Long Meadow Ranch is a work in progress. Ted and Laddie Hall’s family home, working organic farm, award-winning winery and olive press, or frantoio, is a labor of love—as well as a bold affirmation of the Halls’ belief that you can only get back from life what you choose to put in.
Located in Napa Valley’s Mayacamas Mountains near St. Helena, California, the Halls’ restoration of the versatile 600-acre farm was modeled on a traditional pre-20th-century vintage Tuscan podere, or farm estate, where all aspects of life, home, and farm are fully integrated, complementary, and organic. "It’s all about natural cycles and balance," avows Ted, as he explains that each part of what they do at Long Meadow is dependent on the others for success.
Though he built a career and reputation as an expert on international economics, farming is not new to Ted. He grew up on small country acreage in Beaver County, Pennsylvania , and holds warm recollections of family gatherings in the farmhouse kitchen for marathon canning sessions at harvest time. His grandfather ran a grocery store, so the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
"We raised our own chickens," recalls Ted."Well, I had a goldfish," announces Laddie, who grew up in a suburb of Houston, Texas. Her life with Ted, however, has broadened her skills in animal breeding—she is an accomplished horsewoman, and Long Meadow’s Appaloosa horses and Pony of the Americas breed of ponies are a necessity in her life. When you include her organic-vegetable enterprise and her role as Ted’s most essential wine critic, appreciation of the Halls’ energetic approach to farming and life are readily understood.
Ted and Laddie purchased the timeless 100-year-old property in 1989. When they first saw the house, built in the late 1920s, it was sorely in need of renovation. However, its scale and proportions were immediately recognizable as pure rural Italian vernacular. Not surprising, says Ted, since the place was probably designed and built by immigrant Italian workers who were the first to settle and farm in the Napa area. Constructed from locally manufactured limestone blocks, the soft, honeyed cream color of the building supported its Italianate appearance. "People were surprised that we didn’t tear the old place down and build a McMansion," muses Ted. "Instead, we were very careful with our alterations, to stay within the footprint of the original building."
The surrounding garden and landscape was another matter altogether. A design truism holds that when you’ve got good bones to start with, the rest should fall into place. That was certainly the case for the house, which helped ease the renovation. But such was not true in the garden. An abundance of asphalt lapped up against the vintage house, which sat isolated opposite a swimming pool that sprawled across the tarry wasteland where scrub encroached up the hillside. "It was hot, unwelcoming, and the fabulous views across the valley were completely blocked by evergreens planted years before," says Ted, remembering the scene before the couple called on the talents of Napa’s premier landscape architect, Jack Chandler. That was in 1993, and—as with the farm—their aim for the home and its surrounding landscape was diversity. As Laddie describes it, they wanted to establish a sense of arrival but keep cars away from the house. The exposed position on a south-facing slope meant they needed shade, particularly over the kitchen area. The garden décor and planting had to reflect the age and character of the vintage house. Among all of this they wanted some place they could play!
"In Italy, we watched the way people would gather in the town square to play chess or bocce ball," Laddie says, "and we wanted something similar in our garden, something that could be a focal point for our gatherings of family and friends."
So the landscape design evolved with a mega-chessboard near the patio and swimming pool on the next level down in front of the house. The easygoing, indoor-outdoor integration of the house is most evident in the kitchen; its huge barn doors swing wide to allow an uninterrupted flow of traffic between the interior and exterior cooking and eating areas. "We can easily seat 22 people, which would ordinarily overwhelm the house, but the open plan makes it very comfortable to simply spill onto the patio," says Laddie. "And with all the game space, it’s easy to keep children entertained."
Below the pool and chessboard level there is a small lawn for outdoor activities such as kickball, catch or playing fetch with Lily, the family dog. Next to the small lawn is a pergola-covered terrace where Ted sets up the Ping-Pong table. Below this second level is a horseshoe pitch, which, Ted explains, was added for their sons, Christopher, now 24 and active in the Long Meadow business, and Timothy, who learned the game at Boy Scout camp. (Before his death in 1996, at the age of 13, Timothy helped his brother develop the Long Meadow organic vegetable gardens, and together they were the youngest registered members of the Napa Valley Farmer’s Market in St. Helena. Timothy’s contribution is memorialized in the numerous species of wildlife that find shelter in Long Meadow’s landscape).
Before the remodel, the kitchen was, as Laddie describes it, "a two-butts kitchen," because only two people could fit in it at one time; adjacent was a tiny dining space that also held the refrigerator. The remodel combined both areas and provided a spacious room that is now the heart of the house. "When we entertain," says Laddie, "I’ll do all the preparation. If the meal is being prepared in the indoor kitchen, I also do the cooking. For outdoor meals, Ted and Christopher do all the pizza cooking and grilling,"
With the family gathered round and friends and relatives ebbing and flowing like a welcome tide across the Long Meadow threshold, the value of Jack Chandler’s landscape plan is evident. "You want the garden spaces to have a relationship to each other, just like the kitchen to the dining room, and as long as this ‘program’ is well thought-out, no matter what happens later, no matter what the owners might do, it will be fine. Good bones look great in Armani or in raggedy jeans!" laughs Chandler.
Chandler’s involvement with the Long Meadow landscape extended beyond the outdoor décor; he designed the dining table and chairs and, as he’s a noted sculptor, he created the decorative metalwork chess pieces. They’re heavier than the wooden pieces the Halls saw on their European trip, so the wind won’t blow them down the hillside; yet they’re lightweight enough for children to move. As Chandler describes it, "The chess set was a whimsical addition to the garden, a part of the design that was intentionally sculptural, but the Halls got caught up in the idea of it, and now use it regularly." The pizza oven, too, was an early idea, but it was put on the back burner. It was originally intended for the new kitchen, but Laddie was concerned that it would make the room too warm, so she opted for the outdoor position, where it is the centerpiece of the elegantly proportioned pergola-covered patio.
Inevitably, it’s the younger guests at the Halls’ frequent cookouts who most appreciate the garden’s many activities. While their parents tend to the pizzas going in and coming out of the oven, they entertain themselves quite happily. Meanwhile, the ingredients for build-your-own pizzas are moving by the basketful from garden to kitchen, into an array of bowls, and then onto the outdoor prep table. "We take advantage of what’s in the garden to make seasonal pizzas," says Laddie. Besides the expected tomatoes and herbs, this can include eggs and figs. Christopher and his girlfriend, Jen Daly, explain: "Our friend, Steven Peyer, who owns a pizza restaurant, makes a delicious herb pizza with a fresh egg broken into the center. The yolk should still be runny when it comes out of the oven. And prosciutto with figs and fresh goat cheese make another great combination."
Main-course pizzas are served with a variety of seasonal salads. All dressed, of course, with Long Meadow’s own olive oils, which are treated more as condiments than ingredients. The top grade, Prato Lungo ("Long Meadow" in Italian) Extra Virgin, is the most expensive, with a pronounced black-pepper warmth. "It is a ‘finishing oil’; just drizzle it over the food as it comes to the table," advises Laddie. "And use just a sprinkle of sea salt—no grinds from the pepper mill." Long Meadow’s other oil, Napa Valley Select, is the oil made for blending with vinegars and other flavorings for marinades and dressings.
Long Meadow’s award-winning oils are produced from trees that are at least 100 years old. While clearing second-growth forest in readiness for grapevine planting, Ted discovered a grove of old,
neglected olive trees. Careful pruning helped their rehabilitation, and their number has been supplemented over the years by new trees. Some of the old-timers, however, were transferred to the garden around the house, providing much-needed shade around the kitchen and helping to give presence and age to the new garden.
Sitting on their terrace with morning coffee and the day’s newspapers spread around them, Ted and Laddie survey the sunrise over Long Meadow. "We start our days here and often finish them here, too. We’ll gather around the table with glasses of wine and some appetizers, enjoying the changing colors of the hills and meadow as the sun sets, watching the wildlife; there is so much activity out there," says Laddie, reflecting on their evening relaxation.
Ted and Laddie describe the origins of the Long Meadow enterprise as a fantasy they shared with their young sons—of living off the land, producing their own food, and putting back what they took out. "We just wanted to show that it’s possible to produce world-class food and wine using sustainable, organic methods," says Ted with conviction. "Long Meadow Ranch isn’t about evangelical environmentalism. Our farming and production practices are based on good, old-fashioned, common sense." Amen to that.