Above his mask, this cowboy’s eyes match the blue skies overhead. He wears his father’s pearl-buttoned shirt with pride. Dust-covered boots carry his lanky frame across the broad graveled patio of the family house like a Western movie star. Only Charlie Bates is no actor. He’s a bona fide cowboy, horse lover, rancher and grape farmer. His parents bought this place in 1958 when he was just 5 years old, and it has been a part of his soul since.
On historic Redwood Retreat Road, at the foot of Mount Madonna, Bates Ranch is also called Janaca: a composite of the initials of his father Jack, mother Nancy, Charles himself, sister Cathy and brother John.
Charlie’s parents, Jack, a renowned trial attorney with San Francisco-based Pillsbury Madison & Sutro law firm, and mother, Nancy Witter, whose father helped establish the brokerage firm Dean Witter & Co., fell in love with the place and bought what was then a 700-acre parcel for $125,000. The two enjoyed riding horseback and running cattle. The now 1,000-acre ranch, which is still home to a herd, along with 22 acres of wine grapes, is currently listed at just north of $14 million and would make someone with cowboy aspirations and a love of vines, very happy.
Although it was a difficult decision to sell the family ranch when his mother passed away, Charlie wants nothing more than to share his love of this piece of dirt, where he raised his family and taught his three daughters how to ride, rope and brand. The family home, a four-bed, four-bath stunner by architect William Wurster, former Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Architecture and the School of Environmental Design, is an homage to the western lifestyle. Huge floor to ceiling windows take in the views of the serene setting, framed by heritage oaks and tranquil gardens. A bench Charlie’s grandmother gave to his grandfather reads, “Happiness May Be Pursued While Resting.”
Inside, the walls are adorned with original art evocative of early California, including a piece by Marin artist Stan Galli, “The Three Californians.” Galli later created the label for the Bates Family wines that depicts a rancher on horseback surveying his vineyard: it happens to be Jack, who complained that Stan made his nose look too long, and asked that it be scaled back to fit under the hat’s brim.
Which leads us to the fruits of the Janaca vineyard, which was planted in 1970. It now contains 22 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Grenache, divided into several blocks. The lower block is called “Stagecoach,” so named for the horse-drawn coach that whisked people from the plains of Gilroy and San Jose, to the secluded mountain getaways at the end of the road during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s rumored that famed horse-thief, Joaquin Murrieta, visited this property to water his horse at the spring-fed lake.
The first two years of grape-wrangling proved really rough. Bates said that in 1971, they lost the entire crop to frost, and the following year, 70 percent of it was lost to rain.
“Tom Kruse (Santa Clara) helped us a lot in those days,” he recalled. “Val and Dexter Ahlgren of Ahlgren Vineyards were the first of the Santa Cruz Mountains wineries to buy from us.”
The word quickly spread.
Bates remembers another early customer, Ken Burnap, driving up the dirt road in an old Mercedes in search of grapes, in 1978.
“He insisted on getting grapes from the top part of the vineyard,” Bates said.
Burnap, of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, made wine from Bates Ranch continuously from 1978 through 1994, relying on a hired hand from UC Santa Cruz, by the name of Jeff Emery, to process the fruit. Emery said they hand-pressed more than 42 tons of Cabernet one year onsite, an enormous undertaking. Emery took over the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard label when Burnap retired, and considers Bates Ranch some of the finest Cabernet in the region.
Like Emery, winemakers seek out this site for its deeply-souled, massively structured Cabernets that take decades to unspool and Cabernet Franc that epitomizes pine-scented elegance. Names like Jerold O’Brien of Silver Mountain Vineyards, Andrew Brenkwitz of Byington, Kenny Likitprakong of Ghostwriter, Matt Oetinger of Fernwood Cellars (who planted Grenache here), and now Ian Brand of I Brand Wines and John Ritchie of Bottle Jack, all seek to capture the essence of this place.
As Charlie sips the phenomenal 1978 Santa Cruz Mountains Vineyard Bates Cabernet, his face floods with pride, respect and reverence. The wine is vibrant and alive: a fitting toast to the past, to the future, to the land.