main Street in St. Helena. We enjoyed fresh coffee and pastries and had a chance to chat with our guides Tim Mosblech, Farm-to-Table Educator; Sierra Stanley, Assistant Hospitality Coordinator (who was also our driver for the day); and Dan O’Brien, Director of Sales. Tim and Sierra guided us through LMR’s three properties while enthusiastically sharing the stories and features of LMR.
The birds and the bees at Rutherford Estate
The weather was surprisingly gorgeous on the day we visited. Early January can be cool (even cold) and rainy, but this was a beautiful, mild day, sunny and 70F — perfect for a drive in the Napa Valley.
Our first stop was at LMR’s Rutherford Estate, just down the road a few miles southeast on Highway 29 from the Farmstead Restaurant and tasting room location. There are 74 acres of vineyards on the Rutherford Estate where grapes are grown for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and LMR’s limited production Sauvignon Blanc, the only white wine they produce. In the gardens on the estate they grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs used in the Farmstead restaurant and also sold at their own and other local farmers’ markets — apples, quince, persimmon, legumes,squash, onions, potatoes, carrots, and many others, depending on the season.
I love the simple, enticing message in the photo of the open storehouse above which in the past had been used for wine tastings — Taste. The building now serves as a storage and staging area for the gardens.
Christopher “Landy” Landercasper, LMR’s Farm Production Manager, was pruning vines when we stopped by. He took some time to talk to us about the unusual weather and how it’s been affecting the gardens. In fact, there had been a deadly frost just a few days earlier which damaged some of the garden, but since they plant 50% more than what they need for the restaurant, they are always properly supplied. Any surplus is sold at the farmers’ markets.
The integrated farming approach is one of the interesting aspects of LMR involving reuse of almost everything for multiple purposes of economy, best practices, and control of organic purity. We were reminded of a masseria in the Puglia region of Italy where we stayed last summer which applied these principles at their on-site gourmet restaurant — growing everything themselves and using it with menus based on what’s in season. At LMR, they grow their own produce, raise their beef, grow their grapes and make their own fine wines. They even have their own colorful chickens (shown below) for a source of eggs for the restaurant who were also fun to watch as they fluttered about. They’re much different than the white chickens that Mr. TWS remembered from his Wisconsin upbringing.
As we strolled around the gardens, Tim pointed out that they were growing different legumes in one large area of the garden that were very good for replenishing the soil and for providing interesting greens for salads. He picked several things for us to sample — fresh and delicious straight from the earth. We then went inside the greenhouse to see the herbs and seedlings growing for the next season. I loved the fragrance of the basil.
Bees are also kept on the property, mainly for pollination of the produce. Tim talked about the declining bee population, a global situation we’d heard about — nobody knows why they’re just disappearing. Lucky for LMR and other Napa bee-owners, they have a beekeeper who has a theory about keeping happy bees — he doesn’t wear protective gear while working with them. Imagine that!
Winding through the hills on our Napa tour
From there we headed to the hills through LMR’s 650-acre Mayacamas Estate, the starting point of the ranch’s history and also the location of the winery. The sun slipped through the trees and onto the road as Sierra drove us up the wooded hill along a narrow one-lane road.
Tim began telling us about E.J. Church, Long Meadow Ranch’s pioneering settler who acquired the property via a patent grant from President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Church remains somewhat a man of mystery, which I think is an intriguing part of LMR’s interesting history. Although little is known about his background and the motivations for decisions he made (which to an extent define LMR today), his instincts seem to have been right. He was certainly a visionary for the potential of the Napa Valley as a grape-growing/wine-producing region or was at least quick to follow the lead of the visionaries.
We passed through gorgeous rural scenery and some of LMR’s Maycamas Estate’s 16 acres of mountain vineyards. The winery has been producing Cabernet Sauvignon on the estate since 1989, including on two vineyards that E.J. Church started in the 1870s where producing their reserve E.J. Church Cabernet Reserve. Mr. TWS and I first tasted and really liked this vintage at the St. Helena wine pavilion during the Napa Valley Film Festival. Also planted on the hillside are Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese grapes, for which I grew a special fondness in Italy. Tim explained that the hillside vineyards produce good food-friendly wines that are higher in acid, well-balanced and “more feminine”. Like all of the vineyards at LMR, the practices of the California Certified Organic Farmers are followed diligently.
Without being told, I would never have guessed that these metal canisters placed along the Sangiovese vineyard are heaters to protect the grapes from the cold. Especially interesting is that they are made from old howitzer shells. Named after a Hall family friend, Peter’s Vineyard was developed in 1994 and LMR is proud to say it produces what is often described as “California’s best Sangiovese”. I haven’t tried it yet, but if it is anything close to the fabulous Sangiovese wines in Emilia-Romagna, I might make that claim, too.
The heart of LMR, the winery
Upon reaching the winery, we heard the occasional whinny of a horse, the only break in the peaceful quiet and pastoral ambiance of the rolling hills — reminders that we were off the main wine-tasting tourist paths of Napa. It’s here that winemaker Ashley Heisey and staff produce the award-winning LMR wines. The structure supports many of the winery’s operations and is quite notable, being one of the largest rammed earth structures in the U.S. It was designed by architect and sculptor William Turnbull and in keeping with LMR philosophy, it was built with materials located on the site and built into the side of the hill so that it requires no cooling or heating systems. It is further testament to the philosophy of sustainability that the wooden beams shown below were recycled from an old building.
Throughout the property there are pieces of art that grabbed my attention, including metal sculptures depicting horses. I particularly liked this barrel art sculpture (top right above) on the front of the main winery building called “Moonrise Mayacamas” by local sculptor Jack Chandler who is also LMR’s landscape architect. It was created with deconstructed oak barrel staves, the end of a barrel for the rising moon, and an antique brass faucet for a whimsical touch.
Entering the the wine cave, we immediately enjoyed the familiar aroma of wine and oak barrels (the one you recognize when you visit wineries). It was interesting to learn that these French oak barrels were actually shipped flat from France and then assembled by coopers in the nearby town of American Canyon to save on freight costs.
Tim pulled a bottle of grappa from a case and told us the story of how LMR came to produce grappa (a spirit with which we became happily familiar with in Italy). In 2005, a fire in a Vallejo wine warehouse destroyed all the bottles of their 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 Sangiovese, and 2003 Ranch House Red. But they were able to make grappa from the estate grape pomace (solid remains of the grapes after pressing) from the vineyards on Mayacamas Estate. Fortunately, the 2003 and 2004 vintage wines were in the wine caves on the estate.
The frantoio and a surprising discovery
LMR was America’s first combined winery and olive oil producer and olive growing is a big part of LMR’s business. Among my favorite stories from the tour was one that Tim told us about LMR’s olive oil business. A few years after the current owners, Ted and Laddie Hall, bought the Maycamas property in 1989, olive trees originally planted by E. J. Church were discovered by chance hidden behind and beneath the trees of a heavily wooded area on the hillside. Although they were aware of a few olive trees on the property when they purchased, this was an amazing find. They are the oldest olive trees in the Napa Valley and particularly suited to producing LMR’s extra virgin olive oil. The exact variety is also part of the mystery. It’s not certain how or where Church acquired them. They are not the Spanish and Italian olives commonly found in California and even experts at UC Davis cannot identify the origin though they speculate they might be of the a French variety. It’s possible that he was influenced by his knowledge of European styles of olive-growing as well as wine-growing.
Part of our tour was the frantoio (olive mill) where LMR uses Pieralisi equipment, the same highly respected brand that we saw used in Spain and Italy as well. Within two hours of picking right on the ranch, the green and ripened black olives are processed in the frantoio, producing about 700 gallons of oil, 200 for use in their restaurant. Normally, they’d be picking olives January through February, but weather conditions have changed this schedule and so by the time of our tour, this had already been completed for the season.
What’s in a name?
And how did the winery’s name “Long Meadow Ranch” originate? During our tour, we enjoyed a walk along a path from the winery and frantoio through the woods that led up to a meadow — Long Meadow. The name was yet another of Church’s contributions. The meadow was inviting and I can picture sitting on a blanket with a picnic basket, a bottle of wine, and Mr. TWS, of course.
Hanging out with the bulls
On our way back down to the valley, we stopped to see the herd of Scottish Highland cattle on the estate, chosen because they are well-suited for living on hillsides. There are about 8-9 bulls and a small herd of select cows kept here. The largest herd of LMR’s cattle are raised on farm in Marin for the Farmstead restaurant. We didn’t see any of the wild animals that are known to roam the estate, but keep a look out when you take the tour. You could possibly encounter raccoons, deer, gray foxes, ring-tailed cats, bobcats, and even mountain lions and black bears (although these sightings are rare). We also saw Appaloosa horses that are mainly ridden by the Hall family and LMR staff.
Feasting Full-Circle style
After a few hours of fresh air, a good walk in the sunshine, the aromas of herbs and fermenting wine — we were ready to close the circle back at Logan-Ives House in St. Helena.
We weren’t sure what to expect but knowing about LMR’s reputation for great food and wine, seeing first-hand the care that goes into the raising of their meat and produce, and hearing about Tim’s vast experience as a chef in the United States and Europe (including Italy, of course) we weren’t surprised by the fine culinary indulgence as Tim prepared a three-course meal for us.
However, our expectations were surpassed by the delectable dishes that were presented to us accompanied by the amazing wine selections complementing each course perfectly. In the kitchen adjacent to the dining area, Tim worked his magic — clearly in his element and enjoying what he does.
Sierra started us off with a tasting of LMR’s two olive oils — Prato Lungo (a smooth, yet intense oil that famous chef Charlie Trotter said was “… one of the world’s great olive oils” and Napa Valley Select (a blend of Manzanillo, Mission, Frantoio, and Lecchino olives that has a peppery taste). LMR’s award-winning olive oils are consistently highly-ranked by notable food writers such as olive oil connoisseur Anne Dolamare. Then it was on to the feast.
This was one of the occasions when I’m glad I took a photo before I dived into my food, as hungry as I was at the time. I love it when a dish is the perfect combination of ingredients and artistic presentation as was this Winter Vegetable Salad with lacinato kale, carrots, cherries, paper-thin apple slices, with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and the fabulous touch of a poached egg. This was accompanied with the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, a limited edition (only 6000 cases).
As you can see above, Mr. TWS was happy toasting with the 2009 E. J. Church Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. He had just finished his entree, the Local Petrale sole with celery root puree, charred brussels sprout, and Yukon gold potato gnocchi which was served with the 2009 Ranch House Red (a food-friendly wine that they label “EZ Red”). Being the carnivore in the family, my entree was a beef rib-eye with the same delicious accompaniments. For dessert, it was Rutherford Estate apples with chunks of spiced carrot cake, graham cracker crumble and espresso ice cream. We didn’t leave a single bite of anything on the plates.
We were wined, dined, and thoroughly impressed with all things LMR that we learned about in our Full-Circle Experience tour and highly recommend it for Napa Valley visitors and locals alike.
For more information about visiting Long Meadow Ranch and Farmstead Restaurant and reservations for the Full-Circle Experience and their other Napa tours: Long Meadow Ranch
Disclosure: We were guests of Long Meadow Ranch, but our perspectives and opinions are our own — as always. Thanks to Tim, Sierra, Dan and all at Long Meadow Ranch who made our Full-Circle Experience so special.
I’m linking up to Noel Morata’s Travel Photo Mondays series on Travel Photo Discovery and to Marcia Mayne’s “Foodie Tuesday” series on Inside Journeys. Enjoy links to other travel photos and stories on their sites, too.