Female Leadership and Regenerative Farming at Sonoma’s Beltane Ranch
There’s no shortage of scenic, impressive wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. But not every winery is a six-generation family-run affair with a long history of strong female leadership and regenerative farming. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Beltane Ranch’s intrigue.
A Legacy of Stories
Beltane Ranch is a 105-acre winery, sustainable farm and historic inn set in the hills north of Sonoma Valley. Nested on a hillside overlooking valleys of oak trees, vineyards and open fields, the land is host to centuries of historic tales.
“The people before us left a legacy of stories,” Lauren Benward, Beltane Ranch Vice President and family member, said. “It doesn’t feel like just a plot land.. It feels like something bigger.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant was one of the first notable figures connected with the property. As a Black woman in the 1890’s, she defied all odds to become a wealthy power mogul, successful business owner and civil rights leader. Benward said she sued the San Francisco Streetcar Company for not letting black people ride in the 1870’s– a move that was ahead of her time.
It was Pleasant who selected the site for the house that is today’s bed and breakfast at Beltane Ranch. Because of her, the inn is considered a historic landmark to this day. In the 1960’s, Benward’s grandmother had the house restored room by room with modern comforts, but most of the architectural detail remains.
“This was [Pleasant’s] vision,” Benward said. “The construction and architecture is inspired by her roots outside New Orleans and you can really feel that and experience that when you stay here.”
Six Generations of Family Ownership
After Mary Ellen Pleasant, there were a couple different families that owned the property before Benward’s family came into the picture. Lauren Benward’s great-great aunt and uncle bought the land during the Great Depression and, because they had no children, it was passed down through Benward’s great-grandmother’s family.
The women in the family tended to run the show– each generation wielding their own talents and ideas to improve Beltane Ranch. Benward said her great-great aunt had a green thumb in the garden and a soft spot for the animals. Meanwhile, Benward’s grandmother, who was a single mom, had the vision to restore the house and open it as a bed and breakfast. And it was Benward’s mother who wanted to get back into the wine industry– an operation that had been in the area in the late 1800’s, but was on the back burner.
While Benward and her brother Alex were growing up on the winery, their grandmother continued to run the inn while their mom oversaw the vineyards.
“We grew up always helping in the vineyard, gardening and serving people,” Benward said. “The crossover between agriculture and hospitality is what the property’s always been and what we know as a family.”
After spending their childhood at Beltane Ranch, both of the siblings felt they needed to stretch their wings. They left home for college, then for the beginning stages of their careers– gaining some outside experience and fresh perspective before deciding to return to Beltane Ranch.
Upon their return, Benward and her brother saw an opportunity for a new approach at the winery. They decided to create their own wine (rather than selling their grapes to other vintners) and have a hand in the winemaking process from soil to glass.
Regenerative and Small-Scale Farming
Beltane Ranch follows a sustainable farming model– something that comes hand in hand with their respect for the land and its stories.
“You don’t really own this property or this story. It’s so much bigger than who we are, so we just get to play a role in stewarding it for the time being,” Benward said.
Benward said that their business shines best when they’re able to combine all three of the property’s elements: wine, food and hospitality. Guests enjoy food grown on property paired with the wine grown in their vineyard. The scraps may then go to compost for other crops or perhaps to feed the chickens that provide fresh eggs for the next meal.
“What’s beautiful is how it’s all intertwined,” Benward said. “It really wouldn’t be the same if all the pieces, like dining and hospitality, were pulled apart. That’s a real focus for us… shortening the cycles and tying them together.”
Benward said the family took inspiration from a trip to Portugal and Morocco in 2019. In some of the ancient olive groves they visited, old world farming techniques were still very much at play; there were even some places where donkeys were being used for farming.
“There’s so much wisdom in age old farming- non commercial, nonindustrial, farming by hand,” Benward said. ”I’m really inspired by places that are doing things in the old world ways.”
As a small property, Beltane Ranch will never be able to compete with high-production, commercial wineries in terms of operations. Rather, where they excel is taking it slow. Honoring the sense of history and intrinsic value of the land. Paying individualized attention to each guest and to each crop of grapes.
In fact, Benward said her favorite part of the job is creating new and unique ways for visitors to experience the property based on their interests.
“For example, our group today was more focused on how we’re using the babydoll sheep for weed reduction in the vineyard,” Benward said. “We have this sweet baby lamb and they got to bottle feed the lamb. Then we tasted the wine from that vineyard block, that part of the vineyard where the sheep are. So we tie it all together.”
All photos courtesy of Beltane Ranch.
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