April 30, 2018

The Story of Farmhouse

Catherine and I purchased Farmhouse back in 2001, 17 seasons ago – it’s been an evolution, it’s been a process, it’s quite frankly been a roller coaster ride. The number one question we get asked about, and something that we’ve told a million, times is our story, the story of Farmhouse. This story has been something that’s been integral to our success and yet somehow, we’ve never really documented it. For 2018 Catherine and I are committing to writing a monthly blog, focusing on the great lives we get to live, all of our Wine Country friends, and the stories our guests ask us over and over again. So here goes, get ready for quite possibly the longest blog entry I’ll ever write!

Our story is really two stories, first and foremost it’s the story of our family which leads to the story of Farmhouse.

We are, you guessed it, of Italian heritage. It all starts with our great-grandfather, Domenico Giovanetti, a man I never met yet I feel like I know him backwards and forwards. Even though he has been deceased for over 50 years, every family story starts or stops with him, he’s the stuff legends are made of, at least within our family. Born outside of Como, Italy, he longed for a better life and hit the road early, at the age of 13, moving to Germany to apprentice as a stonemason with a dream of coming to America.

My son is 13 and can barely tie his shoelaces, I can’t even imagine hitting the road, being completely on your own, and moving to another country, yikes! The stonemason gig took him to San Francisco in the early 1900s for America’s hosting of the World’s Fair and the construction of the Palace of the Fine Arts. North, he went to Santa Rosa to help construct the train station and the Hotel La Rose (still standing today), and he immediately fell in love with the land and the topography so reminiscent of his homeland.

Shifting gears, he decided this is where he wanted to put down roots, literally and figuratively. Post lumber boom and pre-grapes, Sonoma County was the premier growing destination for beer hops. Domenico, or now Dominic as he attempted to become more Americanized, spent a few years sharecropping hops and, believe it or not, living in one of the cottages which are still rooms at the Farmhouse today. Because hops have a very long shelf-life and he had access to storage, this clever guy was able to play the commodities market and in a very short time save up enough money to purchase what is now our 84-acre home ranch. Here, he and his wife, Catherine (yes, our Catherine’s namesake) had a family, built a beautiful home, planted acres of grapes (primarily Zinfandel), grew Gravenstein apples, prunes, and pears, purchased the adjacent 100-acre ranch where they ran dairy cattle, and lived a bucolic and wonderful Life.

This Homestead, a place we’ve always simply called “the Ranch”, was a Haven for friends and family, a hub where relatives from all over Northern California would gather every weekend, often 60 strong, and Kate and Dominic would love them and feed them. Catherine and I grew up spending our weekends here at the Ranch, with our great grandmother and our grandmother cooking and feeding family and friends, a tradition that continues to this day as Catherine and her family are now the 5th and 6th generations living in our great grandparent’s home. It’s really the foundation of the hospitable spirit that Catherine and I both have, we love more than anything to meet new people, to entertain, drink and break bread, and to make people smile – it’s in our DNA. Believe it or not, that’s the short version of our family story and I know Catherine will tell me I missed so many important details, but we can save some of those stories for future blogs!

It’s really the foundation of the hospitable spirit that Catherine and I both have, we love more than anything to meet new people, to entertain, drink and break bread, and to make people smile – it’s in our DNA.

Fast-forward to 1998. I’m living in Baltimore Maryland working as a structural engineer managing massive construction sites and Catherine is general manager of a winery in Healdsburg. We’re young and we’re doing great, yet somehow, we talk endlessly about doing something bigger and better with our home Ranch. We think about a winery, a hospitality center, an inn, so many big ideas and it’s something we can’t stop talking about. Catherine, the visionary, is constantly thinking of new ideas and me the operations guy am drawing up plans and building business cases around each scenario. Unfortunately, at every turn we’re hitting obstacles, we don’t have the right zoning, our one lane road can’t support commercial use, we’re starting to understand that maybe our Ranch isn’t going to be the home of this big dream that we have concocted.

A friend of Catherine’s suggests we check out the long for sale Farmhouse Inn just a few miles down the road. I immediately say, “no way, that place is a worn-out dump,” having driven by it a million times and always thinking who the heck would ever stay there? But Catherine perseveres… She calls me literally the night before my wife and I are leaving for a 3-week trip to Italy and says that she has fallen in love with the property, it’s got incredible bones, permitting in place for growth, and she’s putting an offer in. She promises me that our unknown region, Russian River Valley, and the still very obscure pinot noir (I’ll tell you the story of our vineyard in another post.  Yep, Catherine talked me into that one too…) that we primarily produce will someday become important in the American wine market. This is something I cannot believe yet I take the bait (I always do). With a small loan from our father and an investment from our step brother, we close escrow on February 14, 2001.

Catherine moves upstairs to the creepy apartment with red shag carpet and we officially become innkeepers. She and I cook and serve breakfast every morning and with a handful of staff we set out to run our little B&B with big dreams of growing it into something much more special. Our big dream… to emulate the Michelin one-starred country properties that we have fallen in love with in the south of France. We have an ace in our pocket, Steve Litke, our executive chef, who came with the property.  He is immensely talented and eager to do something much bigger. We immediately become close, like family. With a meager budget, we remodel the restaurant and the cottages, and reopen August of 2001 a much better version of Farmhouse (yes, we kept the name, we liked it!).

Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle gives us 3 1/2 Stars our first year and Travel and Leisure ranked us one of the top 10 inns in America. Wow! The rest is history, we eventually did get that Michelin star along with a million other phenomenal accolades! We LOVE coming to work every single day, meeting our guests, and seeing them smile. For us this truly is a labor of love. It’s the antithesis of a corporately run hotel, it’s a big family – sometimes a little dysfunctional – but with a whole lot of love and a whole lot of passion. There are layers and layers more to our story and I look forward to telling those. Our hope has always been and will continue to be that when guests come to visit Farmhouse they feel like they’re staying Catherine and my home.

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