Camping and Craft Whiskey at Historic California Ranch

Christianna Reinstein is a fifth generation rancher and yoga instructor who lives on Reinstein Ranch which has been in her family since 1884. Christianna and her husband Albrecht have reimagined what the ranch can offer, extending it as a place for people to escape the city and return to nature. Campers can stay in a historic cabin from the Hetch Hetchy valley, a Burning Man-inspired Bell Tent, or set up a tent anywhere in the rolling hills surrounding the property.

When I arrived on a warm February afternoon, I found remnants of the past scattered throughout the property. Reinstein and Whiskey Ranch are tucked between Mount Diablo and velvety, green hills. In an area that is historically notorious for bootleg whiskey during prohibition, Christianna and Albrecht have started a new project: creating whiskey from their prized wheat that won the Grand-Prix gold medal at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

From glampsites to indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Christianna and Albrecht are part of an emerging community of landowners who have generously opened their land to the next generation of campers. Dive into the history of Reinstein and Whiskey Ranch, Christianna and Albrecht’s experiences and tips as Hipcamp Hosts, and a peek at their camps in our interview below.

Hipcamp: Why did you join Hipcamp, and allow campers to stay on your land?

Christianna Reinstein: I just wanted to share my land. I have all of this land and history. Why would I keep it to myself? I didn’t expect to make a lot of money from letting people camp out in the hills, but I wanted other people to get that experience.

Albrecht Kohler: The idea to create Whiskey Ranch came from Burning Man. We had a great time there, especially having so much space inside the tent. I had ideas in my head for how the tent should look, specifically with a lot of carpets and pillows. I think it’s a great solution, if I were to live in the city and I just wanted to camp, I would need all the equipment. You need a tent, a sleeping bag and then you have to store it somewhere. I think a lot of people don’t have that, especially the people who are interested in camping but don’t want to go full-force. This is kind of an in-between for curious people who want to explore the outdoors but never really dare. We have a lot of people tell us it was awesome and that they want to go camping more.

Bottom photos by Sabrina (left), Nic Castellanos (right)

HC: What kind of activities do campers participate in at Reinstein Ranch? Whiskey Ranch?

AK: Most people already have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to do. Mostly it’s about switching off. They can sit and just watch the sun and the landscape all day. We always tell them that right now we can’t make the whiskey here, but we make it at a distillery that is only 10 minutes away. Most of them take the short drive to check it out. Other than that, people have campfires and hike a lot. I always say to check out the sunset from these hills, because it just blew my mind the first time I went up there. It looks very different up there, the sky opens up completely.

CR: There’s Morgan Territory Regional Park and Mount Diablo next to us, so there is a lot of hiking around here. Just to have that view of the expanse of the rolling hills, and then you add the sunset. That’s kind of a spiritual experience. It doesn’t look like it would be very high, but when you’re up on any of the hills it really looks like you’re on top of the world.

I tell people to bring whatever inspires them, whether it’s a book, a musical instrument, or if they paint. It’s just really nice inspiration to be creative. We haven’t done anything quite like this yet, but I host yoga retreats and we have done a lot where I teach a class, and then we make a meal whether its brunch or a dinner. We would like to get more involved in the experience. I would love for people to camp in a few different tents where people can get together, and then have a meal. We are moving into the ranch house and I envision having more communal meals that people can participate in.

AK: I like to keep that a surprise, instead of making it something you pay extra when you book. I like to see their expression of “Oh, that’s cool! We get to do that too!” I would start it off as a surprise by telling people to come get coffee in the house in the morning.

HC: What led you to pursue a lifestyle closer to the land, and more specifically managing a Ranch?

CR: It was totally luck of the draw. My family has had this property for so long, but I’ve never actually lived here. I grew up with my mom, as my parents were split. I was living in San Francisco and I was looking for a space to host a yoga retreat. I was looking at other people’s venues and ranches, but there was space on the ranch that was starting to open up. So I moved back to the ranch to see if I could make it profitable and do something creative. Then I met Albe, and he joined me out here and we found out about Hipcamp.

AK: I lived in downtown San Francisco next to a freeway, and it was constant noise. It was a cool apartment but I realized that I need the quietness just to think. The voices and ideas you have in your head are more clear. You’re not as distracted.

CR: When I moved here, it was awesome just having the open space. It’s like a world of difference to have a big open sky and open land. It really feels like there’s an inner expansion or openness that goes with it.

AK: I think we’re a little bit primed for that. Until I was 12, I lived in Germany out in the middle of nowhere. I had the forest to myself to play around in, and I was very much primed to like nature. It gives me peace of mind.

HC: What is your day-to-day routine as a Hipcamp host and ranch manager? Do the routines compliment themselves, are there differences?

AK: Christianna is more of the ranch manager here, and I am mostly the host for campers. I’m here a lot because during last year I wrote my thesis in physics. I just needed to sit and write, that’s what I did all day. Now, I’m here to greet campers when they arrive.

CR: I manage the bar that distills our whiskey and I teach yoga, so I’m out and about a lot. Sometimes I miss campers when they come. Albe being here and able to receive the campers is helpful. He’s in a better position to do that. Whereas, if I was here all the time I think these routines would compliment very well.

HC: In your listing, you mention that Reinstein Ranch has ‘lots of history’ and that your family has been here since 1884. Can you elaborate how your family came to own and tend to this land?

CR: In 1884, my Great-Great Grandfather Frederick Reinstein bought a piece of property nearby. They knew Thomas Carneal, who owned this ranch at the time. My Great-Great Grandfather was farming for him. They ended up working together for a really long time. It was a really nice relationship. Then Carneal was saying that he was going to put this place up for sale. Carneal very much supported them moving into this ranch house. Carneal was more of a landowner and people in my family were farmers. They wanted to do stuff on the land, so I think that’s why they wanted my family to have this property. Carneal saw how they really helped with anything they could to make the land more productive.

HC: Can you talk to me more specifically about the history of the structures here, like the barn and Hetch Hetchy cabin?

CR: The barn was built in the 1860s. It was the house of all the draft horses that pulled all the carts and the equipment that went into the hills to grow the wheat and other crops. There were 12 stalls on the inside and outside of the barn. The upstairs was the hayloft. It’s 100 feet long, built in the 1860s and it’s still standing strong. The bunkhouse, which is the music studio now, was also built in the 1860s. It was literally just a bunkhouse for all the workers when it was seasonal to pick and plant. The Hetch Hetchy cabin was a working cabin when they built the Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite. Those cabins dotted the whole project when they were working on it. Once it was completed they sold off those cabins and my great grandfather bought it. It was pulled here by a team of draft horses over 100 years ago, all the way from Yosemite.

AK: The purpose for the cabin here was for the harvesters to stay in.

HC: What is the best time of year to visit Reinstein Ranch?

AK: In spring it’s great. The temperature is perfect and things are in bloom. It can get nice and hot in the summer. It looks golden and it’s very magical. You can see the wind patterns in the hills. We got married here in September, because it’s one of the best times of the year for weather. The temperature is awesome and the sunsets are great.

CR: The transition is really great. We get California poppies along the hilltops, so with all of this rain it will be awesome. When you climb up the hills there are different layers of ecosystems of totally different flowers and wildlife. When the grass grows tall and dries, I think it’s beautiful. Especially when you get a breeze and it looks like velvet moving in the wind. But, fall is definitely my favorite time of year. We get prickly pears and we have pomegranates that are in bloom. I think it depends on the person. I like the change in seasons, so I would like to camp one day in each season, rather than be here for a whole season. It’s a totally different experience.

Middle right photo by Sabrina Xx

HC: Do you have any favorite camping moments or stories from Hipcampers so far?

AK: We have really cool conversations with all kinds of people staying here. Sometimes it feels like they are fast exchanges, because people only stay for one weekend and I really want to know everything, and they do too.

CR: It seems that we’ve had a lot of synchronicity with campers. Somehow, we got connected and it just happened to be through Hipcamp. It just seems very synchronistic. Once we had these guys who landed from Brazil and rented an RV. My brother received them here while I was at work. I do all the bookings and so my brother told me, “They showed me the listing on hipcamp on their phone.” And I told him, “No, there’s no reservation for tonight, or this weekend at all.” So I came back and my brother had posted them up by setting up a barbeque for them. They were already having a great time and drinking beers. In his thick brazilian accent one of them was like “Hipcamp!” and I was like, “No, no…you didn’t book, but it’s okay!” The language barrier was just hilarious, we were having such a hard time. He had seen the photos online back in Brazil, but he didn’t understand the booking process and that he needed an American credit card in order to book. It was really funny.

HC: Wheat grown on your ranch won the Grand-Prix gold medal at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. Do you still have that medal?!

CR: Yes, the medal is in our safe. It looks like a jewelry case and then you open it up and it’s blue velvet with two gold medals.

AK: It says “Wheat to Carneal”, because at that time the ranch was still owned by Carneal and the Reinstein’s were farming here.

HC: I read on your listing that today that same wheat is made into whiskey at a local distillery. What prompted the idea to start creating your own whiskey?

CR: We wanted to grow the wheat and then thought what’s the most profitable thing you can do with wheat? Whiskey.

AK: The momentum also came from Ryan, because he opened up his local distillery about three years ago. We met and talked about how to make whiskey, and I think that was the spark that made us decide to do it.

CR: Seeing somebody else who was local and doing something great on such a craft level made it seem like it was tangible thing that we could do. When we tried it, It was so good. That’s when we were like, yeah let’s definitely do this.

AK: Back then I wasn’t a fan of American whiskey. Now with craft whiskeys you decide what grain and you can design the whole thing. The outcome of is a flavor explosion. We tried to look to the history of this place and wheat is the big connection.

CR: We have books from the UC Berkeley Library from early 1900’s with images of stills, instructions on how to distill, and hand written whiskey recipes. They were definitely making whiskey out here, you know.

AK: Making hooch is something you couldn’t do a while ago and now it’s something to explore. We wanted to take this wheat they won a prize for in 1900 and explore what kind of whiskey we could make.

HC: Can you walk me through what the process for distilling the whiskey on the ranch would look like here in the future? Can campers get a glimpse into this process and sample at the Ranch?

CR: Our current mechanic shop is going to be the distillery. We’ll grow the wheat here and then we’ll harvest it. Then the first thing you do is clean the grain and mill it, so it’s like a flour consistency. Then cook, ferment, and distill it. It’s obviously not that simple, that’s just a shortened version. Once we have our permits to be a distillery, then campers will be able to sample it here. Right now our barrels are at the bar I manage, so campers can get a tasting of it there.

AK: The wheat field is four acres. Ideally, everything would be done here from growing until the end product and bottling. The temperature change here is perfect. The way we’re nestled in the hills with Mt. Diablo creates very warm temperatures during the day, and very cool temperatures at night. That’s what you need for fast, good aging. The aging time will depend on the barrel size and what you want to make, but typically it’s about two years

HC: What does Reinstein Ranch have planned for 2017? Are there any exciting improvements or events you hope to make happen this year?

AK: Hopefully, if the permits roll in this year, we’ll be able to serve alcohol. Then campers could just walk to the tasting room.

CR: We talked about having camp style events with multiple tents and bunk houses. I think getting people together in open space is such a magical thing. It’s not like you need to have a lot to do. A tasting room would be great to have as just one portion of entertainment. But really, to just be together out in nature is what I would like to have happen a lot more out here.

AK: The combination is great. Camping and whiskey I think is a great pairing. Especially with a campfire.

HC: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a camp host? And for someone who is a camp host?

CR: I would say do it. This new culture of sharing has been really nice for people to open up. I’ve tried to get my grandma to do things like that, and you see this generational, closed mentality. People think “They’re going to take my stuff, they’re going to ruin my things and the property.” But now, you see this new generation of people who really know Leave No Trace and they respect the land. They don’t get access to much of it, so they’re really inclined to want to preserve it. I think that is something special you don’t really see unless you’re sharing what you have with other people. I think that everybody should offer a piece of what they have to share. It’s a better experience for the person who has it.

AK: For people who are already hosts, I would say trust the people who want to come to your property. Sometimes you get inquiries that are very specific and you might think people are being picky, or am I sure that this is what they want from me? For example, if you don’t have a space heater in the tent. And then I’ll answer everything and invite them here, and we’ve never have a bad experience with any of our campers. People are always respectful and the tent is always clean when they leave. We tell campers to feel free to do what they like. When you offer that people tend to be more respectful. They’re so grateful to be able to be here. Have a little faith.

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Lisse Lundin is a photographer and Parks & Recreation major based in San Francisco. You can follow along with her adventures via Instragram.

Hipcamp is an online marketplace where you can list, discover, and book campsites and accommodations on private and public land. Hipcamp is your go-to guide to getting outside. If you’re a landowner, Hipcamp creates new revenue streams for your business, which can help conserve your land and keep it wild. #FindYourselfOutside #LeaveItBetter

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