The Vistas of Bennett Valley

Yulupa Mountain Ranch

Ned MacDonald

The Voice plans to run a series of articles about the natural beauty of Bennett Valley, highlighting unique properties and their owners’ perspectives. What better way to start this series than with a visit to Yulupa Mountain Ranch, and an interview with Ned and Vivien MacDonald, its current owners. They are doing their best to keep the land as it was. Their ranch includes bridle and hiking trails around roughly 475 acres of dynamic, agricultural preserve. The property includes the foundations of a winery originally built in 1863, a lovely and active chardonnay vineyard, pastures where horses and cattle graze, and wild, unspoiled California back-country including the peak of Bennett mountain. These comprise one of the most iconic family-owned and operated ranches in Sonoma County’s wine country.

Yulupa Mountain Ranch - The Jewel of Bennett Valley

By Ned MacDonald


Driving west down Bennett Valley Road past Grange look to your right. Beyond the grazing horses take in that wide open stretch of flat land against Bennett Peak. Notice the white farmhouse way in back, there unchanged since 1900, encircled today as it has been for so many years with countless oaks, cottonwoods, copper beech, ginko and liquid ambers. That’s an historic property called Yulupa Mountain Ranch.



Everyone in Bennett Valley should learn about and recognize the name Isaac deTurk. This man was ambitious and entrepreneurial. Having been a successful farmer in Indiana he emigrated to California with the idea of planting wine grapes and making a fortune. That he did. He bought Bennett’s property in 1859 and immediately planted a vineyard on 50 of its acres, which in its day was huge. DeTurk vinified his grapes in a winery constructed on site, then transported his wine in barrels via horse and wagon to a warehouse in Santa Rosa. There he bottled it under the label “Belle Mount”. The bottles were boxed and loaded onto freight cars and sent to Boston and New York. There it satisfied the tastes of many a weary civil war Yankee soldier. Belle Mount wine competed in quality and price with imports from France and Italy. It made Bennett Valley famous. 

Today’s Yulupa Mountain Ranch was once part of the large, unfenced territory claimed by members of the Miwok, Pomo and Wappo tribes of native Americans. They named the mountain Yulupa meaning something magical, bright and shiny. Indeed at sunset it glows an amazing orange-red. Legend has it the natives conducted a ceremony called “the burning bird” during which they burned eagle feathers at the very top of Bennett peak in hopes for favorable springtime weather.


In 1825 the mountain and lower land was purchased and declared part of Rancho Los Guilicos by Mexican ranchers. In 1848 it was made subject of a land grant from the Mexican governor of Upper California to James Bennett. In 1859 much of Bennett’s property was purchased by Isaac DeTurk.


In 1861 DeTurk found himself making wine for Mr. B. Hoen, a neighbor. Some of it was sent to a convention in Sonoma in which Colonel Agoston Haraszthy of Buena Vista winery and Charles Krug were the leading lights. Held on the grounds of the old Spanish Mission the convention was noted for the excellence of DeTurk’s “Mission Claret”. At the time DeTurk was practically unknown in the county. However, after he presented his wine it wasn’t long until he became famous. In the winter of 1863 he decided to make a wine of his own. DeTurk would call his wine “Belle Mount” after Bennett Mountain on his property. 

De Turk was entering an industry about to be born. Back then wine in the state was produced in Southern California. However, DeTurk made steady progress growing from next to nothing into an economic powerhouse in Bennett Valley. His first vintage in 1862 was only 160 gallons. In 1863 he quadrupled the size with improvised presses and by 1867 had built the winery the foundation stones of which stand today on this property. It had a 150,000 gallon storage capacity. In its day that was huge.


DeTurk bought two more wineries in Santa Rosa and Cloverdale in 1870, bought 1,200 acres of the Los Guilicos Rancho east of Kenwood in 1875 and planted 120 acres of vines there. In 1877 DeTurk sold his Yulupa vineyard land to G. W. Davis in order to finance further construction of a larger Santa Rosa winery. DeTurk outlasted depressions and busts that took down a lot of other winemakers. Producing dry red table wines that were drinkable and affordable, he established a brand and identity when California wine was thought to be cheap and far inferior to European brands.


DeTurk was the biggest independent winemaker in Sonoma County and became the Commissioner of the Sonoma Viticultural District. He controlled product, bottled and distributed his own wine. Wine in 19th Century northern California was largely not bottled. Shipped in barrels, it was sold to powerful San Francisco middlemen who controlled the process. They distributed it to retailers who brought it to taverns then filled customers’ bottles. DeTurk not only vertically integrated growing and production but sold his Belle Mount wines directly to retailers in cities throughout America including Boston and New York. DeTurk died in 1896. But his Belle Mount wines, known for their excellent quality, sold under a different ownership until 1936.


DeTurk sold his Bennett Valley property in 1877 to G.W. Davis who owned it for 50 odd years. Davis sold to Mr. Carrithers, the fellow who operated the department store of that name in Santa Rosa. On his death Mr. Carrithers passed the property to his daughter Helen Geary. Mrs. Geary and her family operated the ranch as a cattle ranch for another 60 years. Her offspring sold it to Barry and Marcia Cox in 1999. They were the ones who replanted deTurk’s vineyard in 1999 to what it is today, Chardonnay. Ned and Vivien purchased it in 2015 and renamed it Yulupa Mountain Ranch after the Native American name for the mountain. 

The Voice asked Ned and Vivien to elaborate on a few additional questions we had:


What are the problems with the wild parts of your property?


The 2017 Nuns fire burned all the wild back-county from Bennett peak on down. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the Bennett Valley Fire Department and a few lucky preparations by ourselves the Nuns fire did not consume our main house or barns. A good thing the fire did was to reduce the fire load. Burning the many fallen trees and dead branches strewn everywhere on the mountain the fire depleted countless tons of fuel. This was a massive silver lining for property owners affected by the 2017 fire.


The bad thing the fire did was it took out many of the older redwood posts that supported barbed wire perimeter cattle fencing. Perimeter fencing is expensive to replace. Without proper perimeter fencing cattle cannot be controlled. No fencing, no cattle. Yet grazing cattle on wild land is a good way to suppress grasses and weeds that fuel fires. So while grazing cattle on wild land makes good firewise sense for all who live near, it can’t be done because it is less than profitable with today’s market pricing for beef cattle. Building back cattle fencing destroyed by fires should be supported by our local government. But so far it is not. Without the ability to graze cattle fire danger builds year by year.


How about the many horses seen from the road that roam your property? Do you own other pets and animals? What about wild ones, and birds?


We must admit - we MacDonalds indeed have a farm. First I am of the opinion that property owners who own more than one horse per rider are completely nuts. I am glad to say the horses you see at Yulupa - with the exception of Perfecto Garcia and Paloma - are not ours. They belong to a neighbor and wife who are both certified. They play polo. The horses are actually polo ponies, generally relatively small, fit, well exercised and therefore gentle, respectful.


Of the 20 or 30 cattle who roam our lower fields only a few are ours. Most are owned by a local farmer who compensates us with frozen beef at the end of each grazing season. The cattle are Angus. The older ones are ladies. They are curious, can be grouchy and mean, love babies and hate flies. Some of the younger ones are guys whose testicles have been rudely removed. All are branded, given shots and kept healthy by their owners. We have chickens too. We love to eat their eggs.



Could you tell our readers about the diversity of birds, wild animals, nature, etc.?


OMG do we have wild birds. A while back we hosted a birder. With binoculars and his help we listed 49 different species of birds within a 24 hour time period. The list included many wonderful species of owls, raptors, song birds, turkeys, quail and waterfowl. September, October and November mark the best times of year to see those that migrate including flocks of mourning doves.


Of animals we have blacktail deer, mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, badgers, moles, squirrels and coyotes. No pigs. There are snakes including rattlesnakes, but happily not so many we need to worry. Our ranch dog Callie recently passed but Tico now takes charge. One of our pet cows is named Peppercorn. She greets with licks while Peppersteak, her grouchy son, awaits the grim fate you might expect. There are bass and bluegill in the pond. A barn cat named Tabitha prowls the horse stables for rats, moles and mice.