The question that we get asked more often than any other (and we get a lot of questions…) “WHAT made you decide to buy an inn with your sibling?” It’s usually accompanied by a look of mild awe- as in “I could NEVER work with my sibling”, or a sort of disbelief- as in “you actually BOUGHT this with your sibling? You didn’t inherit it?” Hard to believe, I know.
But my brother Joe and I actually, deliberately, purchased a very run down, 8 room bed and breakfast inn. And we were both gainfully employed at the time! I was GM of a winery up in Healdsburg, and Joe was a structural engineer on the East Coast. Yes, he actually moved cross country and gave up a great job to buy a bed and breakfast with his sister- well, it is smack in the middle of the Sonoma Napa wine country, and in the heart of the Russian River Valley to boot, and a very short commute from the family ranch, but still…
Of course, there is some back story here. We are fortunate enough to own, farm and, if you are me, live on the ranch that our Italian-immigrant-great grandfather purchased at the turn of the last century. He brought his father over from Italy, and he lived there too. So that makes us the 5th generation to grow grapes, apples and a lot of poison oak on our beautiful 80 acre property. It also happens to be about 2 miles from Farmhouse.
Our Family ranch house (now Catherine's house) and someone's truck
Growing up, Joe and I spent many weekends on that ranch. We have amazing memories of harvesting grapes and apples, followed by huge gatherings of friends and family under the big arbor out back. Our family has always loved to cook and entertain, and Joe and I definitely got that bug. Our great grandfather passed in the mid ‘60s, and by the late ‘70s, the ranch had become too much and the family basically abandoned it. Growing grapes was not always glamorous like it is today!
Our family vineyard, Lost and Found Winery
Joe and I replanted the vineyards in the mid ‘90s, with the dream of resurrecting the entire property. And ambitious young people that we were then, we hatched plan after plan for the place. Hospitality center, winery, retreat… you name it. But the road is narrow, the neighbors all like their privacy, and converting our ranch to something commercial wasn’t going to happen. So, we didn’t give up, but we got on with our careers.
And then, one day, I was sitting on a friend’s front porch when the chef from Farmhouse, Steve Litke (who happens to still be our chef today!) rode up on his bike and announced, “Well I guess I’m looking for a job, because Farmhouse Inn is for sale.” My friend looked at me and said, “You should buy it”. Which offended me. That run down bed and breakfast down the road from our property? Who did he think I was? But he convinced me to go and take a look. And I’ve said this a million times… “You know when you walk into a house or apartment and just know you are going to live there? You can imagine where all of your stuff is going to go?” I walked into the dining room and could see beyond the teal wall paper and doilies (yes, true), and imagine it as something truly elegant (just like so).
Farmhouse Inn restaurant, Forestville, California
So, I called our realtor, and made a dinner reservation. The setting was depressing, the service was appalling, and the food was an actual dream come true. I called Joe the next day and told him I’d found our project. We’d buy Farmhouse and revitalize the ranch by incorporating the produce into the restaurant. At first HE was offended. Right, leave his job, his wife (who was finishing med school in Baltimore), the east coast to open a wine country bed and breakfast with his (very persuasive) SISTER. So I put in an offer and he flew out.
The first couple of years were rocky to say the least. We both started families (between us we now have 5 fledgling innkeepers)...Our business plan had been, shall we say, optimistic? And 9/11 didn’t help. Nor did the recession of 2008 ….But we had a vision for a Michelin starred restaurant and a luxury Relais and Chateaux quality property and we were determined to stay the course. We have been through several renovations and expansions, built incredible relationships with our architects, builders and designers and have ultimately achieved our dream.
Our passionate team has stayed with us and grown to over 75 now. The restaurant has been Michelin starred for 11 years now, and honestly just keeps getting better. Our gorgeous 25 room luxury hotel was just ranked#1 Best Hotel in California by Travel & Leisure two years running, and the feedback from our many, many ecstatic guests is music to my ears. One of our greatest joys is sharing the wine country lifestyle with our guests. And here we are today...would love to meet you when next you come stay with us in wine country.
Farmhouse Inn and owners Joe and Catherine Bartolomei (Smith)
Farmhouse will always be our baby, but there are exciting projects on the horizon. And we can’t wait to experience what comes next!