Beltane Ranch chef focuses on farm-to-table for rustic meals
On a foggy morning in mid-January, the long driveway up to Beltane Ranch off Highway 12 appears out of the mist of the Sonoma Valley floor, winding upward along an unmortared stone wall and leading to a fairytale land that time forgot.
At the heart of the ranch — a total of about 105 acres spanning vineyards and olive orchards, open fields and gardens — is a yellow ranch house, built in 1892 and rimmed with a white gingerbread porch. The house, with five guest rooms on two stories, is where ranch chef Greg Markey can be found most days, cooking in the cozy kitchen by the back door.
“It’s beautiful here ... and it’s magical at twilight,” Markey says. “The family feels it’s a special place, and they want to keep it that way.”
Like Beltane Ranch itself, the chef’s farm-to-table cooking feels both timeless and contemporary.
Using vegetables from the estate garden — even in the heart of winter — Markey carefully builds layers of flavors into the breakfasts, picnic lunches and rustic dinners he serves to overnight guests, wine club members and regional wine tours that stop by.
This particular morning, Markey is listening to Beethoven as he works on a dish he developed to showcase the winter garden. The breakfast is based on an old Southern favorite — biscuits and gravy — updated with a vegetable ragout topped with a poached egg.
“We want to give people more than what they expect,” he says. “For breakfast, I like to mix it up a lot.”
Markey, a soft-spoken guy who has cooked all over Northern California — from the legendary Masa’s in San Francisco to Auberge de Soleil in Napa and Timberhill Ranch on the Sonoma Coast — has been working with plant-based cuisine since 1985, when he was hired by the Sonoma Mission Inn to launch its exciting, new “spa cuisine” menu.
“That was the beginning of the plant-forward trend,” says Markey, who also opened Brannan’s Grill in Calistoga in the late ’90s and more recently worked in catering for Stark Reality Restaurants.
Markey calls himself “the vagabond chef.” Though he received a solid culinary education from San Francisco City College at age 19, he’s also picked up a quite a few tricks along the way.
For his biscuit and gravy breakfast, for example, he makes a sauvignon blanc cream gravy for the biscuits to sit on, then whips up a red kuri squash “mock Hollandaise” to pour over the eggs.
“At Masa’s, I learned to put two sauces on the plate,” he says. “It makes it more interesting.”
Each breakfast comes with a glass of juice — a signature house blend of orange, apple and cranberry juices that ranch matriach Rosemary Woods invented one day because she didn’t have enough OJ — and a bowl of seasonal fruit, often sourced from the ranch’s orchards.
“The property has figs, heirloom peaches, white nectarines, plus pears and apples, Eureka and Meyer lemons,” Markey says. “I make a persimmon and chia-seed dressing with the Hachiya persimmons and serve it with pecans, pears and prosciutto.”
Beltane Ranch Winery
About 25% of the grapes grown on the property go into the estate wines: a sauvignon blanc, zin, rosé of zin and carignane blend. There is no tasting room, so every bottle of wine from the 1,200 cases produced a year goes to the boutique winery’s wine club.