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Conversations in the garden with my mother

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My mother started gardening in earnest at the age of 45, when her own mother, my grandmother Grace Kelham, died in 1977. That was the year my mother and father relocated from San Francisco to Vine Hill Ranch, the vineyard property in the Napa Valley that my grandparents had assembled, and moved into the grand house that my grandfather had designed and that was completed in 1960

My grandfather was a classically trained architect with an excellent eye for scale. For his wife and himself on Vine Hill Ranch, he designed a gracious modern home in the California Ranch style featuring spacious rooms with 10 foot tall pocket doors that open directly onto a classical garden designed by California landscape architect Thomas Church. According to Thomas Church’s design dictates; the house is sensitively sited, nestled beneath a saddle in the rolling hills of the Mayacamas mountain range and with sweeping views of the vineyard and the cliffs of Stags Leap across the valley beyond a shimmering blue Chanel swimming pool. This house could easily have been the setting for one of Slim Aarons photographs of the social set of the1960’s.

When my parents moved to “the big house”, my father retired from his job as the Western manager of a national brokerage firm based in San Francisco determined to create a significant wine producing enterprise and manage the vineyard full time, as my mother was busy completing her term as the President of the San Francisco Fine Art Museums. Following their transition from a busy life in the City, my mother fully embraced her version of “country life.”

We had always spent lots of time on the ranch. Summers and weekends were at “the little house” down the road on the 150-acre vineyard property. When we were kids, while Daddy worked weekdays in the summer, my sister Alix, 2 years older and my brother, Bruce 5 years younger, and I spent our time with our mother, riding horses, swimming in the pool, and playing games in the evening, pursuits to occupy younger children with no access to TV.

Once my mother and father moved to “the Big house”, with the kids now gone away to college and boarding school, my mother hung up her riding boots and took up gardening and raising chickens, roosters and exotic rabbits. There were strict limits imposed by Thomas Church’s garden design, its symmetrical lines not allowing for much experimentation by my mother. Instead she worked the soil around the house, planting an ever expanding perennial garden on the hill just above and behind the house, closest to her bedroom, with a rambling path through ancient redwoods leading over the old “wakishaw” bridge to an eventual pond my parents created from a seasonal stream that they had landscaped. On the other side of the house, near the kitchen, was the vegetable garden to which she was continuously adding new wooden planter boxes that my father would build for her. Each summer, she cultivated an impressive array of heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, artichokes, zucchini, peppers, herbs, lettuces, radishes and cucumbers mixed in with yellow and orange marigolds. The vegetable garden was just outside of my bedroom window and the sounds of my mother muttering to herself or the dogs provided comfort on the long lazy days of summer when I was home for vacation from college or my New York life.

I have deeply loved my mother, but I wouldn’t say that we had a particularly close relationship. She had a sharp intellect, a remarkable recall for history, was well-read and versed in politics, art and philosophy, but she had no time for small talk and expressed only a polite interest in my life, my friends, my children, their schooling and my work.  Easy conversation or displays of affection didn’t come naturally between us. For me, an interest in gardening became a way to connect with her. Asking about her plants and walking the garden with her was a way for me to please her.

When my husband and I purchased our first home in the upper Haight in San Francisco after the birth of our daughter Grace in 1993, the large garden in the back was a big draw for me (which I failed at miserably). Gardening is what one did at a certain stage in life, like dinner parties (which I also struggle with). Jump ahead six years, one more child, Jamie, and a move to Manhattan, when my husband and I purchased seventy acres of land with a nondescript house on a two-acre pond in the Hudson Valley as an escape from the City. Repeating the family mantra passed down from my grandfather, “it was all about the land.” During the many years that followed, and the birth of one more child, Armant, while I spent summer weeks alone with young children and my husband stayed in Manhattan to work, gardening occupied my time. It fulfilled a creative need as well as satisfying a more acquisitive desire. My trips to the nursery replaced shopping in New York City. I purchased every interesting plant I could, memorizing the Latin names as my mother had done. As my mother had also done, I frowned on easy color from annuals or showy roses, and focused instead on form and texture. Everything in my evolving garden was maintained with my mother as my gardening muse, her voice in my head guiding me. My garden became a running dialogue with her.

In preparation for my parents’ annual visits to the Hudson Valley house at varying times of year, I would jump into action to make sure the garden looked its best. Her visit wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the native plant nursery in which she would buy a shrub or two for my garden, authoritatively declaring the value of the plant: “Oh, this snowball viburnum is very special,” and then a careful selection of where the plant would be situated. She would advise on gardening technique: “pull weeds by turning and pulling,” make cuttings of plants deemed desirable (once these were cuttings of an extremely invasive wild rose that I have since been trying to eliminate in a rare act of subversion), and comment on color stories. Her approval of something I had designed would ensure that the happy planting would remain in place forever, not subject to the constant rearranging and reshuffling that constitutes much of my gardening efforts.

Earlier this year, four months after the death of my father, my mother succumbed to a cancer that she had been treated for five years ago. Now, unable to leave her bed and struggling to stay mentally focused as the cancer moved into her brain, once again I turned to her garden to form a connection with her. Leaving her bedside at a loss for words during a visit from New York in early Spring, I went into a section of garden that she had started to redesign last year. I photographed the progress of the new plantings and some of our old favorites in bloom. As she was never one to communicate emotions readily in her lifetime, and as this seems to be one of the things I inherited from her, now it felt unnatural for me to say the things I wanted to say, to ask how she was feeling, to probe her about her feelings about her impending death, even to tell her I loved her. Instead, as I sat there showing her the photos on my iPad, my mother, who could not recall when or what she had last eaten, identified each plant by its Latin name – brunnera, euphorbia, salvias and pelargonium. The deathbed scenarios I had envisioned seemed only possible in movies. Instead, I looked for meaning between her words. On showing her the pictures of her garden she profoundly (or was it?) replied, “well, it was a good effort.”

Outside her window, an ancient weeping wisteria tree, planted by my grandmother for the original garden circa 1960 and propped up using traditional Japanese supports by Mr. Takahashi who worked by my mother’s side in the garden until his death approximately five years ago, stood with branches bare where there should have been an abundance of blooms. As if in solidarity, without words, its time had come.

Great roots!

The recent release of the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon from Vine Hill Ranch, Katharine’s Napa Valley”roots”, is receiving rave reviews. Here’s the most recent from esteemed wine critic Antonio Galloni in his wine blog Vinous:

The 2013s from Vine Hill Ranch, block by block

It’s hard to believe just how far Bruce and Heather Phillips have come in just a few years. Of course, the Phillips family has been supplying grapes to some of the Napa Valleys top wineries for decades, but that is not the same as making wine. Ever since their debut vintage 2008, the Phillipses have quietly but surely staked out a place for themselves among the top producers in Napa Valley. Vineyard guru Mike Wolf and Winemaker Françoise Peschon bring an extraordinary level of passion to Vine Hill Ranch that is evident in every detail.

Vine Hill Ranch currently produces just one wine, which is a blend of six separate blocks on the property. The 2013 harvest was a full three weeks ahead of 2012. Peschon opted to leave the wines on their lees as long as possible. The 2013s were racked in March, right after the malos finished. The five blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon in this tasting are all vivid and remarkably different. Block 6L, the single largest component, is drop-dead gorgeous. Petit Verdot has yet to be used in a final blend at Vine Hill Ranch, but the 2013 is beyond beautiful. The 2012, tasted just prior to bottling, could turn out to be one of the wines of the vintage. I also had a chance to re-visit the 2010 and 2011 from bottle. Both wines confirm their place among the best wines of their respective years. Readers who haven’t tasted Vine Hill Ranch owe it to themselves to do so. This is without question one of the most exciting properties in Napa Valley today.

– Antonio Galloni

Hearty congratulations to Katharine’s brother, Bruce, and his wife, Heather, for spearheading the project, and to the passionate and dedicated wine-making team!

Introducing Kahina Night Cream

Kahina Night Cream

As some of you might know, I was raised on a vineyard in the Napa Valley, Vine Hill Ranch. The profound respect I gained for the importance of the quality of the grapes to make superior wine dramatically affected my approach in the development of Kahina Giving Beauty, recognizing that the end product is only as good as the ingredients within. Additionally, my respect for the protective and restorative power of the wine grape has been gained witnessing the powerful defenses of grapes against decay first hand.

After more than two years in development, I am thrilled to launch the newest member of the Kahina line. KAHINA NIGHT CREAM combines the powerful anti-aging properties of red wine grapes with argan oil, and bridges my worlds past and present.

Katharine at Napa Vineyard
At my family’s ranch, riding in the front, with my mother, father, and sister, c. 1963

Active ingredients in high concentrations for clinically proven results include:

  • Resveratrol – a natural antioxidant found in red wine inhibits inflammation while stimulating collagen production to smooth, firm and lift.
  •  Argan Oil – found only in the Southwest of Morocco, rich in Vitamin E and essential fatty acids, restores elasticity and minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while protecting against environmental aging.
  • Vitis Vinifera Extract – delivers an effective dose of antioxidants with potent polyphenols to preserve skin health and protect it against signs of aging.

We call this an anti-aging cream. For us at Kahina, anti-aging means taking care of your skin and keeping it as healthy as it can possibly be.  Your skin will thank you by being (and looking and feeling) its best self.

I hope you love this new addition as much as I do.

– Katharine L’Heureux, founder

VHR, Farming Napa Valley History, Wine Spectator

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Congratulations Bob Phillips, (aka Daddy) for well-deserved accolades in this month’s Wine Spectator!

“In the 1960’s, Bob Phillips, now 89, transformed the Vine Hill Ranch, where fruit orchards and hay fields once stood, into one of the most sought after vineyards in Napa Valley for Cabernet Sauvignon. Bruce Cakebread, who has bought grapes from Vine Hill Ranch since 1981, says of Phillips, “He’s really dedicated to his vineyard. We’ve gone through replants and phylloxera together, and he’ll go to the Nth degree to grow the best grapes”.

The 70-acre vineyard, nestled between Harlan Estate and Dominus in the southwestern corner of Oakville, undulates from the benchlands to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, with seven different blocks all dedicated to Cabernet. It’s in Phillips’ modest nature to have chosen farming over winemaking, and he’s sold grapes to some of Napa’s finest producers, including Cakebread, Etude, Lail and Bond. One of the first to source his vineyard was Andre Tchelistcheff for his Georges de Latour bottlings at Beaulieu Vineyards.”

A true inspiration. XOXO Kat

Father’s Day Reflections

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Katharine L’Heureux’s father, William Robert Phillips, 1950s

This Father’s Day, I’m taking a moment to reflect on my own father and how his life and values shaped me and ultimately my business.

My father’s life is patched together for me in the bits and pieces of his life as he has shared it through stories told around the dinner table: raised in New Orleans, Korean war hero, stock broker, vintner. A modest man, but an engaging storyteller, his stories usually downplayed his own starring role. In his version, he is a Forest Gumpian figure – unwittingly turning hapless events to his advantage. I hope he will forgive me for any inaccuracies I’ve made in the retelling, and for condensing his full life to a blog post.

W. Robert Phillips was born and raised in New Orleans in the shadow of three larger than life uncles, Sydney, Morris and Armant LeGendre – handsome football stars, sought after bachelors and war heroes from New Orleans. His family eventually moved from New Orleans to the Bay Area in California, where my father attended Stanford University and continued the legacy of his uncles.

From there he was drafted to serve in the Korean War, where, by his own account, he mistakenly blew up a munitions dump and performed several other acts of heroism for which he was awarded a bronze star.

Then the dizzying years of marrying my mother, raising a family, and pursuing a career as a stockbroker, all while getting up at 5 AM every morning to exercise (rowing in the SF Bay or running) and squeezing in the sanctioned-at-the-time three-martini lunch. He did it all to perfection, and moved swiftly up the corporate ladder. But, ultimately, he wanted a simpler life.

At the age of 55, my father was presented with a choice to move to New York with his firm or to move to the Napa Valley and take over the family vineyard on the passing of my grandmother.  He chose the latter, dropping off the treadmill at a time when few others were entertaining such “quality of life” options.  As I look now at the former Wall Streeters dropping out to start their own businesses, it seems he was way ahead of his time.

In the Napa Valley, W. Robert (known as Bob) took a neglected piece of land filled with potential, and turned it into one of the most sought after producers of cabernet sauvignon in the region, forming solid relationships with some of the best wineries in California and nurturing farm laborers and becoming an active land preservationist in the process. His modesty never gave him the desire to be the face behind the wine, instead choosing the farmer’s role and selling his grapes to his neighbors.

As I think about my father and his life, I see the constant thread of his moral fiber directing its course. I am thankful for the gifts he has, hopefully, passed on to me – a love of the land, a compassion for others, the fearlessness to follow a dream, and most importantly, an ability to laugh at myself.

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Katharine and Bob enjoying a Napa lunch, 2011

VHR Launches in New York City

youngkatharinenapaonhorseKatharine and her older sister on horseback, with Mom and Dad leading, at Vine Hill Ranch, 1960s

Kahina Giving Beauty founder and CEO Katharine Phillips L’Heureux is proud to host the New York launch for VHR Friday, September 16, 2011.  VHR stands for Vine Hill Ranch, the Phillips’ family vineyard located in Yountville, California in the Napa Valley.  After multiple generations of providing grapes to premium wineries, Vine Hill Ranch has now produced their own, inaugural vintage: VHR Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, a boutique wine available in limited quantities.  VHR prides itself on its heritage, sustainable farming practices, andclose attention to the land and its harvest.  Each bottle label gives information on the year blocks were planted and the date harvested, cases produced, yield, and the grower, Katharine’s father William Robert Phillips.  For more information or to procure, visit the Vine Hill Ranch website.

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