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Among Friends
Auberge, Spring/Summer 2005


One visit to the Napa Valley and you want to return. There is more to the place than an elegant, outdoor lifestyle focused on some of the world’s best wine and most creative cuisine. Rich damp growing smells fill the morning’s chill air. Slow eucalyptus breezes encourage dreamy afternoon relaxation. The evening fog rolls over the Mayacamas Mountains to wish the grapes sweet dreams. Dinner outdoors, with a fire keeping the brisk ocean-scented air at bay, ends the day with promises of another.

Two visits aren’t enough to catch the rhythm and moods of a landscape that varies subtly by the hour, changes radically during each season. Offering a magic life almost suspended between the indoors and the outdoors at the Calistoga Ranch keeps luring you back. Perhaps it is the decks built around the trees, the structures blending into the landscape. Or is it the outdoor shower, sensuous needles of hot water creating steamy clouds that release the wood surround’s cedar scent? This is a year-round sybaritic hideaway where the activity options include lazing and seared ahi à la Nicoise comes off the kitchen fires of chef Robert Leva.

Three visits and you appreciate even more the casual yet sophisticated sensibility at the Ranch, hidden in a steep walled canyon with a spring-fed lake. You’ve selected a favorite hike (the old fire road that starts by the wine cave and heads up through a stand of manzanita to the top-of-this-world views from the ridge line) and when you venture out of your cabin for dinner, The Lakehouse waits, uncrowded. Only folks staying at the 46 hotel lodges and 27 owner units are allowed. Valley buzz suggests the food bests that at the area’s top restaurants.

On the fourth visit, you’re planning the fifth while working out on the television-equipped Precor treadmills at the open-air gym which overlooks the heated lap pool and vineyards planted with a variety of cabernet clones on different root stocks. There are new wines to taste because with each visit, you appreciate, and understand, more. Almost a local, you use the Silverado Trail to avoid traffic on Highway 29, each “For Sale” sign issuing a clarion call.

Now, contemplate the difference between vacationing in the Napa Valley and owning a home there. It’s an outsider/insider thing, the attitudinal difference between passing through and belonging, between packing your favorite sweater and having it waiting for you, between racing to a new restaurant in Yountville and knowing the seasonal flavor cycle of milkshakes at Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, a St. Helena drive-in with a wine list and micro-brews on tap. It is the difference between trying to relax and relaxed … until you think of running a second home and relaxation as a concept recedes as visions of maintenance – gutter cleaning, plumbing problems on a Saturday night, the roof in wind and rain – emerge.

Stephanie Douglas, a Californian, married into a Virginia family with the caveat that a home in Napa, possibly her favorite place on the planet, happen sooner rather than later. She heard about Calistoga Ranch a year before it opened. At that time, she had already looked at the luxury homes in Napa Valley. As a traveler accustomed to five and six star accommodations, she found the few homes available to be lacking, even as prices skyrocketed driven by scarcity and proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area. Douglas knew prospects for future development were dim given Napa’s stringent land use regulations. Indeed, Calistoga Ranch occupies what was the last undeveloped parcel, a onetime private campground in the coveted watershed district.

Even though her husband had proposed to Douglas in a hot air balloon drifting over the Valley, he balked at purchasing a Napa Valley home because of the headaches involved in maintaining a property long-distance; it seemed even more impractical considering the number of days they would actually be in residence.

In situations such as this resident club ownership is a rewarding alternative to traditional home ownership. Club ownership comes with the full rights and protections of a deeded interest, which means owners can sell their interest. Auberge Resorts maintains the ranch and provides the same amenities that resort guests are given. It also provides owner services that range from preparing the lodge for your arrival with groceries and personal items (which can be stored on-site); to the Bathhouse Spa with its healing pools; to wine storage at the Wine Cave; to meals at the Lakehouse restaurant .

Owners use the lodges in three ways. Each year, they lock in two or four weeks a year using a rotating priority system based on their original membership number. Owners have booked two lodges for one week or have enjoyed extended 14-day retreats. Another option is reserved use, which allows owners to book ahead on a space-available basis. Finally, there is short notice use which accommodates a visit planned up to seven days before a desired arrival date. Owners can also have guests without being present themselves, the “here’re the keys to the house” option, using this to the full extent of ownership privileges. Owners enjoy reciprocal privileges at other Auberge properties such Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas.

“It sounded perfect for me,” said Douglas. “Why would you want to own to have all those headaches. This made me happy and addressed [my husband’s] concerns.”

Happy means Douglas, who purchased in July, 2004, has stayed at the Ranch seven times as of Christmas. “I am there every chance I get. My husband can’t wait to get back. Every time we’re there, we book the next stay as we’re leaving.”

Heather and Mitch Buich, a Bay Area couple with three children, had the same “aha!” experience before they bought a membership in the Calistoga Ranch which is only an hour’s drive from their primary residence. They had booked two lodges for a family Thanksgiving. Twenty people gathered to relax and to cook dinner together. When everything was ready, Lakehouse staff zipped down on Ranch golf carts, swept everything away to a private dining room with a lake view and served the meal. “I could see doing that on a yearly basis,” said Heather Buich, “When it is 95 percent occupied,” she added, “you hardly see anybody.”

Set into the hills east of the Silverado Trail, the 157-acre steep and wooded site is a former private campground, a legacy that inspired Scott Lee of SB Architects during the design phase. Land-use restrictions banning permanent structures forced the internationally recognized team to think creatively. Environmental concerns dictated that every tree on the Calistoga Ranch site be meticulously logged and marked so the plan could preserve as many as possible. The architects opted to build around the 100-year old heritage oaks and other trees, saving 90 percent of those on the site. Rather than level hillocks and dips, the architects sited the lodges in harmony with the topography – near a stream, nestled into a promontory, floating out from a hillside. Designed with a nod to Craftsman style, the lodges are set on piling rather than traditional slab or perimeter foundations. The trees, incorporated into the design, create drama that otherwise would have come from built elements.

Almost one third of each lodge is outdoor space, a comfortable living room with a large fireplace that keeps the couch cozy. Each lodge stands alone, and each area of a lodge is a separate cedar-shingled flat-roofed unit connected by redwood walkways floating above the canyon floor. To make coffee in the morning, you walk outside from the bedroom to the kitchen, even if you intend to crawl back into the down and linen nest inadequately described as a bed. This configuration coupled with the land’s undulations creates privacy, even within each lodge. The copper and local fieldstone building elements disappear into the landscape, even with the discreet modern accents of black steel doors, windows and guide rails. Once inside, it is difficult to see neighboring lodges through the woods. Think of a tree house, one that is to childhood escapes as Nobu is to sushi … surprising, sophisticated, a luxurious indulgence.

This sensibility colors every aspect of the Calistoga Ranch. The interiors by Darrell Schmitt summon the outdoors in: “Everything was worked painstakingly into the landscape.” With space at a premium due to the site’s topography, every detail reflects an aesthetic born of respect for the natural surroundings. He used organic, natural materials in the outdoor spaces that will age to match the palette of the surrounding environment: tan, copper-brown, olive, sage and gold. The interiors maintain the color scheme, augmenting it with textures such the silken plush of a throw and a nubby Tibetan rugs. Indirect lighting sources, both inside and out, beckon with a night-time warmth that alludes to Mexican illuminaria and paper-sided Kyoto lamps. The Bathhouse echos this integration with nature, both with its extensive use of local fieldstone and its panoramic views over the healing mineral pools used for watsu massage. Karen Ray, the spa director, plans to develop wellness programs that interested lodge owners can maintain in-between visits.

Executive Chef Robert Leva creates menus that harmonize with nature and uses only fresh organic ingredients. Fresh figs and other fruits often appear in the kitchen from the abundant family gardens of Ranch employees. The result is meals of transcendent simplicity served with grace and goodwill by staff able to answer questions or meet dietary requests.

Such local intimacy makes ownership at Calistoga Ranch a richer experience than a short vacation there. Another way to really understand the region is offered by the vintner program which includes such luminaries as Robert Mondavi and industry insiders like Vincent Arroyo. Kirk Venge of Venge Vineyards, who oversees creation of the Ranch’s own wine, envisions owners who are passionate about participating in all phases of wine-making with the 26 participating vintners. Owners will be able to develop relationships with vintners in the Calistoga Ranch program that carry beyond the Wine Cave tastings or vineyard picnics. And in this way, the owners will truly belong to the community that is Napa Valley.