Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sonoma's Hollywood Connection

Anyone growing up watching "My Three Sons" with Fred MacMurray would never guess that the big-time Hollywood actor ("The Apartment" is one of my favorite movies) actually spent a lot of his time not on a southern California backlot but on a sprawling ranch in Sonoma County. It's where he and his wife raised their four children. The ranch is now a winery, MacMurray Ranch, and it's owned by E.J. Gallo. But there's still an actual MacMurray connection: Fred's daughter, Kate (right), who lives on the property, in a cabin built by her father decades ago.
She works for Gallo promoting the MacMurray Ranch label. I recently had the chance to chat with Kate in the main house on the idyllic property (upper left), tucked in a lush, redwood-ringed valley off of Westside Road between Healdsburg and Forestville. Her love of the place is obvious. She said her father discovered the land on flyfishing trips in the 1930s when it was owned by the descendants of the Potter family who first came to the ranch in 1840 from Arkansas. After years of asking the Potters whether they would sell, he was finally able to purchase the property in 1941. Fred made more than 100 films and spent 12 years on "My Three Sons" but he was able to spend enough time here to turn the property -- a plum orchard under the Potters -- into a cattle ranch, with Black Angus he had shipped from Scotland. She recalls long driving trips between Sonoma County and their house in Los Angeles (this was before Interstate 5 was built) and stopping at a Foster's Freeze in Gilroy, all four kids and their movie star father climbing out for burgers and milkshakes. There was no TV and little Hollywood-style glamour at the ranch, only some hard work and lots of old-fashioned fun as the children were free to roam the property, ride horses and explore. "We didn't have a lot of worries. We were allowed to run free and go outdoors. It was magical," she said.

The 1,500-acre spread is not open to the public normally but you have a chance to spend time there over Labor Day Weekend when MacMurray hosts the Sonoma County Vintners' 30th annual Taste of Sonoma, which features 150 wineries offering samples of thousands of wines and 60 local chefs cooking up dishes to pair with the pourings. It all takes place around the charming old home where Kate grew up and in the barn that her father built with his own hands. General admission is $150 per person, although Visa Signature cardholders receive a special price of $95. Make sure you sample some of MacMurray's yummy pinot noir and pinot gris.

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