A Day at Gainey Ranch
When early pioneers finally arrived in the land where they imagined the bluebird always sings at the lemonade springs, they were probably all hoping to find a place that looks a lot like the Santa Ynez Valley. With its mild weather, proximity to the ocean, and fertile landscape, the Santa Ynez Valley enticed early settlers to work this pleasant, beautiful landscape. Twentieth-century arrivals to the valley such as the Gainey family remain as moved by this land as were these early settlers and work to retain a connection with this special region of California’s Central Coast.
Recently, Gainey Vineyard generously invited several of us to spend the day exploring the ranch to witness and experience the efforts of the community of farmers, winemakers, chefs and viticulturalists who combine forces and promote a positive energy that infuses the ranch. [View slideshow below]
The Gainey Home Ranch
Today, many of California’s old ranches are pale imitations of what they once were: devoid of healthy animal populations, subdivided, or worse. Not so Santa Ynez’s Gainey Ranch, which maintains a diversity of plant and animal species to promote healthy populations of biological life while ensuring a continuation of this land’s agricultural history. With two additional properties planted to Burgundian varieties in the chilly Santa Rita Hills AVA to the west, the 1800-acre Home Ranch hosts vineyards of Bordeaux varieties, fields of organic produce, and grass-fed beef as well as daily wine tasting and the occasional farmers market.
On the Home Ranch property in a warm corner of the eastern valley and on its cooler land holdings to the west, Gainey Vineyards cultivates a diversity of wines that thrive in the range of conditions possible in the valley. With the Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley is the only east-west-trending valley in the western US. This geographic orientation facilitates the funneling inland of cool marine temperatures and lingering fog from the Pacific Ocean less than 10 miles away. The cold temperatures not only wrap Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines in a blanket of chill to help preserve acidity but they also help refrigerate the greens, carrots, fava beans, and other cool-weather organic crops produced on the ranch.
Sweet Spots and the Power of Biodiversity
The Gainey properties are so diverse and micro-climatically unique that the winemaking team can produce luscious Merlots and Meritages within 18 miles of its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards. Winery ambassador Jon Engelskirger lends his Bordeaux-varietal expertise as a consulting winemaker while Kirby Anderson consults with Gainey Vineyard for its Burgundy program. All the winemakers and vineyard managers work with the geography and climate to lure the most out of each vineyard block. As winemaker Jeff LeBard affirms, there’s no need to force anything on this very special property: everywhere’s a sweet spot.
In 1962, the Gaineys acquired the Home Ranch in the eastern Santa Ynez Valley and immediately began to develop a diversity of uses—vineyards, farmland, cattle, and horses—that they maintain today. After twenty years working these lands primarily for vegetables and livestock, in the early 1980s the Gaineys began to plant vines and build their winery, which was around the same time that Richard Sanford began installing his earliest vines in the valley. As pioneering Santa Ynez Valley vintners, the Gainey family demonstrates a strong commitment to exploring the breadth of agricultural possibilities on their ranch and remaining connected to the history of this unique land.
With the growing popularity of northern Santa Barbara County wines, Santa Ynez Valley fruit became more desirable and scarce. After working with every available vineyard in the county for fruit, in the 1990s the Gaineys decided to expand the scope of the ranch so they could grow all estate fruit. Wisely, they secured a variety of vineyard holdings for the range of varietals they want to produce so they not only manage the vineyards as they wish but they can produce all the varieties they want.
A Fresh Paradigm for Young Farmers
Gainey Vineyard has preserved an old California way of life with its Spanish-inspired architecture and diverse agricultural plantings as well as its working grasslands and interesting community of neighbors. Self-taught organic farmers Johanna and Chris Finley lease about 40 acres of farmland from the Gainey family and serve as effective models of 21st century farmers pursuing new ways to reclaim their careers from the industrial model that has emerged over the past 50 years.
The 2010 census revealed that, after seven decades of declining numbers of US farmers, 2010 saw the first increase in these stats since the 1930s dustbowl years. More farmers working smaller, manageable plots bodes well for America’s future to help us all remain linked to the earth through our food. Otherwise, we risk becoming untethered from the sources of healthy food by the pressures of industrial agriculture, which promises a tasteless future of food products packaged in plastic and mylar.
In season, Finley Farms Organic CSA provides weekly boxes for customers filled with organic produce for their cooking pleasure. The Finleys work hard to cultivate the land they lease from the Gainey family as they also juggle the raising of their two small children. Like many young parents, they look tired but they also grin with the smiles of those who don’t have to work in a cubicle for the Man. Their children can eat a fresh strawberry (or five) straight out of the field because the Finleys committed their farming operation from the very beginning to an organic path, a good choice that affects everyone.
Gourmet Synergy Under the Oaks
Dan Gainey brings his Minnesota friendliness to his relationships with the farmers who lease their land, the guests who visit to experience this beautiful property, and the winemakers who work with their carefully wrought fruit produced on the three main vineyard holdings. Thankfully, he did not bring his grandmother’s Minnesota cuisine to the lovely lunch Gainey hosted for several visitors. Rather than hot dish flavored with lard, we enjoyed a gourmet meal in the freshest California style with the bounty we picked at the Finley’s fields earlier in the day.
Budi Kazali, the executive chef at The Ballard Inn & Restaurant, took our freshly harvested basket of vegetables from the Finley Farm fields and immediately crafted them into delicious dishes that paired well with Gainey’s wines, especially their bright and lively Sauvignon Blanc. Enjoying excellent food with interesting company in a beautiful place sheltered under an ancient oak: synergy. A working ranch like Gainey’s strengthens the links between fields and forks and slows down the process of harvesting, cooking, eating, and communicating to a pace that furthers the overall enjoyment.
The thoughtfulness of the Gainey family’s decisions with this property—from promoting organic farming and practicing unique vineyard management to creating a welcoming community for everyone—instills a depth to this land that can’t be purchased for any price. Our afternoon concluded with a fun farmers market complete with music and refreshments to help celebrate Cinco de Mayo. In an era of gated communities and private beaches, the openness and community cultivated at Gainey Ranch reinforces the American value of knowing and working with your neighbors as well as the importance of pursing a pleasurable life. For Dan Gainey, “the idea is to please people: it’s what drives us.” I’m already looking forward to our next visit.
Finley Farms Organic — 805/245-9579 or
historic photo: Gainey Vineyard