Back in the Saddle
In the heart of Amador County’s wine region, the historic Kirkland Ranch has been revived to tell two stories—one of Howard and Kay Kirkland and the other all yours for the making.
In our renewed quest to cover California, our Golden State, it’s a thrill to find someplace new. For locals of Plymouth—a town of just over 1,000 residents nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe—the area’s tranquil appeal isn’t news. But many of us in Silicon Valley, who may know Amador County only for its Gold Rush of the 1840s, would benefit from re-acquainting ourselves with its local flavor and features. Some 40 local wineries, for instance, grow predominantly Zinfandels, many from ancient vines, as well as other Italian, Rhône, and Spanish varietals, including world-renowned Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Barbera—which gets its very own festival each September.
“I wanted items that told a story so people have interesting things to look at and can talk about when they leave.”
Back in the 1950s, Howard Kirkland (96) owned one of the west’s largest water truck companies. (Kirkland Water Trucks, based down in Long Beach, helped build Dodger Stadium.) With his late wife, Kay, and their young children, he first visited family members in the area, whose wine industry was beginning to take off. (By the way, don’t miss a tasting at nearby 2019 California State Fair Vineyard of the Year, Cooper Vineyards, which was originally a walnut and prune farm before revered local farmer Dick Cooper stewarded it into grape growing and eventually taught surrounding wineries helpful tricks of the trade.)
The Kirklands purchased their own 120 acres in 1962 and retired to the ranch a decade later. The couple quickly became fixtures in the county—from dressing up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus for local hospital visits, to Howard’s successful run for Amador County’s District Supervisor.
Today, the property at large is home to wild geese and peacocks, cattle and horses, as well as the Cosumnes River running by it. You can also now stay in the Kirklands’ sprawling ranch home, lovingly restored by daughter Dena Kirkland (shown riding, above right) and business partner co-owners Jim Giuffra and Greg Briski and chock-full of family relics. “I grew up here,” Dena says on a tour of the property. “I thought my parents were good people and that they had a great relationship.” In sifting through decades of personal and local artifacts, Dena made final selections that are both unique and nostalgic. “I wanted items that told a story,” she says, “so people have interesting things to look at and can talk about when they leave.” It’s an intriguing concept, and one that makes the ranch stand out from a more typical, albeit impersonal, Airbnb experience.
The long list of Kirkland memorabilia indeed invites perusal and conversation: metal signs of the times, a handmade wooden stagecoach displayed over the kitchen island, Howard’s western saddle in the living room, collections of teacups, mason jars, and elephants (a symbol of the water truck company), as well as any number of tools, pins, belt buckles, horseshoes, winemaking relics, Kay’s award-winning paintings of western life, and boot warmers on the hearth of the living room’s mammoth wood-burning stove. There are also numerous family photos, like that of Howard’s 1945 Purple Heart from his Army service as well as one of Howard and Kay as part of their singing group, the Shenandoah Songsters. (Plymouth is known as “the gateway” to California’s Shenandoah Valley.)
From the home’s high perch are wraparound views of that valley. The ranch also offers a newly constructed “mare hotel” for boarding if you’d like to travel with your own horses. With the area’s most condensed collection of wineries all of five minutes away by car, you can even opt to ride horseback to them, a truly unique way to wine taste (nearby Helwig Winery has a hitching post alongside its tasting room).
The business partners have also managed the restoration with the idea of making it a pastoral wedding destination, with bookings starting this year. The property’s 1,600-foot peak, affectionately dubbed Kay’s View, includes a spectacular clearing for a ceremony, as does an enormous oak tree by Dena’s Pond. (Pro tip: back at Helwig Winery, a wine cave offers a magical rehearsal dinner venue for up to 34. In town, Taste restaurant and wine bar serves seasonal fine cuisine as well.)
“Let’s make this a place to make new memories,” Giuffra sums up of the group’s inspiration to preserve and re-purpose the property, where you can also fly-fish, hike, and practice archery.
In leaving, Jim and Dena’s words both ring true. You discover you’ve made your own memories—while blackberry picking, watching an epic sunset over the pond, and hiking under trees hosting wild mistletoe. Yet, you’ve also learned more than you might have imagined about folks you’ve never met, but for whom this place was so very clearly home.