Rangeland Wines and Angus beef: Get to know Laird Foshay

Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, with Sottish and French heritage, Paso Robles raised Laird Foshay, complete with a cowboy hat and boots, intrigued me before I even arrived at the sprawling Rangeland Wines’ home base. I previously read Laird had been a Silicon Valley-type for half his adult life. However, I couldn’t believe for the life of me that, after ten years in computer magazine publishing and ten years as the founder of an investment news service business, he wanted to be a winemaker and rancher in the hills west of Paso Robles.

Once a web publisher for DrDobbs.com and the founder of Investools.com, an investment news service, Laird Foshay gave up his office job for wide open spaces at Rangeland Wines and the 1,500-acre Adelaida Springs Ranch in 2000.

Boy was I wrong. This Central Coast  winemaker not only has kept his ‘shirt and tie’ business savvy, but for the last 11 years has also added plaid, down-to-earth, unpretentiousness to his forté. His wife, Lisa, and him now operate both a winery, and the 1,500-acre  Adelaida Springs Ranch, including all-natural grass-fed 80 Angus beef cattle.

My trip to the Rangeland ranch house came after a visit with Mike Sinor of  Ancient Peaks Winery and Sinor-LaVallee. Despite my late arrival, Laird offered me a ranch guest room. We then talked well into the night, then picked up where we left off in the morning.

But before he shared his story, Laird was keen on giving me a circle tour of the ranch. We jumped into his white pick-up,  tossed the rifles in the back seat and proceeded to give me a personal tour.

The late, July sun seemed to illuminate the golden pasture grasses. The Angus beef grazing in the pastures were smaller than I had seen on other ranches, but the muscular build of the cattle stood out. The high mineral limestone soils created high-standing yellow grass and the animals looked fattened and sturdy after two years. He said the practice of rotational grazing, never allowing the animals more than 30 days in a pasture, kept them fit. The truck traveled down worn paths for almost two hours, and I never saw evidence of overgrazing. In fact, we passed by a few 1,300-pound specimens which Laird said were scheduled to be harvested in the days/weeks to come.

Through the hills, dozens of remarkable, natural springs gravity-fed the ranch’s needs and actually have been doing so since the Salinan Nation and the Chumash native peoples lived in and near this area hundreds of years ago. The many species of oak trees dotted the pastures, rocky outcroppings and at the edges of the vineyards. The laurel oak, live oak, blue oak and valley oak are all common to Paso Robles and the Adelaida Springs Ranch.

Rangeland owner Laird Foshay traded unstable high Internet dollars for fair/bargin-priced land in the oak-covered hills west of Paso Robles and a chance to be an Angus beef rancher and winemaker. He wanted a rural lifestyle and was willing to be a beginner to do it.

As we continued around the ranch, Laird shared his love for the land and the native peoples. We talked about the history of the old Adelaide and the Klau and Buena Vista Mines and mid-1800 homesteaders. Laird spoke as though his family had homesteaded the place, not like someone who had moved there from the City of Palo Alto, just 11 years before. Later, he even pulled out a 1992 copy of J. Fraser MacGillivray’s coffee table book, Adelaida. It is fabulous, self-published book on the history of the region, including manuscripts, photos, and newspaper clippings.

During our drive through golden pastureland, 40 acres of vineyards, past ponds, posts and ranch machinery, we talked about raw beginnings, watering holes, golden eagles and putting up with new visitors to the area: 250-700 pound wild feral hogs or even and maybe even a 200-pound  wild black Russian boar.

“This is a new wild frontier,” Foshay said. “The ranch is a place of opportunity and freedom for me and for our young winemaker, Shannon Gustafson. It’s about a new place. I’m reshaping my history.”

My thoughts turned to a NordicHardware.com, July 2012 article, which published Steve Ballmer’s comments of reshaping  Microsoft, despite its past success. Ballmer’s drive reminded me of Foshay’s confidence about reformatting his life. Laird’s courage and conviction was gripping.

“Hey, I’ve changed careers twice already,” Foshsay said. “I’ve taken a lot of criticism but few things are rocket science and this [ranching] isn’t one of them.”

The 2009 The Watershed (Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend) is one of nine Rangeland wines produced on an annual basis. Rangeland wines are offered through club membership on their web site or through over 20 area wine shops and restaurants.

As dusk fell, the California quail and hares skittered under twigs and piles of dead vine stock. The talk in the truck of  abundant wildlife, including wild turkey, deer, bobcat, mountain lion and bear, red-tailed hawk and a pair of bald eagles, seemed to give evidence of a healthy ecosystem beyond what Foshay was creating with his cattle. Laird added he brought on one other full-time employee in 2011: Nathan Stuart. Since last summer, Paso Robles-born Stuart has managed the vineyards, introduced grazing sheep in the vineyard and also kept the bees busy with the ranch’s honey-making venture.

Our drive ended back at the ranch house with talks of dinner before our conversation would turn to winemaking. Laird offered me a couple of Angus beef hamburgers. No take out or maid service here. The patties sizzled and the fat rendered like juice in a pan: simple western food that smelled of the land. He poured a glass of 2009 Rangeland Syrah Mourvedre. The Rhône varietals grow well in Rangeland limestone and sandstone soils. The Syrah’s robust gaminess and smokey characteristics are complimented by the fresh fruity Mourvedre bouquet, including hints of blueberry and blackberry and flavors of leather, clove, and vanilla. The super fine tannins and smooth texture heightened the organic, mineral-like depth taste of the burgers.

Over his home-grown dinner offerings, talk turned to the interior decor of ranch house. So much of it reflected the land we had just meandered through. The natural limestone and sandstone fireplaces, the huge picture windows overlooking the Santa Lucia Range, pastures and vineyards. Native artifacts found on the property were displayed carefully as if in a museum. Foshay’s crossbred 10-year-old Australian cattle dog, Silver, was welcome inside and out.

Laird wanted to talk about the original Dodd Ranch and Frank Sawyer’s homestead; Sawyer was the physician at the Paso Robles Inn 100 years ago. His son Marshall later bought the ranch land in the 1970s. The area’s history seemed far more important than his successful 20 years as one of Palo Alto’s “bit players” (his humble quotations) of Internet and finance. Heck we even talked about the Paso Mennonites who settled the area in the 1890s.

After planting his first Bordeaux vineyard in 2002 and Rhône varietals in 2008-09, former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Laird Foshay, harvests vineyards growing at 1,700 feet among oaks, grasslands and Angus beef.

So then who is this University of California, Santa Barbara, history major? I kept telling Laird, “I am still having trouble figuring out how a guy who met Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the early years of personal computer and Internet development, turned to ranching and winemaking? It just seems crazy.”

One thing for sure, Foshay no longer wears Polo shirts and has no intention of going back.

Please read the Sept. 14 post and the second part of this series: Frontier ranching in Paso: Rangeland Wines and Laird Foshay, Part II. Read as Laird put aside criticism and raw beginnings to produce wines worthy of acclaim. Laird lives on his Adelaida Springs Ranch with his wife Lisa. They have two college-age boys: Sam and Jackson and a high school senior, Angeline.

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