I’ve spent the past week in northern California wine country. There were ten of us living together, wining and dining together and riding through the California country side. Our group represented the whole equestrian ball of wax, from sea to shining sea. From the New York City financial district, to the Florida beaches, from the Pennsylvania horse country to the austere red rocks of the four corners to the southern California high life. My dear friend Lucy and I firmly held down the middle of the country, being from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
We also represented all walks of horse-life. Some closely aligned with the professional end of the industry, some on the upswing of their competitive riding careers, some who have taken up horses late in life, some in it all their lives. And then there were the blessed husbands who without the undying dedication to their wives, would probably stay back at the lodge and watch football—or skip the riding and go straight to the wine tastings.
In spite of the variances between us and the intimacy we shared for six days, we all got along great and had a fabulous week together—learning about wine and horses, exploring the rugged and adventurous hillsides of Lake County CA, and getting to know each other like only people that live eat, breathe, sleep and ride together 24/7 can.
We came together as a group in stages on the first day, some of us beginning at the San Francisco airport, some met us on the first winery stop (narrated tour of a “bio-dynamic” vineyard in the Sonoma Valley, Benzigers Family Winery) while others caught up with us at the end of the day at the lodge—some 3 ½ hours north of San Fran. Sitting atop a mountain overlooking Clear Lake (the largest lake in CA) and the Lake County wine country (which also produces copious crops of Bartlett pears and wild rice), the lodge was a comfy and luxurious place to call home over the next six days. Everyone arrived with newly purchased wine from our various tastings along the way and dinner was an excellent affair, as we began to explore the differences and commonalities between us.
The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed down to the barn which sat two miles below the lodge at the foot of the mountain. It was a little chaotic that first morning as 10 of us sorted through the herd of 15 horses to find the best match for each rider. That first ride around the ranch was a real shake down cruise and we switched horses like musical chairs. After a decadent lunch at the lodge, we hit the road (horses in trailers and the group in the 12 passenger van) for our first half-day’s ride along the levees surrounded by orchards, wet lands and sheep farms. By the end of the ride, most of us were beginning to gel with our horses and some were staking claim on their mounts for the week. I think a couple of the guys would’ve let their horses sleep in their room back at the lodge, if we could’ve gotten them up the steep mountain.
When our first day’s ride ended we all piled into the van and headed to the little village of Upper Lake for a tasting at a wine-room, which represented many of the area vineyards. Not being a huge wine drinker myself, I sort of went along for the ride and tasted whatever the others selected. As would turn out to be the pattern for the whole week, we came back to the lodge for a relaxing evening with a few bottles of wine that someone in our group had selected for dinner. Socializing around the fireplace on the deck, watching the incredible views as the sun set, we relished the day.
Over dinner that night, we took turns going around the table and saying what each person would like to get out of the week. It was interesting that no one mentioned wine tasting or trail riding in their lists of wants. Instead, each rider stated specifics goals and horsemanship skills to master. It was clear to me as I drafted a lengthy list of the “workshops” I wanted to do, that although this was intended as a vacation week, everyone wanted to throw some work in there too, even the dutiful husbands who were supposedly along for the ride.
The next morning, we spent extra time at the lodge in an in-depth discussion about horse behavior and the human relationship. This is always very revealing to people, from the novices to the very experienced, as they ponder horse behavior and reflect on their previous encounters.
Next we headed out for a trail ride, with visions of herd life floating through everyone’s minds as 14 of us road through the CA countryside. After the ride we had a late lunch, sampling some local wines in lieu of a separate stop at a winery—leaving us enough time to head back to the lodge for a much needed cat nap before dinner.
The third day we spent the whole day at a nearby training farm, punching through the lengthy list of things people wanted to work on. I did a round pen demonstration on a young a wily TN Walker. We did lead-line work and explored various ground handling techniques for relaxing, soothing and restraining horses. After lunch we split into small groups for some private coaching, checking off the list from position improvements to confidence and control to flying lead changes.
After a hard but satisfying day, we headed to another biodynamic winery, Ceago Vinegarden for a private tasting, sitting out in an exquisite courtyard overlooking the lavender fields rimming Clear Lake. Over rare cheeses and dried fruits, we sipped a variety of fine wines from an extensive menu. We laughed, toasted and teased, and relished in our successes of the day while drinking in this magnificent setting. This was the pivotal moment of the week when we went from being a group to becoming a family.
The next day, we had a fabulous ride across a 4300 acre ranch and winery, eating lunch out on the trail and riding back to the tasting room of the Six Sigma Ranch, where the owner and his son guided us through various bottles, including some as yet unreleased and coveted Pinot Noirs. As the horses departed in the trailers, we tasted a variety of wines in the shade of the oaks trees, donned in our dirty and sweaty riding clothes.
On the way home in the van that evening, we made a short stop at another winery—one of my favorites– Steele Wines . Back at the lodge, we cleaned up and reconvened on the magnificent deck in our lounge clothes and talked over the highlights of the day before another lovely dinner. Our fourth day under our belts, with each successive night, we went to bed earlier and awoke later.
The fifth day was our final day of riding and I think we may have all agreed that the fourth day was the best. Both the horses and riders were tired and sore and all were happy to cut the day’s ride short and head in to the village of Upper Lake for a lovely lunch at the Blue Wing Saloon, an historical recreation rife with character. Our final night together was a roller coaster ride with heartfelt celebration, mixed emotions, poignant reminiscing and last minute in-depth conversations. The next morning we all packed our wine, exchanged contact info and hugged and kissed over breakfast as we all headed our separate ways to each corner of the country.
No doubt, we will all stay in touch for some time to come and for sure, we’ll all remember our adventure astride in the CA wine country.
Enjoy the ride,