Money can’t buy you love or happiness, but it sure can get you a nice little piece — say 400 acres — of peace and quiet.
In 2006 Thomas and Jarman Lowder — at the instigation of their daughter Hunter — purchased the secluded Holman Ranch in Carmel Valley, which boasted hosting such notable peace-seekers as Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.
The Lowders completely restored the historic Spanish-style buildings, planted 19 acres of vineyards and dug a wine cave — on top of their initial investment of $12 million (give or take a few hundred thousand). Oh my.
Originally part of the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmel, the current Holman Ranch offers “special event” hosting in a spectacularly beautiful environment. At a price. A large one.
They also make wine. Delicious wine. At a price. A relatively small one.
I know that some readers assume this wine column comes with great perks like lots of free wine and trips to Burgundy and Tuscany. Be assured that it doesn’t. Yes, occasionally someone sends me a bottle or two to review (which I do only if I really like it). Once (in my six years as “the wineau”) I did get a free trip — one night in Napa. So when Holman Ranch offered me an escape from a Davis heat wave with wine-tasting, dinner and a room for two thrown in, I decided the drive down 680 (dreadful route) would be worth it.
I spent most of this drive (when not dodging aggressive semis) wondering how I was going to write about the wine. Just from the location and the photos, I had little doubt that I’d be able to recommend Holman Ranch as a wedding venue, but I feared that the wine, like so many Napa bottles produced at stunning properties, would be well-made-but-boring at best. High alcohol, over-oaked California fruit bombs. Many of the neighboring Carmel Valley wineries offer them.
I thought I could describe with ambiguous adjectives (“fruit-forward,” “bold,” “assertive”) the predictable wines I was anticipating. Adjectives that, when I read them, send me a warning signal: your first sip might well taste good but by the fourth, you (suffering from numbed taste buds) will want to toss the rest. In short, a wine I would never buy for myself.
On the way to the ranch we stopped briefly at the new Holman Ranch tasting room in the village of Carmel Valley. There I was somewhat reassured to discover that the acres had been recently certified organic by CCOF — and certified as well by SIP (Sustainability in Practice). On the other hand, I reminded myself, I’ve tasted plenty of organic fruit bombs.
Hunter’s husband, Nick, took about a dozen guests — mostly writers, party-planners and travel experts — on a little pre-dinner tour of the property and urged us to drink a glass of the Holman Ranch Rosé of Pinot Noir along the way.
“Let’s share one,” I whispered to Rebecca.
We tasted it. We looked at each other.
“On second thought,” I began. She finished the sentence, “I’ll get my own.”
Bright, lively and dry, it could have come from small vineyards in the south of France, their hills drenched with sunlight, their soils rocky, all cooled with a light sea breeze and breathtakingly lovely. You know, one of those places where the vines are fertilized by farm animals and where finding the wine outside the area is next to impossible.
Except for the France part, that was pretty much the scene and situation before us; we even discovered on the tour that, yes, the ranch horses supply the vineyard compost. Only 100 cases of this wine were produced — it retails for about $20.
With dinner we had, in addition to more of the rosé, the sauvignon blanc and the 2010 Estate Pinot Noir. (Besides a small amount of sauv blanc and chard, Holman Ranch grows only pinot noir and pinot gris — grapes perfectly suited to the Burgundy-like climate and soil.) The sauvignon blanc, too, was lively, expressive and food-friendly with light minerals and a determined citrus finish. Made partly with the aromatic and fruity musque clone, it paired beautifully with the nicely seasoned seasonal vegetables that dominated the buffet table. I liked it more than any sauv blanc I’ve tried of late, and at $18 it seems to me a real bargain.
Since I seldom drink red wines during the summer, I almost re-filled my glass with this delicious white, but I decided to taste the pinot noir first. Just in case. Oh my. It was wonderful. Again, I felt like I must be in France sipping fine Burgundy. Aged 12 months in French (of course) oak, it had all the best characteristics of the pesky, picky pinot varietal — layers of bright but restrained sour cherry and berry, finessed earthiness and spicy elegance. I could have consumed several more glasses. In fact, I did.
And now I want more.
Holman Ranch makes several pinots, by the way. This 2010 estate version is their mid-priced offering — to my taste, the most delicious (though I really liked the $25 Kelly’s Press that I tried just before we left). Only 12.5 percent alcohol (hooray for Holman Ranch!), it retails for $33, higher, admittedly than the wineaux budget but so beautifully and carefully made that I wouldn’t have been surprised by a $50 price tag. In fact, I’ve tasted $50 pinots that I liked a lot less.
The following morning we made our way down a hill to the property’s wine cave. This, too, defied expectations. I’ve been to some pretty fancy wine caves, outfitted with lavish dinner tables and constructed with romantic engagement parties and weddings in mind.
I suspect that the wine prices at such vineyards reflect these investments more than they reflect the excellence of the wine itself. But the Holman Ranch cave is just that, a utilitarian cave. Dug not for show but to keep the wine cool without using electricity. Winemaker Greg Vita just happened to be down there, finishing up his work so he could head off the next day to UC Davis (Greg’s own alma mater), where his son was getting his degree in viticulture and enology.
Holman Ranch does not, alas, rent out its peaceful cottages unless you book the property for an event. Just as well — these are the sorts of perfectly appointed accommodations that cost upwards of $300 a night. But members of the Grand Estate Wine Club (two one-case shipments per year) can stay two nights free of charge, quite a perk. So if you’re seeking a source for these beautiful wines — you will definitely not find them on your supermarket shelves — the wine club might just be the answer.
Money can buy you wine — and even a luxurious and peaceful place in which to drink it. So maybe money can buy happiness, too. Of the ephemeral sort. On the other hand, maybe all happiness is transitory. And is there a difference between ephemeral and transitory? Discuss this over your next bottle.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com