The Second Harvest

Hard to believe that we’re starting our second harvest. Last year’s yields were low due to the drought but this year we made some adjustments and it looks like all of our crew’s hard work is paying off. We harvested our Chardonnay during the wee hours between Sunday and Monday. And the yields shattered our forecast. Our crew picked about 12 tons in a single night. All were excited to kick off another great harvest season.

I braved the dark and foggy country roads and showed up to start shooting at 5 am when the crew had already been long at work picking for about 4 hours.  At 6:30 we took a coffee and donut break, then back out for picking.  By 10 a.m. vineyard manager and I dropped our first load off at Sandhi and Domaine De La Cote. 24 half ton bins later, we finished the job around 12:30 p.m. A marathon to be sure but all were happy with the results.

A perfect Chardonnay cluster.
A perfect Chardonnay cluster.

Last week we also harvested our little 1 acre Viognier vineyard (for Zinke winery) at the house.  The kids (and Auggie) were on hand to supervise this one. We’re getting them shaped up for the hard labor.  Their little hands can reach the tough clusters. I’m thinking in a year or two they’ll be ready to be full fledged pickers. That is if they can stop eating the grapes long enough to put them in the bin.  Happy harvest, happy life.

The Chickens!

Back in November we decided that after a mere six months of country living, it was high time to raise chickens.  We visited Dare to Dream Farms in Lompoc so the kids could pick out three chicks to take home.  For months we fed our chicks in the garage until the day they were finally ready to face the harsh and unforgiving outdoor coop.  And then we waited.  And waited more.  And some more.

Cutie pie chicks, first day home!
Cutie pie chicks, first day home!

Finally, nearly six months after bringing home the darned freeloaders, there it was.  Our very first egg!  The earth turned, the heavens sang, and we cradled that egg in our hands like a raw diamond, examining its cut, color, size, and clarity.  For the next two days we debated what kind of food would befit our perfect treasure.  We had only one after all.  How can we showcase it best?  Crack it raw into a bloody mary?  Poach it? Fry it up with fried rice so we could all enjoy it?  At last, a simple fried egg was the winning answer.  And never has a fried egg tasted so glorious.

Since then all of our birds have become official layers.  And if they were a bit standoffish before they started laying, boy oh boy are they flirty and friendly now, nuzzling our legs with their tushy feathers!  They seem to love us as much as we love them…er…as much as we love to steal the fruits of their labor.

Meet our first prize winning layer- Jeffrey.


Not to be overshadowed by Her Royal Highness- Rainbow.


And of course, our shyest hen of the bunch- Fast Cloud.


And now for the reward, FRESH EGGS!

Just Got Laid!
Just Got Laid!

The Perfect Day

After five years of drought, rain finally blessed the Santa Ynez Valley.  Long dormant fields burst overnight with green grasses.  Wild flowers soon followed.  And the land was happy.  Dovecote Ranch, our little piece of heaven, beckoned us to come out and play.

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Play we did.  An oak shaded picnic, a dog taking a swim in the pond, a little BB gun target practice, a little fishing, and a lot of getting dirty.  While the kids fished, I cruised around the ranch to snap a few photos.  All of the scenic photos here were taken from the view atop my ATV.

I still can’t believe we live here.


The Stomp

When harvest was all said and done late last year, we had a few tons of grapes left over that hadn’t been allocated to other winemakers.  What do you do with world class Syrah grapes?  Stomp the bejeezus out of ’em and make thee some wine! So that’s what we decided to do.  We partnered with a winemaker and decided to make a few barrels of wine.  Our wine project won’t be ready for quite some time because the juice needs to sit in barrel for a couple of years while it does its thing, but at least we were able to be a part of the process.

By the time we made it over to the winery the grapes had already begun their fermentation process.  They were cold and a bit slushy.  But the kids were troopers as we lowered them into the cold bins and held them while their tiny feet stomped away.  Did I feel like “I Love Lucy” in her infamous Italian adventure? No, but it was pretty exhilarating nonetheless.  And when somebody asks you if you want to stomp grapes, always say “YES, PLEASE!”

The family that stomps together...
The family that stomps together…

The Fiesta

We’ve been settling into our new life in the country.  As you can expect, things move a little slower here, and I find myself moving slower too.  This may explain my posting hiatus (although laziness might be the more accurate explanation).

We’re well into another season on the vineyard.  Pruning is in progress and warm weather has already woken the vines from their winter slumber (bud break came early!).

The Santa Ynez Valley is beautifully verdant thanks to a few well needed rain storms.  And as we welcomed our crew back from their winter break in Mexico I was reminded how much we enjoy having them on the ranch.  So I thought I’d post a few pictures from the fiesta we threw to celebrate the end of harvest last November.

A fiesta really is the best word for it .  We hired a full Mariachi band and grilled carne asada and sipped wine and Coors Light (our crew’s favorite) next to the pond.

Our family and friends celebrated the end of a wonderful season in harmony with the extended family of the crew that has been caring for the land here for two generations (and moving onto a third).

With one full successful season under our belts, we hope to make the harvest fiesta an annual tradition.

The Pond

One of our favorite places to be on the ranch is next to our pond.  On its bank sits a majestic 150 year old oak that provides the perfect cover to picnic, fish, or partake in an afternoon nap.

Recently the pond served as host for Jaffurs Wine Cellars.  An annual event open to wine club members, they come to enjoy stone fired pizzas, all the Jaffurs wine they can drink (including the beautiful Thompson Vineyard Syrah and Grenache Blanc), tours of the vineyard given by the winemaker, and of course, the beautiful scenery.

Patron's FishFor El Patron, the pond became one of the ranch’s biggest selling points. (The world class vineyard was just a bonus!)  A fisherman at heart, I knew he was sold on the ranch the first time he caught a huge bass within a few minutes of dropping his line in the pond.

And because those big bass eat all the little guys, this week we stocked the pond to keep the aquaculture healthy and thriving.  Into our pond went exactly 81 largemouth bass, 400-500 bluegill, and about 7000-9000 mosquito fish.  Go little guys!

The pond is also good for a few other things too: playing with boats, riding on paddle boats, picnics, and of course, photo bombing.

The Big Day

Harvest begins in the vineyard.  As we finish up our first year of ranch ownership, we also complete our first full season cultivating our vines from pruning to picking. Our harvest began late last night in our chardonnay block and will continue throughout the next couple of months.  Warm weather contributed to an especially early harvest this year.

We began at 1 a.m. with a round of coffee, head lamps, and shears tucked in our spiffy new leather holsters. Picking at night ensures we deliver our grapes to the winemakers first thing in the morning before the blistering sun warms and cooks the grapes.  Our crew of 13 motored through nearly 4 acres of chardonnay to fill 10 half-ton bins.  The yield on our chardonnay vines was low this year, less money for us as we charge by the ton, but they’re sure to produce mighty fine wine.  The grapes picked last night were delivered by our ranch manager and me to Sandhi Wines.

Harvest-5Though I’ll admit I’m hurting a little after last night’s marathon, and I likely won’t be on hand to personally pick each block we harvest this season, I have to say it was an awesome experience.  Our seasoned crew, made up entirely of one extended family who has been working this ranch for over two decades, worked with all the grace of a synchronized swimming team.  They were lively, efficient, and all too humble while I poked around and shoved my camera in their faces.  After harvest we dined on a few dozen tamales homemade by the family’s matriarch, who shared with me that she has 7 children (three of whom work on our ranch) and 23 grandchildren.  Quite a legacy.  I was honored to work among them and look forward to many more seasons getting to know the Cervantes crew.

Click on an image to begin the slideshow.


The Name

It’s official: our ranch has a new name! Now that the trademarks are in place (always the attorney…), I can share it with you!

Head on over to our new website:

My husband deserves all the credit for singlehandedly designing and coding our new site.  Isn’t it amazing?!?

While the name of the vineyard will remain “Thompson” because of the incredible reputation it has for producing world class Rhone varietals, the ranch on which the vineyard sits will now and forever be known as………… Ok, so I’m not going to tell you.  You have to read about it on the blog. Click HERE!

FYI: you can also find an article I wrote on my philosophy about wine HERE.  Enjoy.

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The Wild Game

We had our first true “you’re in the country now” experience.  The other day Roberto, our ranch hand, generously offered us a cooler full of meat.  Wild boar meat, to be specific.  The boar in question was shot the night before.  By the time the cooler reached us the hog had been gutted, skinned, and fabricated into manageable but gigantic pieces.  And while I wasn’t exactly prepared to cook an entire wild boar, I graciously accepted the gift.

For a couple of weeks now on the ranch we had noticed the result of these destructive animals coming through.  Their presence can be both dangerous and a major threat to farmland and our vineyard so when they pass through the ranch hands sometimes hunt them at night.  It’s part of life out here.  But at least they don’t go to waste.

So what’s a girl with about 60 pounds of boar meat to do?  Cook carnitas, and ribs. Lots of it.   (Had I been prepared I would have made sausage too but alas, I didn’t have the proper supplies.)  Until now, I had cooked boar just once previously.  This was quite a different experience.  I cooked the ribs and carnitas simultaneously and my entire house smelled RIPE!  Picture yourself standing in the middle of a butcher shop that is itself in the middle of a hog factory.  Funky.  Though the smell was off-putting, dinner itself turned out pretty good.  We had boar carnitas with all the fixins’: queso fresco, salsa verde, chilis, pickled radishes (picked fresh from our garden), cilantro, red cabbage, and Cacique crema.  We invited friends over for taco night because we had enough meat to feed at least 50. We celebrated our score by having dinner al fresco overlooking our baby vineyard.

The ribs, on the other hand, I couldn’t manage.  A bit too off-putting.  I dry rubbed and roasted them low and slow the way I usually do with spare ribs, then added my homemade barbecue sauce. But all that work couldn’t mask their funky boariness.  I think we’ll try goat meat next.

The Ranch Pets

Along with the wild animals: boars, birds of prey, lizards, raccoons, skunks, and the occasional mountain lion, our ranch had two very cool working ranch cats– Suzy and Chucky.  The prior owners also had the happiest dog I’ve ever seen: a yellow lab named Lily that liked to jump in the pond to chase, but never catch, the ducks.  While Lily moved to her new home with her owners, Suzy and Chucky stayed on our ranch to continue their work culling birds, ground squirrels, and vermin, and displaying their kills to prove they were earning their keep.  They were both estimated to be over 20 years old but still fierce hunters.

Unfortunately, Suzy recently succumbed to cancer from her long days in the sun, and karma finally caught up with Chucky.  After years of slaying birds, our best guess is that an owl found Chucky prowling in the night and took his revenge.  We buried them in the quiet shade of an oak tree, explaining to the kids as best we can about the “circle of life” and the harsher realities of life on a ranch.  Yet without our two hunters, the vermin were having a field day (literally) and we needed to keep the population in check.

So when one of our vineyard employees mentioned he had a litter of seven kittens he found who knows where, we decided to take them all off his hands.  We invited our ranch manager’s children over so that his two children and our two could each choose their own special kitty.  As the kids were getting to know their kitties, the mobile vet got to work de-flea-ing, de-worming, and administering their shots.  We have Diamond, Rascal, Grave Digger (my son’s choice), and Chloe, among others.  The kittens have been getting used to their nighttime quarters in the barn, slowly exploring their surroundings until they feel confident enough to hunt.  Hopefully the kittens will grow to be as sweet but fierce as their predecessors.

On the canine front, we recently adopted a rescue pup.  At 14 weeks, Auggie is a little love muffin, showing strong signs of being a wonderful ranch dog.  His mommy we know is a cattle dog, and judging by the looks of his tail and his litter mates, we suspect his daddy was a German Shepherd.  Auggie has become my little buddy, following me everywhere.  It’s been about 20 years since I’ve owned a dog and I’d forgotten how sweet (but all-consuming) they are.  He plays well with the kids (though showing some signs of trying to “herd” my rambunctious daughter), and spends most of his day following me around and trying unsuccessfully to sleep at my feet when he thinks I’ll be stationary, though I never am.

Our new puppy Auggie

For now our expanded ranch family feels complete, until of course Auggie needs a playmate!