The Napa Estate Behind Ovid Wine Is on Sale for $18.5 Million
In the late 1990s, Dana Johnson and her husband, Mark Nelson, began to look for a place in the country.
At the time they lived in New York, and “our original theory was that we wanted a summer house and a place to go on weekends,” she says. “We talked ourselves into the idea that instead of driving for six hours, it would be just as easy to fly six hours.”
They’d already spent a fair amount of time in the Bay Area. Nelson had founded the medical database Ovid Technologies in the mid 1980s, and even though it was based in New York, business meetings inevitably brought them to San Francisco.
“We started to love going to Napa,” says Johnson, who was Ovid’s vice president for software development. “The wine and natural beauty of it reminded us of Italy.”
And so, after convincing themselves that they could feasibly weekend on the other side of the country, Nelson wrote to four or five real estate agents, saying they were looking for a house “between $50,000 and $5 million,” Johnson says. “As you might imagine, not too many answered back.”
A few did though, and on their next trip west they spent a day looking at real estate. “We wanted a completely finished house,” Johnson says, but after a day driving around, there wasn’t much to get excited about.
“A lot were either really fancy or super decorated” she says, but in a moment of inspiration, the broker took them to the opposite of what they wanted: a totally undeveloped hilltop parcel at the end of a winding, 3-mile-long road.
The couple liked what they saw but didn’t make any commitments and flew back to New York the next day.
“I’m the type of person who says, ‘The next time we’re out, let’s look at it again!” Johnson says, but a few days after they got back, “my husband called me and said, ‘You know that piece of property? Well, I made an offer on it.’”
Twenty years later, the property, which at this point covers 160 acres and contains a compound with a 7,400-square-foot main house and two guest houses designed by Howard Backen of Backen & Gillam Architects, has been the couple’s primary residence for about 17 years.
With their children going to college, they’ve decided to return to New York and have put it on the market with Ginger Martin & Co. Sotheby’s International Realty for $18.5 million.
“It’s a lot of house for just the two of us,” Johnson says. “We just want a simpler life for ourselves.”
Building a Vineyard From Scratch
For a while, though, the Napa property was anything but simple.
Not only did the couple purchase raw land that required water, electricity, and other facilities, but they also decided to plant a 15-acre vineyard and found a winery, which they named Ovid.
At first, the learning curve was steep, particularly because they were still living full-time in New York.
“I’m getting calls from the guy drilling test wells saying, ‘I’m down 600 feet. Should I keep going?’ And I’m like … ‘I don’t know, should you?’” Johnson says.
Simultaneously, as they planned the vineyard and winery, they were “frantically learning about wine,” Johnson says.
“When we started, I would say we were passionate consumers: We read a lot, we drank a lot, we studied some [about wine] for sure. We were not rank amateurs, but I didn’t really know how wine was made.”
The couple was wise enough not to try to do everything themselves.
They hired a team who oversaw clearing the land of its many rocks, irrigating it, and planting the vines, and then, after three years’ intensive work, growing, harvesting, and barreling the grapes.
The first vintage they saw fit to bottle was 2005, which they released in 2008—an eight-year process from start to finish.
In the meantime, they’d begun working on the compound.
After hiring Backen, who Johnson says specializes in “barnitecture,” meaning his houses look as if they’ve been around for a while, they decided to first build two guest houses. “The whole idea was to try out the materials and approaches to the buildings,” Johnson says, “and then make adjustments.”
One of the guest houses has a kitchen-living room and a guest suite; the other structure has two guest suites. Both houses have large, airy rooms, huge sliding doors, outdoor patio space, and expansive views of the valley. One of the houses has a giant fireplace and chimney that can be accessed both indoors and outdoors. Between the two structures is a large pool.
Even though the houses were completed in 2001, they relied on a generator for electricity until 2003, Johnson says.
In the meantime, construction had begun on the main home. Whatever adjustments were made from the guest houses to the main house, they worked: Among other publications, the house was featured in Architectural Digest.
The house is laid out with several distinct volumes. “It was made to feel like it hadn’t perhaps all been put together at one time,” Johnson says. A main living and dining area make up one volume. Another contains a guest wing with its own living area, bathroom, and kitchenette; there’s also a family wing with a master suite and two bedrooms.
The house is arranged around an inner courtyard but looks out on landscaped lawns and gardens with views of Napa Valley. There’s also a pizza oven off the kitchen.
In a continuation of the home’s rustic-modernist aesthetic, the interior used a large amount of reclaimed timber. And given that the huge beams weren’t certified for earthquake safety, the house, Johnson notes, “is essentially built twice, with metal I-beams encased in heavy timber beams.”
One of the benefits of the backbreaking work required to clear the vineyard of volcanic stone was that the couple had a significant amount of rock at their disposal.
The terrace is made from the stone; so is the fireplace. Johnson’s husband took up stonework and laid delicate paths and patios throughout the property. “He really loved it,” she says. “But he had to cut his stonework career short when he wrecked his shoulder.”
The silver lining, she notes, is that “he was near the end of the project, fortunately.”
Success, and Letting Go
Just as the home was being completed, the couple decided it was time to move to Napa full-time.
“When our kids turned 3, they had to go to school, and they had to go to school somewhere,” Johnson says, and so they left New York behind.
In the meantime, their vineyard was quickly becoming a cult favorite. Bottles of the first vintage sold for about $175, Johnson says; now she estimates that a bottle sells for about $350. (There is currently a waitlist for the privilege of doing so.)
By the time Karen MacNeil, author of the Wine Bible, published its 2015 edition, Ovid was one of the 11 “Napa Valley Wines to Know.”
“Scrumptious and rich, this is a cabernet with vivid, rapier-like intensity, its concentrated cranberry/chocolate/spice/fruitiness pierced by a sense of minerals and licorice,” MacNeil wrote.
But with success came the growing realization that to expand, they would need to bring in outside investors with significant capital.
“We didn’t have the stomach for it, or the money for it, to expand the way the company really needed,” Johnson says, and so they sold the winery and vineyard in 2017.
With the vineyard off their hands and their kids now in college, “we’re spending more time going back to that pre-children life in New York City,” she says.
Selling the home will be “bittersweet,” Johnson concludes, but doing so makes sense. That way, she says, “it keeps getting the love and attention it deserves.”
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