What if you could ride through the rolling hills of California’s scenic wine country, spending a week tasting first-class wines and relaxing at a cozy lodge? Here’s a first-person account of a horseback vacation that may just be the time of your life.

I’ve always dreamed of riding on the beach. Not a nose-to-tail ride, but one with a close group of friends, on our own terms and schedule. I want to taste the salty air, and feel my horse’s hooves splash in the surf and sink into the sand as we gallop in the warm, coastal breeze. My wish is about to come true.

I’m on my way to Cowboy Hideaway Ranch in California’s Lake County, for a unique weekend of horseback riding and wine tasting. Only two hours from the cities of San Francisco and Sacramento, Lake County is becoming a popular vacation destination thanks to its clean air, abundant outdoor recreation, historic significance, contemporary cultural scene and local vineyards. Neighboring three of the United States’ most prestigious wine-producing counties—Mendocino, Sonoma Active Imageand Napa—Lake County boasts its fair share of tasting rooms and has been ranked No. 3 in the country for wine-grape sales.  

Cowboy Hideaway owners Jeff Irvine and his fianceé, Ann Zollinger, meet me at the bottom of the steep, winding driveway to the lodge. Ann thinks nothing of traversing the long, narrow road in her black convertible, but Jeff thinks it might be best for me to leave my rental car below.

Jeff and Ann live in Glen Ellen, California. Jeff, a contractor and owner of a construction company, grew up ranching in Alberta, while Ann grew up in Chicago, Illinois.

Jeff attended college in Southern California, where he fell in love with the scenery of Northern California’s wine country and knew that he one day wanted to live there. He purchased land in Lake and Sonoma counties in the 1980s, before land prices soared. Cowboy Hideaway Ranch was his dream, and after years of planning and construction, the lodge finally opened to guests in the summer of 2007.

My room, located just off the dining area, is furnished with a quilt-covered king-size bed, nightstand, chair and closet. It’s warm and comfortable, and has French doors which open onto a deck with a spectacular view of Clear Lake, California’s largest natural lake and believed to be one of the oldest lakes in North America.

Getting Settled
Cowboy Hideaway isn’t what its name implies. I’d envisioned clapboard cabins amid lush, lowland pastures, but instead find a 5,000-square-foot, three-story log home on 700 acres and perched atop a slope bordering Mendocino National Forest, which offers some of the best backcountry riding in California. Below the lodge, a six-stall barn with runs and a round pen is under construction.

Cowboy Hideaway offers its guests the use of mules and horses familiar with the country, or you can bring your own mount if you have the proper health certificates. I’ll be exploring the region on one of their well-trained horses.

I’m all for roughing it in the backcountry on occasion, but I secretly enjoy the lavish lodge. The home has the distinctive smell of rough-cut timber and newness. The main level has an open floor plan with a guest room, bathroom, media room, plush master bed and bath, family-style dining area, a kitchen fit for a world-class chef, and a great room with a towering stone fireplace and picture windows. Antiques and rustic home furnishings make up the décor.

The upstairs loft has two bedrooms, a bathroom and a sitting area. The lower level has two more bedrooms, two baths and a game room. Decks wrap around the lodge, offering incredible views of the lake, as well as the surrounding rice paddies, orchards, walnut and pear groves, and vineyards. Plans for a swimming pool off the lower level are in the works.

Savory smells draw me to the stainless-steel-clad kitchen, where cook Gayle Kompf is preparing a feast. Delicious meals are part of the Cowboy Hideaway experience, so that diet I’ve been meaning to start will have to wait until I get home. Gayle puts a few pots on to simmer, then she, Ann, Laurie Knispel, another member of the Cowboy Hideaway crew, and I hop into the convertible and are off to our first wine tasting.

Wining and Dining
If you decide to sign up for the complete Cowboy Hideaway experience, you’ll tour several Northern California wineries, including Francis Ford Coppola Presents Rosso & Bianco, Kendall Jackson and Ceago Vinegarden. Due to my abbreviated itinerary, I’m touring only the latter.

The exquisite, Mediterranean-style winery rises behind groves of olive and cyprus trees, and a grand iron entry on East Highway 20, along the northern shore of Clear Lake, between the communities of Nice and Lucerne. The winery is accessible via automobile, boat or floatplane.

Surrounded by gardens and with views of the lake and setting sun, the winery is a splendid setting in which to spend the afternoon. Owner Jim Fetzer greets us in the tasting room and pours us each a glass of wine. The limited-production winery is family run, so it’s common to see Jim or one of his two daughters, Andraya and Katrina, or son, Barney, working behind the counter.

Jim takes us on a tour of the 165-acre estate, complete with free-grazing sheep and chickens. The word “Ceago” is derived from the Pomo Indian word “Siako,” which means “grass seed valley.” The Pomo were the first inhabitants of this area.

Started in 2001, Ceago was established not only to produce world-class wine, but also to promote biodynamic farming practices. Wandering through the fragrant herb and lavender gardens, Jim bends down and picks a bloom off a rose geranium, which is harvested here for its essential oils. Handing it to me to smell, he speaks of nature’s balance and harmony, and how we need to nurture the land like the natives who harvested it centuries ago.

Jim and his team of employees are leaders in pesticide-free, biodynamic agriculture, a farming philosophy that involves establishing a thriving, self-sustaining, natural ecosystem to enhance growing conditions. The age-old practice incorporates strategically planted cover crops, crop rotation, grazing animals, beneficial insects and organic compost production—things found entirely in an area’s natural ecosystem—to replenish and nourish the soil. As with organically grown meat, dairy and produce, biodynamically grown crops benefit the land and produce fresh, flavorful products.

Moving beyond the crops, Jim takes us into the next phase of his agro-eco-tourism plan, Ceago del Lago, a destination resort and spa. The community will include a hotel, 70 vineyard villas, 50 lakeside casitas, a restaurant, retail shops, meeting rooms and winemaking facilities.

Next, we head back to the compound, where we stroll along the pier overlooking the lake, and sit down at the courtyard for hors d’oeuvres and, you guessed it, more wine. I hesitantly admit that I know little about wines, that this is my first wine tasting, and that my favorite wine comes out of Texas. But that doesn’t seem to bother the motley crew. They casually talk me through the terms and winemaking process.

We’re served an array of snacks made at the winery, including tangy cheeses, crisp lavash and dried figs. I sample several wines, but my favorite is the Muscat Canelli. The invitingly sweet, fruity wine, with a crisp effervescence, is light and refreshing. I can’t think of a more perfect setting for sipping wine with friends as the sun sets over the lake.

Dinner is at the lodge. Laurie’s husband, Bill, who’s the ranch manager and head wrangler, and high-school teacher Dennis Jensen, join the group. Laurie, Bill and Dennis, all experienced horsemen and members of the Backcountry Horsemen of California, will be my guides on tomorrow’s ride. Over a meal of grilled steak, steamed artichoke, baked potato and salad, we exchange stories and cowboy poetry, and plan the next day’s adventure. By the time freshly baked cookies and a berry parfait comes around for dessert, I’m stuffed and ready for a peaceful night’s rest.

Horses and History
Our second day begins at 8 a.m. After a quick cup of coffee, we head to the barn, where we load the horses and Gayle’s mule, Dixie, into the trailer and head to Charles Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch in Willits. This was the racehorse Seabiscuit’s final home and is now his resting place.

Tracy Livingston, president of the Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation, takes us on a tour and explains that the ranch was built around the turn of the 20th century. Howard purchased the ranch in 1919, and raised cattle, sheep and horses, and planted orchards and crops. Through the years, the ranch has had eight owners, including the Golden Rule Church Association, which currently maintains the property.

More than 20 historical sites still remain on the property, including the stallion barn Seabiscuit occupied from 1939 to 1941, the Howard family home and the mare barn that was part of Howard’s Thoroughbred breeding program. The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists Ridgewood Ranch as one of the most endangered historic places, and, as a result, SHF is working with land trusts to establish conservation easements to help restore and protect the facilities, Native American artifacts, riparian areas, oak and redwood forests, farmland and the vast wildlife habitat on the 5,000-acre ranch.

An impressive, life-size bronze sculpture of Seabiscuit stands proudly in the front yard of the Howard family home—a fitting tribute to the inspiring equine. As we stroll through the Depression-era barns, I can’t help but imagine Howard and Red Pollard working horses in the paddocks.

The highlight of the tour is seeing Bronze Sea, a descendant of Seabiscuit, bred and owned by Jacqueline Cooper. The bay filly was born May 23, 2007, what would have been Seabiscuit’s 74th birthday. Cooper is already planning to hire a racehorse trainer to prepare the filly to be raced as a 3-year-old at Santa Anita in 2010, the 70th anniversary of Seabiscuit’s miraculous win there.

The ranch is open to the public for walking tours. However, one of the perks of staying at Cowboy Hideaway is that you get an exclusive opportunity to ride to remote areas on the ranch.

I finally get to meet my horse for the weekend. He’s a stout, 15-hand Paint Horse  gelding. We ride through gorgeous fall foliage, and enormous redwood and oak forests. Along the way, we encounter grazing cattle, as well as deer, eagle and waterfowl.

That afternoon, we saddle up for a ride along the Mendocino Coast. Riding into the waves is dizzying, but I just keep my eyes focused up and ahead. Riding along the rugged, sandy beach at sunset is an indescribable sensory experience, and so invigorating. At last, I get my wish.

End of the Trail
We begin the next day with a vineyard ride into the town of Upper Lake. Emily Knispel, Bill’s daughter and junior wrangler at the ranch, as well as Ryan and Loretta Jensen, Dennis’ nephew and his wife, and Kelly and Robert Sterling, join the ride. Just like we would in a scene from the Old West, we ride down the main street and hitch our horses in front of the historic Blue Wing Saloon. The entire group enjoys Sunday brunch at the Blue Wing, as well as the live bluegrass entertainment.

This country girl feels right at home in Upper Lake. The quiet town boasts several charming antique and gift shops, and adjacent to the Blue Wing is the newly restored, estate-style Tallman Hotel. Being an avid antiques collector and decorator, I couldn’t help but wander through hotel lobby and peek into a vacant guest room. The entire place is beautifully adorned with antiques, art and sophisticated furnishings.Active Image

Unfortunately, I’ve come to the end of my trail. I regret I wasn’t able to explore the many hillside trails on Cowboy Hideaway Ranch, or sample the many wines and meals that the full vacation package offers. I’m leaving that up to you.


Jennifer Denison is a Western Horseman senior editor.

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