Mark Morris breezes into Sandy Hill's Los Olivos ranch house, necklaces dangling, a shawl draped loosely about his shoulders and dance company directors Nancy Umanoff and Lauren Cherubini in tow. Once dubbed "our Mozart of modern dance" by the Washington Post, Morris is the first speaker in a series of Sunday lunch-salons at Hill's ranch and Oak Savanna Vineyard. No matter that it's Wednesday--plans have a way of bending to Morris' schedule; he's in town for a midweek performance in Santa Barbara.
Guests begin to gather, and beyond the patio, in an allée of old olive trees, chairs have been set up in neat rows. Rancho La Zaca, the Santa Ynez Valley setting for Hill's fetes, is a former Spanish land grant nestled in a rolling savanna of oaks and golden grasses. Hill and her husband, commodities trader Tom Dittmer, purchased the modern home eight years ago.
The ranch includes 30 acres of vineyards--planted in Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Sangiovese and Tempranillo. Hill won't disclose the size of the property. "Never ask a rancher the size of his spread," she says. But ask her anything about how to throw a great party and she's eager to share.
Hill has an impressive list of speakers lined up for the summer--authors, historians, ethicists and columnists, including Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Starr and Esther Dyson. Hill likes her guests--and her friends--to be accomplished, intelligent and provocative. So Morris is the perfect kick-off speaker.
"Guests are always the main impetus for a party," Hill says.
On one occasion, 25 sari-clad friends were invited to lunch in an open-air pavilion by the pond to celebrate the Hindu deity Ganesh--and were treated to rides through the vineyard on the backs of two elephants. For the Hills' Independence Day blast, several hundred friends and family members participate in a rodeo held in her private arena and feast on the likes of grilled lobster with green mango butter and antelope with a coffee-chili crust.
Hill, a fourth-generation Californian, approaches entertaining as extreme sport--much like riding horseback across the Masai Mara or climbing the highest peaks on seven continents, both of which she's done. In fact, Hill became a controversial figure after she was portrayed critically in Jon Krakauer's 1997 book, "Into Thin Air." (In his account of the 1996 Mt. Everest ascent that left nine dead, Krakauer blamed the commercialization of Everest climbs, which each year draw more amateurs. Hill was making her third attempt.)
LIVING THE RANCH LIFE
Hill has chronicled 18 of her extravagant gatherings in a cookbook, "Fandango," with recipes from her chef, Stephanie Valentine. The title, Hill says, was inspired by the impromptu gatherings that were an integral part of California Spanish Colonial ranch life in the 19th century. Neighbors who lived hours away by horseback would come to visit, then stay to party--sometimes for days.
The allée, where three dozen olive trees create a silvery-green canopy of leaves overhead, is an idyllic spot for a long, lingering lunch. "There's a really important interaction that happens with people when you are facing them across the table, eating and drinking together outdoors," Hill says. "It always seems that the best conversations occur there. It's the most meaningful type of entertaining we do."
She sets the mood with drinks on the patio overlooking a meadow of nasturtiums, wildflowers and indigenous grasses. Guests are offered peach coolers--made with raw honey from Valentine's own hive--served in silver-rimmed glasses with glass straws.
For Morris, Valentine has poured a flute of Death in the Afternoon, a Champagne and absinthe cocktail dreamed up by Ernest Hemingway and a few sailor friends. (Absinthe, the green anise-flavored spirit with a touch of wormwood, was a favorite of 19th century poets and painters. Banned in the U.S. in 1912, it was approved for sale last year.) "Mark Morris loves good food and wine," Valentine says, "and it was a little quirky. It seemed like something he might like."
Or not. The irrepressible Morris takes a sip, then says: "Not for me--tastes like Good & Plenty!"
When it's time for Morris to sing for his supper, he begins by choreographing the guests. "Loosen up the chairs a little bit, people," he directs. Then, crowd arranged to his liking, he describes his latest project, "the long-lost-forever manuscript of Sergei Prokofiev." What intrigues him about the reinterpreted "Romeo and Juliet," he says, is the story's twist. "The ill-fated couple don't die," he says, "but then don't live completely happily ever after, either."
He takes questions from the group, and pronounces, "OK, I'm done." Then, "Yay!" he sings, clapping his hands in delight. "Time to dine."
Hill ushers the group to the nearby table set in her monogram H-shape grove of olives. Suddenly, the wind comes up. Napkins with silver rings blow off the table, an unfilled glass tumbles over, women hold down their hair. Unflustered, Hill toasts Morris, then tells everyone, "We're moving to the patio."
Leave it to her to be able to smoothly re-seat 13--around a redwood table overlooking a dramatic infinity pool. Morris is sandwiched between Hill and Kate Firestone, a former soloist with England's Royal Ballet and one of the founders of Firestone Winery. Firestone's daughter, Polly Firestone Walker, chats with artist David Florimbi, as her husband, David Walker, co-owner of Firestone Walker Brewing Co., talks with Hill. Accessories designer Kendall Conrad and landscape designer (and hairstylist-to-the-stars) Art Luna are deep in conversation.
Lunch starts off with a wonderful cool heirloom tomato soup with bacon croutons and a crumble of Point Reyes blue cheese. It's followed by pork tenderloin with an Argentine spin--Valentine pounds each serving into a thin paillard, grills it quickly over oak and tops it with a beguiling herb salad. Freshly dug roasted fingerling potatoes and a summer salad of Romano, wax and French beans complete the menu. Offerings of Foxen Pinot Noir and Hill's Oak Savanna Chardonnay are poured all around. For dessert: a summery almond cake with a compote of perfectly ripe apricots and sour cream ice cream.
Conversation sparks around the table as the afternoon winds on.
The secret to the lunch's success? Perhaps it can be found in the 1920s leather Hermès hostess seating chart Hill uses to arrange her guests. "I like to make pairings that create a spontaneous combustion," she says. "It creates energy and interest for the whole group."
And on this windy afternoon at Rancho La Zaca, clearly the chemistry's just right.