What's it like living in Napa? We toast a few East Bay expats living the Wine Country Dream.
Photographer: Anne Hamersky
We have all done it. Journeyed through Napa or Sonoma and surrendered momentarily to that Wine Country reverie where you’re kicking back on your Tuscan-inspired veranda, a glass of Cabernet in hand, watching the sun blush over your own patch of paradise. Or maybe you’re hosting a stylishly rustic party where guests sip your prizewinning Merlot under ancient olive trees, the warm air perfumed by fresh lavender and ripening grapes. For most of us, such pipe dreams vaporize by the time we reach the Benicia Bridge. But for a surprising number of our past and present East Bay neighbors, Wine Country dreams have survived the trip home and grown into whole new realities. We decided to track down some of them and get the lowdown on Wine Country living. Is it as idyllic as it seems? Um, yes.
Atop Howell Mountain, east of Calistoga, sits the Lamborn Family Vineyards. At an elevation of 2,200 feet, it’s far from the tourist-packed limos that trawl the valley floor. The air is cooler here, and the views staggering. Bears and mountain lions pass through from time to time, and huge redwoods stand by leafy ranks of vines like giant sentries. This secluded Shangri-la is the fruit of decades of labor by Mike and Terry Lamborn. It is often said that you need a huge fortune to make a small fortune in Wine Country, and Napa property has appreciated between 100 and 300 percent every decade for the past five decades, but the Lamborns got in just in time.
The Lamborns, who still live half-time in Orinda, bought their piece of Napa back in 1973, when they were 27 and land cost a mere $3,000 per acre. Managing to get a loan, they purchased 15 rugged acres where there was not a grape to be found—just scrub, trees, and dirt. “I would like to say I had a vision or business plan,” says Mike, who worked in the freight industry until he retired in 1991. “But I had none of that. Had I gone to business consultants and inquired about feasibility, they would have told us to wake up and get a life!”
The couple set up a trailer among the trees, spent seven years clearing six acres, planted zinfandel, and then waited four more years for their first grapes. “Every weekend, Terry sat outside in a beach chair watching our two little boys roll around in red, powdery dirt while I drove back and forth in the tractor,” says Mike.
Their hard work paid off. Today, working with celebrity winemaker Heidi Barrett, they make 800 cases of Zinfandel and more than 700 of Cabernet each year. In 1999, they were able to trade the trailer for a beautiful four-bedroom home complete with a sweeping veranda overlooking Pope Valley.
The Lamborns still get their hands dirty, pampering the vines four days a week. “The image of people in the wine business is rather distorted,” says Mike. “Our visitors are often baffled to find us dirty, sweaty, and working. But we both love being out in the vineyard first and foremost.”
Like a Fairy tale
Shari and Garen Staglin, like the Lamborns, were very young when they were wooed by Napa. They came to the valley for the first time in the late 1960s, when it had only five wineries, and they vowed to live there. “We thought it was one of the greatest places on the planet,” says Garen, who runs a technology company. “But all we had were student loans and lots of ambition.”
They kept their dream warm for more than 15 years, and in 1985 they bought a 52-acre ranch with 40 acres of grapes in Napa’s supremely valued Rutherford Bench. Shari, an executive recruiter, began studying viticulture and enology at UC Davis. For eight years, the couple commuted from Lafayette, showered at Meadowood, worked their vineyard, and slept in a trailer. Today, in a 24,000-square-foot underground winery, the Staglins and vineyard manager David Abreu produce almost 7,000 cases of Cabernet and Chardonnay each year.
Designed by San Francisco architect Bob Arrigoni and completed in 1992, the family’s five-bedroom, 11,000-square-foot farmhouse is the stuff of fairy tales. Olive-green ivy curls lovingly around the home, as if it has sat on the Rutherford Bench for centuries. Original art hangs throughout the house, and three majestic arches frame a glorious tiled patio like a Bologna portico. “It’s designed to have the inside and outside be a seamless transition of space and views,” says Garen. “It’s built for entertaining, and we do quite a bit of that.”
Every year, the Staglins host the Musical Festival for Mental Health to raise funds for research into the causes and cures for mental disorders. Last year alone they made almost $4 million, bringing the charity’s total to almost $35 million raised over 12 years.
What do the Staglins enjoy most about living their hard-earned dream? “The romance of the land and the cycle of the harvest,” says Garen. “We feel very fortunate to be stewards of this spectacular property.”
Growing a Business
With Wine Country real estate soaring, it has become less common for young East Bay families to break into the market. Some, however, are still brave and savvy enough to get a foot in the door. Danville’s Michael and Gretchen Schmahl spent two years sifting through 80 prospective vineyards and built a watertight business plan. In 2003 they bought 110 acres, 56 planted with vines, east of Healdsburg, and began Gann Family Cellars. “Our long-term goal was to create a successful business around wines that we are thoroughly passionate about,” says Michael, who spent 20 years in the high-tech industry. “We wanted to build something that can be around for future generations. Not just a hobby that will get flipped when we turn 80.”
Gann Family Cellars grows malbec, syrah, merlot, petite sirah, zinfandel, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc grapes. With the winery’s 2004 Sauvignon Blanc already winning gold at the Los Angeles County Fair and its 2004 Merlot winning gold at the California State Fair, the Schmahls and their two young daughters will soon be able to build a home among their beloved vines. “Healdsburg is a great town with a really tight community,” says Michael. “There are a couple of locations on our property where we could build a home. We bought it knowing that that would be something to do down the road, after the business had a couple of years to establish itself.”
The Schmahls did their research, but for many new vine owners, their only experience with wine is, well, drinking it. Let’s face it: Anyone can open a bottle, but how many know anything about growing grapes? Luckily, green thumbs aren’t a necessity. Although some grape growers patrol their vines religiously, others are happy to hand the reins to vineyard managers.
Blackhawk’s Randy and Lisa Lynch, owners of Bennett Lane Winery, planted eight acres of cabernet on the 12-acre Calistoga property where their home is located. With an additional 10 acres at their nearby winery and contracts on a dozen vineyards throughout the valley, the Lynches produce 16,000 cases of wine a year. That’s a serious output for a family who bought a winery on a whim and knew little about making wine. “I learned a long time ago that it’s not what you know; it’s knowing where to find the people who know,” says Randy, owner of San Ramon advertising agency RW Lynch. “It’s not like I’m fourth-generation and all of these winemaking secrets were handed down to me. I was starting with no knowledge whatsoever, so I surrounded myself with a very experienced team.”
He certainly chose the right team—Bennett Lane’s Maximus (blended Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah) and two of its Cabernets were listed among Wine Spectator’s top 50 Napa Valley Cabernets in 2006.
The Lynches’ Wine Country home, a 9,000-square-foot villa, brings to mind a sumptuous Roman estate. It has a 360-degree view of the Mayacamas Mountains rubbing shoulders with Mount St. Helena and the Palisades, a pool and 16-person spa surrounded by vines, beautifully gnarled 100-year-old olive trees lining a bocce ball court, and an additional 5,000-square-foot guesthouse with gym, arcade, seven-car garage, and personal wine-tasting cellar, where, according to Lisa, all their parties begin and end.
Mike and Treva Harris, also from Blackhawk, made a permanent move to Napa in 1997. While searching for a second home, the Harrises fell for 48 secluded acres on the north slope of Diamond Mountain near Calistoga. Once part of a private boys’ school, the property had no vines and needed serious attention. “It was beautiful but a wreck,” says Mike, a retired pediatric dentist. “Our friends thought we were crazy, but it was so unique that we felt, at the very least, it would be a good investment. But we never intended to have as big a project as this.”
Nor did they intend to become farmers. But their soil was ideal for growing grapes, and they ended up planting three vineyards of cabernet. The wine-guzzling world is glad that they did. Their very first Cabernet (2002), produced with help from winemaker Mark Herold, was awarded a score of 94 by uber-authoritative wine connoisseur Robert Parker.
Today, the Harris estate consists of three houses (including an 1880 Victorian), two cottages, a pond stocked with bass and bluegill, tennis courts, and a pool. Designed by famed Wine Country architect Howard Backen, the main house has 20-foot sliding doors upstairs and down, and dazzling views of the Palisades and Mount St. Helena.
With such a breathtaking, untouched landscape close by, it’s difficult to believe that a good night out is a short drive away. Although transplants from our neck of the woods might report that you can go to the nicest Wine Country restaurant wearing jeans, the social life is far from rural. “You could be busy every night of the week,” says Treva. “We attend performances at Napa Valley Opera House and Lincoln Theater. And people are very into food and wine here, so they entertain in their homes a lot.”
Food and Wine
Great food is something that the East Bay and Wine Country have in common, so it’s no surprise that Napa is a popular destination for East Bay food aficionados. Michael Dellar, co-owner of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, and his wife, Leslye, were looking for a second home when, in 1996, they joined with friends to buy 41 acres between Napa and Yountville. The weekend cottage quickly morphed into a full-time home with guesthouse, fruit orchard, vegetable and flower garden, and 8.4 acres of cabernet (leased to Livermore’s Wente Vineyards). “I always wanted a vineyard,” says Michael. “I’m a restaurateur. I have a love of wine. But I also like nature and peace and quiet. We’ve got wonderful restaurants here, good culture and education, and we think we grow the best wines in the world.”
Michael Verlander, former owner of Walnut Creek’s Prima restaurant and wine shop and co-owner of DuMOL Winery, wanted to have a home in the East Bay and in Wine Country. Buying his new ranch, nestled in Sonoma in the Mayacamas Mountains, meant his family had to sell their East Bay home. “It wasn’t exactly bargain hunting coming up here,” says Michael.
Currently making about 11,000 cases of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Viognier a year, DuMOL has received phenomenal acclaim. Wine Spectator has recognized DuMOL as one of the top Pinot Noir producers in the world, ranked its Syrah 24th in the top 100, and, last year, named all three of its Chardonnays as Editor’s Picks.
The Good Life
Perhaps no one could fit more snugly into Napa Valley than Don Ross. The former Danville resident has a passion for wine that precedes him. A former president of Blackhawk Country Club’s Wine Society who has worked in manufacturing, he has a wine collection that includes the 1929 Château Mouton Rothschild and a 1792 Madeira (grapes for which were harvested when George Washington was president). Ross’s bottled treasure isn’t gathering dust. He drinks it. And, better still, he shares. “I eat out most nights, often at a bar in one of the finer restaurants, and drag along a bottle from my collection,” says Ross. “I share it with staff or people at the bar. Wine is my passion, and living in Napa is like living a dream.”
Ross’s dream blossomed in 2003 when he moved to an idyllic spot near St. Helena. Surrounded by vines, views, and a canopy of ancient oaks, his land cradles an acre of cabernet, enough for 150 cases a year to go with 150 cases of Chardonnay that Ross makes from Russian River grapes.
He calls his new home Shibumi Knoll (shibumi means “effortless perfection” in Japanese). “For me, living here is about as effortless as life will ever get,” says Ross. He says hiking through redwoods, watching salmon swim upriver, harvesting apples from 50-year-old trees, and picking pears and persimmons are sublime. “It’s just terrific. Real country living.”
Hannah Craddick is a Walnut Creek resident and regular contributor to Diablo.
Photographer: Anne Hamersky