Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New Year's at Rancho La Zaca

Last dance! Frances Schultz and Tom Dittmer on New Year's at Rancho La Zaca in Santa Inez.
New Year's Eve at Rancho La Zaca in Santa Inez
by Nina Griscom

When Frances Schultz and Tom Dittmer invited us to come to his California ranch to celebrate New Year’s Eve, we jumped at the invitation ... so fast that there was no possibility of them retracting the kind offer!

Frances and Tom really know how to put on a weekend, in gracious ways that are virtually non-existent these days. It is sort of like going to the highest end summer camp imaginable, coupled with the best food and wines and superb company.

I went into the “fat clothes” section of my closet, as I knew that the 3-day visit would result in copious weight gain due to their famed in-house chef, Stephanie Valentine, a 3-star chef if ever there was one!
3-star chef Stephanie Valentine outdid herself throughout the weekend.
We were asked to bring dinner jackets and jeans for the men, long dresses for the ladies, (for New Year’s Eve) and then whatever else we would need for shooting, riding, and playing at being ranchers.

Tom and Frances are perfectly complimented; he is the personification of a beneficent General marshalling the troops and keeping everyone on the well planned schedule. Frances, who hails from North Carolina, is the gracious hostess providing all the beautiful details that go into a seamless house party.

We flew to LAX on Friday the 30th, and with his typical generosity, Tom sent a plane to the airport to transport us to Santa Inez, where he was waiting to drive us to Rancho La Zaca, 20 minutes away. He had ordered perfect weather; 78 degrees and sunny. Heaven!
Flags are from left to right: Argentina, Georgia, and the USA.
This part of the world is a visual feast; huge old Oak trees sprinkled around a verdant mountainous background, with wineries on either side of the road. I immediately thought of calling real estate agents!

When we rolled into La Zaca, there were 6 flags flying in the breeze: America, North Carolina, California, Georgia, England, and Argentina; the origins of all their guests. A nice touch I thought ... I guess he couldn’t afford the one from New York. Maybe it was a symmetry thing.
Autumn at Rancho La Zaca, with the San Rafael mountains in the distance (photo: Frances Schultz ).
Tom told Leo to forget about changing clothes! The Partridge shoot was starting in 20 minutes.

I went to find my dear friend Frances, who was busy at work putting the final touches on the table for 66 guests coming to celebrate New Year's Eve the following evening. Chef Stephanie was at work with her team in the kitchen, and their black Lab Stella was creating havoc wherever she could.

Panic was not evident. I would have been hysterical. A house full of guests, shoots going on, and people to direct didn’t faze either one of our hosts.

Dittmer (as we all call him) likes to rise early, live ranch life to the fullest, and then dine early. So at 6pm, we all convened in the huge living room, which Frances has transformed into a cozy, welcoming space. A challenge given the vast dimensions.

Frances Schultz and Tom Dittmer at Rancho La Zaca. Frances is in her "entertaining tool apron"
Chef Stephanie had prepared a feast using the freshest ingredients, culled from local resources. Salad is NOT just salad at Rancho La Zaca! Think handpicked baby lettuces partnered with slivers of pears, walnuts, and asiago cheese, drizzled with a citrus dressing. The lettuce was literally standing at attention. That is fresh!

Then came the most perfectly cooked lamb and tender vegetables, followed by a superb chocolate fondant cake. I can’t talk about the caliber of the wines served, as it would spark a revolution.

Early to bed, as the next day held many surprises and activities.

I am a night owl, but there IS something about being tucked into bed at 10:30. It makes the next morning A LOT less painful.

Leo and I and another divine houseguest Anne Evans (they were ALL divine) elected to go riding at 9:30 am, when Dittmer and Frances had arranged for an instructor to be on hand to see that we didn’t do anything untoward on the trail. Leo and Anne are both great riders, but I basically need a mattress on either side of the horse, as I am terrified of these beautiful beasts.

We returned to the barn, mercifully intact, and headed off to the shooting range, where national sporting clays champion Zack Kienbaum and his girlfriend Desiree, also a nationally ranked shooter, awaited us to provide instruction to any and all who wished it.
At the ranch after shooting: John Rex Fuqua and Rex Fuqua with Tom Dittmer and Leonel Piraino.
Sunset on New Year's Eve at Rancho La Zaca (photo: Frances Schultz ).
Back to the ranch house to get ready for the big festivities to come for New Year's Eve. Frances had been working her butt off all day and and missed out on the riding and shooting, though she is a pro at both.

66 guests from nearby ranches arrived at 6pm with their families in tow (and a few dogs) and entered what was the most beautifully decorated and welcoming place imaginable! 

Caviar, oysters, duck confit quesadillas, ceviche, and champagne galore were the order of the night. Everyone stepped up to the plate and dressed beautifully. The ladies were in slinky long dresses and high heels or cowboy boots, and their men were handsome in dinner jackets, jeans, and boots.
The table, created by Frances.
Still life of the beautiful table.
The beautiful table for the younger set on New Year's Eve.
An hour later, dinner was served: brisket of beef, a rolled stuffed veal loin, sautéed chanterelles and greens, and more delights than I can even remember! We dined outdoors at one long table, festooned with red roses, gilded garlands, and candlelight—all Frances’ handiwork, with a little help from her sister and friends. It was sublime. Heaters supplanted along the way insured that we were all perfectly warm and comfortable.

Then came the extraordinary fireworks, accompanied by a glorious sound track which went on and on, for a full 15 minutes. There were water trucks positioned near to the works in the case of any mishaps. None occurred.

It was so moving and beautiful!! Children and parents, lovers and married couples all stood together to watch this extraordinary spectacle.
Two Southern Belles: Frances and her sister, Duval Fuqua.
Three generations of Firestones grace the Santa Inez Valley. From left, Maddie, granddaughter of author Brooks and his wife Kate, and their son Adam of Firestone-Walker Brewery.
Frances Schultz, Duval Fuqua, and Nina Griscom. Patsy Tisch and Anne Evans.
Frances with Cheryl Ladd.
Two ugly guests: Real estate executive Leonel Piraino and David Walker of Firestone-Walker Brewery.
Then the dancing began! Tom and Frances hired a top DJ, and the living room had been cleared out during dinner to create a huge dance floor. We rocked the night away. This was not like a boring New York party where everyone takes a powder at coffee. NO, NO NO! We danced all night and had a ball.

New Year’s day began quietly with Tom and Frances, and all of us house guests at the breakfast table, reading the papers and watching a football game that was playing on a big screen (don’t ask me who was playing). I HAD to dig into some leftovers, particularly the Pavlova dessert which was an addiction! We dished the night ... but as everyone behaved well, and are well liked, there was no real dish ...

Dittmer in a pensive moment.
A traditional North Carolina New Year’s Day luncheon was served outdoors: country ham, collard greens, black eyed peas, and the most delicious freshly baked biscuits. And Bloody Mary’s made with Stephanie’s home-canned heirloom tomatoes. This level of hospitality was becoming really intimidating!!!

The afternoon brought reading, walks, and naps. Throughout it all, Frances and Tom remained full of energy and great spirits. I would have been ready to kill myself at this point.

We drove to Fess Parker’s for dinner that evening; the only joint open in Los Olivos. We all had a great meal, and returned home early to have coffee and night caps under the stars.

Monday the 2nd brought us back to earth as it was the date of our departure, and great relief for our hosts!

After breakfast, Frances and I shared websites and looked at her blog, (Francesschultz.com) which is really taking off! I highly recommend it for anyone who wants some great tips on serenity, entertaining, decorating, gardening, and all manner of lifestyle advice. She is a star.

At 10am Frances and Tom drove us to the local airport and once again, Air Dittmer transported us virtually to our gate at Delta for the flight home to New York.

Usually, I am more than ready to leave after a festive weekend with friends, but this was not the case. I could have stayed for many days more, to savor the beauty of the surroundings and the honest and straight forward spirit Tom and Frances possess.

I can’t remember a more wonderful New Year’s (which I normally abhor); spent with kind, fun, and interesting people, who seemed to genuinely appreciate all the good fortune life has put in their path.

We left La Zaca feeling privileged to be a part of this wonderful couple’s life and also truly renewed. Tom and Frances imbued us with all the good energy and love that it takes to face the coming year with a strong beginning.
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