October 08, 2015

Photo Essay: Wild Wine Safari

It just seemed like one of those things that couldn't possibly still exist—or be around for much longer.

I mean, we've lost the lion farms and Jungleland and everything else that Southern California once offered for animal amusements. How is it possible that you can still go winetasting in Malibu with wild animals?

It's all thanks to entrepreneur Ron Semler, who bought the property now known as Saddlerock Ranch in a fire sale in the 1980s. It was literally burned to a crisp from a wildfire, but somehow he managed to reinvigorate the property to grow grapes for two different wine labels—Saddlerock and Semler Wines.

And throughout this sprawling hilltop property—across 1000 acres of it—are a variety of animals from A to Z.

If you go on one of their wine safaris (or rent the venue for your wedding), you get to feed alpacas like Manny Alpacquiao (left)...

...who have plenty of room to roam, and shades on their eyes to keep the flies away. They take the carrots one bite at a time, so hold on tight.

Pretty much from any standpoint, you can see the property lines marked by pointy rock formations.

Most of the animals are rescues—in Hollywood, even animals who get too big or too tall end up out of a job, and they've got to go somewhere. This actually seems like a lot more glamorous (and a lot less crowded) than a non-profit sanctuary, and they seem well cared-for.

All of the animals have been given punny names, like Barack Ollama.

The zebras were actually a gift to Ron Semler, and they're considered the "gift that keeps on giving"—their population seems to have proliferated quickly since arriving at Saddlerock.

The new baby zebra "Zin" is still pretty light-colored, not yet having "earned his stripes."

Zebras, like horses, will take the carrots whole so you've got to watch your fingers around those chompers.

A lot of animals can get pretty aggressive when you feed them, even fighting each other for a bite, but the water buffalo was a gentle giant. If only the other animals knew that being so affable would get them more carrots. (If only people knew that.)

Of course, it's easy to become distracted by the animals, but this is a vineyard, after all, where white and red varietals are grown and shipped up north for the winemaking process.

After feeding the animals, the guides drive you a bit farther into the ranch on one of their open-air trucks...

...and stop at an amazing vista point to taste a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat.

Ron Semler's wife Linda is an artist, so various pieces of public art are scattered about the ranch. They loved the view from this overlook so much, the Semlers considered photographing it so they could see it from their house—but then they were inspired to bring the picture frame outside instead.

This does not suck.

It was quite the lovely view.

We had just missed the fall harvest by a week or so. Fortunately there are still grapes to harvest, but they haven't been unaffected by the drought. Wine made from these water-starved grapes will probably have a higher than average alcohol by volume percentage.

But this ranch is full of survival stories—not only of the rescued animals and the charred landscape. When the fires burned a barn down before Semler acquired the property, they spared a lone doorway.

Now that doorway is preserved as a piece of public art.

The most famous rescue animal at Saddlerock Ranch is Stanley the giraffe, a movie star (and Toys R Us spokesanimal) who outgrew the screen and now greets fans here in his forever home. If you get married at Saddlerach, he'll even put on a tux.

It's hard to believe how hidden and tremendous this ranch is—or that they actually let people in. It feels very much like you're snooping around someone's family home, with different areas named after their many children.

And yet a rail line used to run through here in 1875?

Could this place get any more offbeat?

Sure—add some Airstream trailers...

...each with their own unique theme...

...which are unfortunately no longer available to rent for the night, though this part of the ranch is available for classy/trashy wedding celebrations (and selfies with a Big Boy).

I couldn't help but wonder what will happen to all those exotic animals—the camels, the yak—when Ron and Linda Semler are gone, or unable to take care of them. The Semlers have lots of children, so hopefully one or more will carry on the legacy; but you hear stories all the time about private collections of animals (like at Neverland Ranch) that have to be dispersed, despite the best laid plans.

In the meantime, I could not get enough of that place, and I suspect there's lots more that I didn't see. I'll have to go back to meet Stanley (which requires an extra charge). I'll have to take one of their wine hikes. I'll have to figure out how to spend the night. I'll have to find someone to get married to there...

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Rosenthal Malibu Estate Vineyard Tour
Adventure Is Out There! Wine Country Edition
Photo Essay: Into the Wild Safari Park
Photo Essay: The Hidden Kingdom of Big Cats
Photo: Feeding the Wild Horses

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