All vineyards in Napa are, of course, working farms; but you don't usually see that. You usually see an artfully crafted tasting room, and on those properties that allow tours, you'll follow a short path that stays pretty close to the tasting room.
Long Meadow Ranch is different than the rest, and not just because first and foremost, LMR gets you to focus on what is important about this vineyard: the land, the people, and the work that goes into producing its wine, its olive oils, and oh yes - its beef and produce.
Wait - beef and produce? From a Napa vineyard? Oh, yes.
Long Meadow Ranch has its roots with a land grant from President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Over the next fifty years, the land was used to grow olives, grapes, apples, and to raise livestock, including cows and goats. When prohibition interrupted Napa Valley's way of life in the 1920s, the commercial operations on the property eventually closed down.
Fast-forward to 1989. Ted Hall, formerly a partner with an international management consulting firm, had long been an amateur winemaker; now, with the purchase of Long Meadow Ranch, he took the leap from amateur to professional winemaker.
From its (new) beginnings, Hall was determined to run his ranch with sustainable, organic farming methods. He and his family have certainly achieved their goal; all of their crops are organically produced, and certified as such by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), helping to lead the way to prove to the winemaking industry that it is possible to be ecologically responsible and commercially successful at the same time.
LMR also has an unusual approach to visitors to their property. Unlike most wineries, which offer a public tasting room, Long Meadow Ranch instead offers a variety of educational tours that are available by reservation only. The least expensive tour they offer is the "Wine & Olive Oil Tour" ($35), a basic overview of the facilities including the wine caves. You can also take a guided hike of the property ($50), or take their popular Pinzgauer Adventure ($50) - or if you have a bit more time to spare, combine the Hike or the Pinzgauer tour with a lunch consisting of LMR meats, produce and wines ($150).
I opted to take the Pinzgauer Adventure: up to ten guests pile into a Pinzgauer - a Swiss Army cross-country all-terrain vehicle with open sides and canvas roofing. On the day I visited, it was just a couple from New York and me, so it was practically a private tour! We met our driver at LMR Rutherford Gardens, Long Meadow Ranch's organic produce farm located across route 29 from the Grgich Hills tasting room. The produce farm is open to the public March - November, offering a variety of heirloom tomatoes, fruits, vegetables, eggs and other LMR produce; Rutherford Gardens also supplies many of the top restaurants in Napa Valley. We piled into the truck, and off we went, starting with a three mile ride up to the winery via the winding back roads of the western valley.
The award-winning winery building sits several hundred feet above the valley floor, affording gorgeous vistas across Napa from its front landing. Designed by William Turnbull, the building was constructed using the materials that were excavated to create the vineyard's wine caves. It is solar-energy powered, and thermally efficient, maintaining a consistent year-round temperature. Here we met our tour guide, Lydia Damian, who is the Director of Hospitality for the ranch.
Our first tasting was not wine, but olive oil, offered to us in small, round glasses. I had never drank olive oil straight up before, and we were offered a few tips to tasting, including allowing the warmth of our hands to heat the glass and release some of the fragrance. The oil – rich and smooth – went down easily, rich sunshine captured with earthy undertones and a bit of a spicy aftertaste – one of the most delicious olive oils I’ve ever tried. Long Meadow Ranch produces two varietals, their Napa Valley Select, and their Prato Lungo, created from Napa Valley's oldest olive orchards, located right on the LMR property.
There is no doubt that organic farming methods can make a difference in the end flavor of a product, whether it is fruit fresh off the vine, or the wines or oils that come from those fruits. We walked down the hallway and took a look at LMR’s traditional frantoio (olive press), consisting of a couple large, extremely heavy circular stones constructed into an unusual-looking machine. Lydia explained to us the process used to make olive oil, from the initial crushing to how undesirable materials – stems, leaves, etc – were separated from the golden oil. An olive tree, once matured, produces approximately 45-50 pounds of fruit per tree, and it takes one ton of olives to make just 30 gallons of olive oil.
From there, it was back into the Pinzgauer, and we headed up the mountain to Long Meadow Ranch’s primary vineyards atop the Mayacamas Mountains. Long rows of healthy vines curved over the hillsides, drinking in the warm September sunshine, some rows already being harvested for the fall crush.
Here Lydia talked to us about the various methods that LMR uses to ensure healthy soils and strong plants. The vineyards are grown using a "dry" method, where the vines are started out with minimal water, encouraging them to root deeply, which in turns means that the grapes rely less on artificial watering during the growing season. It also leaves the plants less susceptible to rot or infection from over-watering. She also spoke about how Long Meadow Ranch uses ground cover plants to enrich the soil and prevent soil runoff, a vital issue in the Napa region.
We continued down the hill to the Prato Lungo olive orchard. Many of these trees date back over 135 years to the original settlers of this property, and they are still producing fruit. (Olive trees can live to over 1,000 years old and can remain fruitful so long as they are properly cared for.) Ted Hall had discovered the olive orchards by chance while doing a physical survey of his property; once the undergrowth was cleared and the trees properly pruned, they were found to still be producing olives. And always, the organic details – in the spring and early summer, the calves are allowed into the orchard, where their hooves help aerate the soil, and their manure helps enrich it.
That is the most important part to understand from the tour, how each and every plant and animal that makes its home on the ranch helps contribute to the big picture. From choice of ground cover plants, to which plants are grown in the organic gardens; from the care that goes into their wines and olive oils, to the various uses that poultry and livestock serve in the yearly cycle, Long Meadow Ranch is a perfect place to come to see organic farming at its finest.
Oh yes – they also make quality wines, too. It was time for us to return to the main winery building and have a tasting!
Long Meadow Ranch is best known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, a beautifully smooth and elegant full-bodied red wine, which is served at top restaurants throughout Napa, San Francisco and California, as well as across the country. Harder to find due to its limited production is their Sangiovese (the 2004 vintage will be released March, 2007), a more delicate, softer red. They also produce a lovely Ranch House Red, and they recently released their first Sauvignon Blanc - a crisp, tasty white.
Along with their wines, we also tasted their beef, which was outstanding. LMR breeds Highlands – big, shaggy, striking cattle that readily adapt to a variety of terrain. They produce very flavorful meat, and Long Meadow Ranch sells a variety of beef cuts, as well as burgers, hot dogs, beef stick, and beef jerky. (If you’re a fan of jerky, like I am, you’ll love the Cabernet beef jerky – delicious!).
After the tour was over, they brought us back to Rutherford Gardens, where I spent some time wandering through the organic gardens, amazed at the variety of vegetables growing there. The garden property includes 100-year-old fig trees, which still bear fruit.
If you’re looking for a wine country experience that’s off the beaten track, I would highly recommend heading over to Long Meadow Ranch for a tour, and to wander around the organic gardens for a bit. LMR has set the standard for which other Napa wineries should follow to evolve into responsible farming for the 21st century.
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Long Meadow Ranch is located at 1796 So. St. Helena Highway (SR 29) in Rutherford, CA. For more infomation, contact: Lydia Damian (707) 963-4555, ex.161.