From Beltane with love
One family, three generations, and a 2,600-pound bull named Bob. (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
Alexis hand-feeding Bob.
It’s a bit ironic that Beltane Ranch is named for Thomas Bell, a man, because it’s women who created it, rearranged its rocks, styled its structures and gave it a heavenly, sun-kissed glow that somehow calls to mind the aura of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie.
Beltane, in fact, could almost be the working name of a television series and you wouldn’t have to invent the characters—they already exist. Rosemary Wood is the matriarch who turned a turkey ranch into a highly successful B&B. Alexa is her beautiful, middle-aged daughter who now runs the place; Lauren is the stunning granddaughter who loves the ranch, keeps the rooms booked but also co-owns a photo studio in New York; and Alex is the earnest, handsome grandson, the ranch hand and volunteer fireman for whom Beltane is all of his past and all of his future. And then there’s Bob, a 2,600 pound Angus bull who somehow escaped the slaughterhouse and is now an extremely large pet.
The plot possibilities are endless and could include the real-life celebration this year for the first Beltane Ranch-labeled estate-grown wine, a highly acclaimed sauvignon blanc.
From Highway 12 the ranch is mostly hidden. All you see is a mysterious, very old wall of hand-piled stone that runs back from the road. Turning in, the wall continues on your left for hundreds of yards, a full 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, a massive enterprise, and no one knows who built it. The stones are silent now, keeping their secrets, in which the history of the ranch is shrouded.
The ranch house that emerges as you move further up the lane is sunflower yellow, surrounded on every side by a lavish profusion of flowers—eight-inch diameter dahlias in pink, masses of orange daylilies, blue hydrangeas, peachy alstromeria, roses of every hue, a large very old stand of raspberry canes, laden fruit trees, vineyards in the distance, and all framed by lofty oaks. White Casablanca lilies release their sweet scent to the air. It is a picture postcard.
The main structure, which houses five of the six B&B rooms (one is in a separate cottage), has a New Orleans look with gingerbread and covered porches and balconies all around. Even though greatly remodeled inside, the exterior tells part of the ranch’s story. It was built in 1892—on former Wappo Indian land—by Mary Ellen Pleasant who was born in Georgia and spent some time in New Orleans before coming to San Francisco and forming an alliance of sorts with the aforementioned Thomas Bell, a wealthy banker.
Pleasant’s legacy, however, is more than architectural. Half white, half black, born a slave, she earned her freedom doing indentured work. Committed to the Underground Railroad, she came to San Francisco to establish better routes for escaping slaves. During the gold rush San Francisco had six men to one woman, and those odds helped Pleasant connect with powerful city businessmen. As a result she amassed quite a fortune, enabling her to support the efforts of John Brown, the abolitionist. Fearless and an avowed feminist before the word was invented, she was easily two centuries ahead of her time.
Perhaps some of her energy remains in the 1-by-12 redwood boards that make up the ranch house, or in the rich valley soil spreading out in all directions. It may have inspired Rosemary Wood, who was called to the ranch from Virginia in 1974 by her aunt and uncle, Ralph and Effia Heins, who had bought the place in 1936. In failing health, Effia needed Rosemary to manage the property, which was then a turkey, sheep and cattle ranch. Somewhere she found the courage to take it on. She dug in with her bare hands, taking two years, with a Swiss craftsman, to restore the wall that she remembered walking on as a girl. And that was just the beginning.
When Rosemary told Effia she wanted to turn the ranch in to a bed and breakfast, her aunt scoffed and said, “That’s too hard, you could never do it.”
But Rosemary did. The oddly configured main structure was composed of numerous individual rooms, each with an outside door. Perhaps it had been a bunkhouse, some said it was once a brothel. Whatever it was, Rosemary slowly transformed it into a thriving B&B. Today the property exudes charm and a prevailing peacefulness. You can feel worldly weight evaporate just standing in the garden. It’s no surprise the ranch’s rooms are almost always booked.
Alexa moved to the ranch when her mother inherited it on the death of Aunt Effia. In 2002, in a settlement with other heirs, 1,300 acres became part of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. Now Rosemary, Alexa, Lauren and Alex own 105 acres, including the B&B, a main residence, 30 acres of vineyards and the lavish gardens.
Alexa’s career became managing the B&B, selling grapes, raising grass-fed Angus beef and hand-feeding Bob. In the small kitchen, she cooks breakfast for the guests with eggs from her heritage chickens, ranch-raised fruits and organic vegetables. “There’s always so much to be done, but compared to having a boss it’s really lovely,” she says. “I feel like the luckiest woman in the world right now.”
Alexa’s son, Alex, 27, who grew up on this land and now lives there in a small cottage, sees the ranch and the wine business as his lifelong future, with an ultimate production goal of 6,000 cases. It was his idea to plant zinfandel vines last year, an old California varietal that suits Beltane. For years the ranch sold its grapes to upscale wineries like Cakebread Cellars and Kenwood Vineyards. Now, increasingly, that choice fruit will be turned into Beltane wine. Alex is quiet, steady, creative, a hard worker with big dreams for the ranch. “I’m not going anywhere. I love it here,” he says.
Daughter Lauren, 30, left Beltane to earn her degree at the University of Arizona, and then went off to Manhattan for seven years, where she worked at Elle and Vogue magazines. Her marketing skills fill the inn’s rooms. Travel and Leisure magazine gave Beltane a World’s Best Award as a “best-kept secret,” and Victoria’s Secret and L.L. Bean have used the ranch as a photography location for their catalogs.
Lauren is bi-coastal at the moment. At Beltane she lives in the water tower Rosemary long ago converted into an apartment, and she often wings back to New York, where she is a partner in the photography and design firm Brooklyn Studio West. “I’ve always had a foot on the ranch,” she says, “and I always will.”
Rosemary retired from Beltane some time back and now lives in the village of Mendocino. A spry 86, she says she had to get far enough away to not be tempted to chip in on the constant chores that need doing on a working ranch. But her heart remains at Beltane.
“It is a neat old place and we’re lucky it’s still here. It can be a lot of hard work but it’s nice making people happy. I’m glad I lived long enough to see everything,” she says. “I do love the old place.”
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)