Photo: Scott Serena plays the banjo while Ben vanSteenburgh points out a detail of the mural to Else Ahlmann
There’s nothing new about celebrating wine and art together. It’s been a uniquely human experience since the beginning of time. And today is no exception. A warm, gentle spring breeze and bright orange-yellow California poppies welcome us as we head towards Six Sigma Ranch and Winery’s wine cave. To the left, winery equipment rests for the time being, while the vines are just beginning the hard work of producing this season’s harvest. Ahead, friends gather in conversation on the broad concrete patio outside the cave’s large open doors. Inside, a table lines one wall, filled with various hors-d’oeuvres, wine, and chocolate. Rows of full barrels fill the back of the cave. Their contents perfume the air, a reminder that this is a working wine cave. And to the right, the recent artwork of Ben vanSteenburgh covers the wall, reaching far into the depths of the cave. It’s the reason for this celebration.
Co-owner Else Ahlmann greets us with camera in hand, ready to capture every moment in pictures. Before long, we’re chatting. “It all began right where you are standing,” Else says, her face smiling. “Martha Mincer and Ben were looking at the cave wall at one of our events, and she said it needed artwork. It went from there.
“If you notice, the bear and that deer are making eye contact.” Else points to the far left of the painting. “I asked Ben why they were looking at each other, and he explained that it was the deer that saw the bear first and warned the herd. That’s why they’re all running away out of the cave.” Else pauses as a new thought enters her mind. “But of course, you can’t just have one bear, so I had Ben add momma bear and baby bear.” We laugh, seeing the complexity of the painting and the stories within the story.
“You know,” Else continues, “there’s a children’s story to be told in this painting. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s there.” We both gaze down the wall, imagining all the tales to be told.
Near the entrance, winery owner Kaj Ahlmann stands, a glass of wine in his hand. “Well, the painting is inspired by the cave paintings in Spain, of course, but we took some liberties,” Kaj smiles and gestures. “We asked Ben to add Topper and the two goats,” he chuckles.
Sure enough, about halfway down the mural, Topper, Six Sigma’s beloved pot-bellied pig, frolics. According to legend, Topper first belonged to a neighbor but kept running away onto Six Sigma’s property. Finally, after enough escapes, the neighbor asked the Ahlmanns if they wanted to adopt him. Ever since he’s been a part of the Six Sigma family. In fact, Christian Ahlmann, Vice-President of Six Sigma, has written a book about Topper’s adventures. Later, two goats joined Topper in his new home behind the tasting room. They’re also in the painting, near the door. And, Kaj notes, if you look closely, you will see his granddaughters Elizabeth and Isabella’s handprints in the mural.
Artist Ben vanSteenburgh stands next to Kaj, looking at his handiwork. “I deliberately didn’t put a border on it so it would look like it was always here,” he says, pointing at the edges. “I’ve never done a mural without a border.”
I take a step or two back, and the art reveals more layers. The soft colors speak of mystery and history, but don’t compete with the surroundings. The raised texture of the cave wall gives a three-dimensional effect, making the mural a living and breathing experience. It also gives one a sense of timelessness, as if it’s always existed.
I can’t help myself; I look at the artwork and allow my mind to wander, creating a mythology of a working vineyard and ranch, a place where stories are frequently told and mountain lions, bears, and deer visit.
Six Sigma is a working ranch and vineyard open to the public seven days a week, where you can meet Topper and the goats for yourself as well as hear true stories of many of the other animals that visit the ranch. Sign up for the Six Sigma Newsletter here and be the first to know about their next wine cave experience and the other events they offer.
Six Sigma is open 11:00 – 4:30 daily
13372 Spruce Grove Rd, Lower Lake, CA 95457