Doug and Debbie Wiens opened Wine Ranch Grill and Cellars three years ago this month. At the time it was called Le Grange, but as I have witnessed more than once, someone claimed that name was a copyright infringement so they changed it. As with many businesses, last year presented innumerable challenges. The pandemic forced them to close their doors, but that didn’t stop them from selling wine. That may have single-handedly saved the business.
The first years are often the toughest in the restaurant business. Many don’t survive the first year. Doug and Debbie had a vision, but finding the right chef to execute it proved more than a little challenging. Enter Richard Holeman. Richard took over the kitchen the week before Thanksgiving 2019 and he was an answer to their prayers. I sat down with Richard and Debbie recently and we visited over a delicious lunch and refreshing Wine Ranch Vermentino.
He began cooking as a kid, then got a job at the Howard Johnsons in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He was certain he was going to run into Bruce Springsteen. He didn’t. A wanderlust, he stopped occasionally and took a job at a cafe or diner. He finally settled down for a time, and became a breakfast cook at Dennys. After a few years, he decided he wanted to cook “good food.”
He hired on at Marriott Corporation who sent him to culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Maryland, followed by Marriott’s culinary program. His first stint lasted four years, then he returned for another three. He worked at every kind of restaurant you can imagine – banquets, hotels, resorts, cafes, you name it before winding up at Wine Ranch.
When he arrived he admittedly just wanted to put in his hours. Then he saw the reality of the kitchen. No one was happy. “I’m an Alpha male, I’m a leader, I’m decisive.” It wasn’t in his nature to let things continue unchecked. Some chefs, he says, hoard secrets. He, however, wants everyone in the kitchen to be as good or better than he is. He now is quite proud of his solid kitchen staff. He can take off for a few days without worrying about the kitchen. “The more they know, the less I have to worry.” Debbie says “he’s such a teacher, he really wants to mentor.” He wants strong, opinionated people in his kitchen. He says you need to explain why things are done a certain way so that they’ll grasp it.
The path that led Richard to Wine Ranch makes for an interesting tale. He remembers well his first motorcycle ride. He was four, and the guy that drove him up and down the rows of a New Jersey cabbage field was drunk. He loved every second of it. “It felt so free and liberating.” Bikes have fascinated him ever since. At 28 he was offered a place to live in a lumberyard in Yucca Valley. He worked in the lumberyard and lived rent-free in a built-out shack. Next door was a drive-in theater. He’d sit on a stack of lumber and tune in the movie on his radio. The yard owner had two wrecked bikes on the property – both the same model, but a year different. After relentless pestering from Richard, the owner told him if he could make one working bike he could have it. He made friendly with a couple of mechanics at a shop in Yucca Valley, picked their brains, took them to lunch, took notes, and four and a half months later he had a working bike. He knew he was a biker he says, because he would leave to go to the store and return two days later.
Eventually, he fell in love with a waitress from Dennys and he wound up working the graveyard shift there. His boss at the lumberyard was none too happy and gave him an ultimatum. Stay at the lumberyard or keep then job at Dennys. Love triumphed. The relationship lasted three months. He stayed on the job for two years.
He’s always wanted to write, and he wrote and published his first book three years ago. He wound up writing four books in six months. One day he’d like to write a kitchen-oriented book along the lines of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. “It’s always been motorcycles and cooking and writing,” he said. “And cats.”
“He came here a year-and-a-half ago and just rocked our world.” Debbie says it was like a Christmas miracle. “He was an answer to prayer.” The food is excellent. I feasted on a free-range apricot chicken while my companion enjoyed a blta croissant. We both took leftovers home. Chef strives to keep his prices reasonable, pricing things fair, but still profitable. He agonizes when ordering so he can keep the menu competitive.
Wine Ranch Grill and Cellars is in Murrita’s Old Town at 24683 Washington Avenue, open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Call them at 951 600-2800