New York transplants plan upscale retreat on Spring Mountain

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New Yorkers Jared and Velisa Pickard traveled to Napa Valley for wine tasting in 2008 and found themselves transfixed by Spring Mountain, a rugged, high-end grape growing region on the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains that straddles Napa and Sonoma counties.

In 2012 they returned, intent on opening an exclusive resort on that mountain, complete with spa facilities and farm-to-table dining.

The young newlyweds soon found and settled onto a 150-acre Spring Mountain parcel located in Sonoma County, west of St. Helena off Langtry Road, and began to build the Be Here Farm and Nature Sanctuary, an upscale farm stay program modeled after Italy’s agriturismos.

The multi-million dollar project is fully funded with family financing. When it is completed in 2017, it will include a luxury guest lodge and secluded cabins, all of which will house up to 18 guests who are willing to pay up to $2,400 a night for the chance to practice yoga in the woody evergreens, trek along newly-rehabilitated hiking trails, have a spa treatment or meditate beside the property’s spring-fed lake.

“The last five years of our lives together have led us here,” said Jared Pickard, 30, a former stock trader, and his wife Velisa, 31, a former advertising executive.

The Pickards said their transformation from urbanites to organic farmers began with that fateful vacation.

“When we went back home to New York, we realized that vacation created a huge shift, specifically in Jared,” said Velisa. “We just knew that the city was not where we wanted to be.”

Unlike other proposed developments in secluded areas, their project has met with widespread support from neighbors along the hilly, twisting roads that lead to their property at the crest of Spring Mountain. In June, the Pickards received unanimous approval from the county’s Board of Supervisors to build three hillside guest cottages, alongside the primary guest house.

Construction is already underway. The couple has cleared 15 miles of hiking trails on the former logging property and is in the process of securing building permits and other required approvals to construct their main living quarters, as well as a barn and guest lodging with adjoining spa, yoga and dining facilities.

Existing footprint

The entire resort — which comprises 167 acres of the 300 acres on the mountain owned by the Pickard family — is planned within the existing development footprint created by the previous owner, Marilyn Johnson of Berkeley, who had used the property as a weekend getaway. The Pickards are living in the main house, which they are converting to the central guest house while they build their new home on the property. Then they will convert it into Be Here’s headquarters, housing three guest rooms, the spa, commercial kitchen and administrative offices.

The couple began to envision their farm and nature sanctuary shortly after their Napa vacation while sharing Velisa’s upscale Brooklyn Heights studio.

“Be Here is the next step in our personal transformation,” Jared said. “We came up with it before our vision had totally crystallized, but we’ve always thought of the name as a celebration of being present in the moment.”

The Pickards purchased the property for their retreat three years ago for $1.5 million. Jared’s father, Mark Pickard, bought the adjacent 133 acres for an additional $1.5 million. The Pickards said they were drawn to the parcel’s 100-foot waterfall, cliffs that set the stage for breathtaking views, crystal clear springs, a mountain lake and the natural flora and fauna.

“What it all amounted to was a gut feeling of ‘homeness’ deep in our bones the moment we set foot on the land,” Jared said.

Attended same school

Jared and Velisa grew up in the same small East Coast town of Randolph, N.J. They attended the same high school, but because she was a year ahead of them, their paths didn’t cross until they were introduced years later, by a mutual friend. They were college interns when they first dated, but their time together was brief.

Things didn’t get serious until they were well into their careers. He started trading stocks on Wall Street for a small privately-owned firm when he was 22; she managed advertising campaigns for New York-based company Deutsch, Inc., with clients that include Target, Snapple and Netflix, for example.

“I remember telling my best friend, ‘I don’t know what it is about him, but I’m in love with him,’” Velisa said. “It was so weird, because I don’t fall in love very easily.”

Jared’s father was a Wall Street hedge fund manager who raised both sons to follow in his footsteps. “Like any job, it had its peaks and troughs,” Jared said. “But after a few years, I realized I wasn’t as passionate about it.”

During a week’s vacation in Napa, he and Velisa ended a day of wine tasting and hiking by watching the sun set over the mountains from the balcony of St. Helena’s Terra Valentine Winery.

“When we came home, I noticed things I never had before, like all the construction, walking on concrete,” Jared said. “Basically, we came back and I had the blues. Being on vacation was the first time in my life that I was around the lifestyle of food production. A switch was flipped.”

The couple began to host dinner parties, cultivating a relationship with food by serving dishes prepared with seasonal ingredients that came in weekly produce boxes from a community-supported agriculture farm in Brooklyn.

Two years later, they quit their corporate jobs in New York and embarked on a two-year, self-designed apprenticeship program.

Jared took an apprenticeship with Jason Mann, a farmer and restaurateur in Athens, Georgia, and Velisa joined him a year later to run their own farm in Georgia. While learning about sustainable farming practices, they grew closer through meditation and holistic study.

The next stop was working with the executive management team of Blackberry Farm, a posh eastern Tennessee getaway in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. While assigned to the kitchen, the bar, concierge services and accounting, they focused the blueprint for their upscale resort. They knew they wanted to build something they hadn’t experienced before in the U.S.

“We flew to Rome for a whole tour of agriturismos, and I proposed to her,” said Jared. “That tour of Italy became the whole model and inspiration for Be Here.

“The idea is to create this farm-based guest house. It encourages hands-on involvement in the land. So if people want to grow fruits and vegetables, for example, they can learn in our garden.”

Biodynamic farming

Although Spring Mountain’s rugged soils and harsh high-elevation winters have historically made it difficult to make a living by farming, the Pickards’ plans call for a biodynamic farm with fruits and vegetables, animals raised on-site for food, and tourist amenities that range from cooking classes to private nature hikes, meditation and other holistic teachings.

“We knew we needed to shoot for the moon,” Jared said. A night’s stay is expected to cost between $1,400 and $2,400, including three farm fresh meals and round-trip airport transportation.

Jared is focused on farming while Velisa, a certified yoga teacher, prepares to run the yoga retreat. They also envision their project as a multi-generational farming retreat.

“We plan to raise our family here,” said Velisa, now five months pregnant. Jared’s father Mark and his wife Kristina also plan to build a home and relocate to the property.

The Board of Supervisors last summer voted to rezone the Pickards’ property, allowing for the guest cottages on land zoned for agricultural activity. Since then, the Pickards have been at work building their primary residence from lumber and other materials sourced on site, and designing the guest accommodations, garden, spa and nature tours.

While similar tourism-related proposals routinely attract criticism from rural residents worried about detracting from their bucolic settings, increased traffic and depletion of natural resources, nearby wineries and neighbors submitted dozens of letters to the county in support of the upscale retreat.

County land use experts said the Pickards’ communication with nearby residents and businesses helped get the proposal approved.

“In Sonoma County, there’s a very strong commitment across the board to preserving the rural beauty and character of the land and its natural resources,” said David Katz, the former executive director of the nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust who is consulting with the Pickards. “So often, these projects are met with opposition from people who say, ‘Hey, what about traffic on my little road? What about water?’”

Donated land

Katz said the couple thinned the undergrowth from their heavily-forested property and cut other woody material that posed a fire threat. They also donated 100 acres to Sonoma Land Trust as a conservation easement and committed to environmentally-sustainable business practices that include rain water recharge systems and carbon sequestration, or depositing of harmful gases into underground forest reservoirs.

“Practices like this are in the DNA of this county,” Katz said. “People here not only care about the beautiful landscape, but also about environmental quality.”

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, whose district includes the Pickards’ project, said the Pickards represent a type of business the board has actively sought to encourage.

Supervisors voted 5-0 in July to ease restrictions on manufacturing and selling goods produced on agricultural land, giving momentum to local farmers who want to grow their operations. The new rules, outlined in the county’s general plan, allow farms to sell their fruits, vegetables and other products at year-round farm stands, instead of just seasonally. New zoning also permits growers and producers to make and sell products such as jams, cheeses and olive oils directly to consumers on site.

“I think Be Here farm exemplifies a trend in Sonoma County’s agricultural economy,” said Gorin, who added that at first glimpse, she had concerns about the project because of the area’s rural character. When it gained widespread support, she said, reconsidered its ability to educate people about sustainable environmental practices.

“The retreat is not only a visitor-serving use, but it will also help connect people with the land,” Gorin said. “This is part of our whole attitude toward locally-grown food in Sonoma County.”

As the couple trekked their new land on a recent sunny afternoon, they glanced uphill from a valley, peering up at the second-highest peak on their property, a point they named “El Centro.”

“When we were planning this, we looked at properties all over the world,” Jared said. “It turns out, when we came on that first vacation in 2008, we were staring at this exact peak, but from the other direction.”

Added Velisa, “That’s why we say the land found us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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