Searching for Zen at a New-Age Farm Retreat in Wine Country
Inviting food and freezing pools await at NewTree Ranch
A goateed man in cargo shorts and an “Expand Your Human” hoodie is guiding me through a breath work session, reminding me to deploy slow, even, circular breaths. Chuck McGee III is one of the world’s preeminent instructors of the Wim Hof Method, a system combining meditative breathing exercises and extreme cold exposure which purports to offer a range of physical and mental health benefits.
When I come to Sonoma, I typically do so for the wine. And the food, and even the beer. But this? This is entirely above my threshold for new-ageyness. It’s also where I have my Zack Morris freeze frame moment, breaking the fourth wall and looking into the camera, asking the audience, “How did I find myself in this situation?”
Despite my misgivings, the morning sun is shining warmly in Healdsburg, California at the NewTree Ranch, a luxury farmstead getaway nestled into wine country, and it’s time to take the next step. It’s time for the ice bath.
Two hundred and sixty pounds of ice are dumped into a plastic tub, lowering the temperature of the water within to somewhere below 40 degrees. “Surrender with the ice,” McGee says. “Lean into that uncomfortable thing. Breathe through it.”
The Wim Hof Method is described as a way to reconnect to the world around you, and to yourself. By focusing on specific breathing techniques you’re said to be able to harness your own inner power, until you can jump into that freezing cold ice water without a flinch or second thought. And so that’s what I do, lowering myself into the ice bath and feeling the instantaneous shock race across every inch of my body.
The goal is to make it in the ice for a full two minutes, and I refocus my thoughts from the numbing pain of the cold to the breathing itself. Neck deep in ice, hands resting on my thighs, the two minutes come and go, and I’m told I can continue to spend some more time in there if I’d like. And so I do.
The health benefits of the ice — decreasing inflammation, increasing metabolism, improving your immune system and circulatory system, helping with sleep — are achieved in those first two minutes, and after that, only the mental challenge remains. With an extra 30 seconds under the ice I hop out, and complete the experience by dunking my head beneath the frigid water.
Then it’s time to warm your body up and get the blood flowing, pushing your arms across your chest while keeping your knees bent and legs in an active position, all as you shout, “hoo! ha!” with each stroke of your arms, an exercise which looks like a character in Dragonball Z harnessing his chi. And I felt great. Energized. Giddy, even. Perhaps my chi was harnessed. I felt like taking a run around the property, and allow me to break that fourth wall one more time, because reader, it cannot be stressed to you strongly enough that I do not go running.
Luxury Ranch Living
Wim Hof is just one of the experiences offered at New Tree, a health and wellness retreat that opened in summer 2019. Co-founders Ed Newell and David Rowntree — hence New Tree –— live on the property and may join in on the Wim Hof, too, while taking near-daily cold exposure sessions themselves. They met McGee on a Wim Hof retreat in Europe, a trip spent hiking in the snow in their shorts and powering through massive 10-minute ice baths in the wilderness. That McGee lived in northern California himself and could swing through the property to teach Wim Hof to their guests was a happy coincidence.
New Tree is set on 120 acres of land, replete with its own lake, farm and fitness trail. Guests rent out a sprawling four-bedroom ranch estate with room for up to eight, sometimes in groupings of couples or for one family. The house comes with a Tesla to cruise around in, a pool and hot tub, and a glamping tent, not to mention a refrigerator stocked with estate-grown produce. Adding to the accommodations will be a farmhouse loft which is currently under construction.
The property boasts its own biodynamic farm, where it grows a stunning and vibrant array of fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. It’s the type of place where you might go for a nature walk munching on edible flowers and stunningly decadent fruits and berries along the way, and then find chilled jars of watermelon basil juice waiting for you amid the plants. An idyllic, private paradise, miles removed from your last glimpse of cell phone service, where tech CEOs drop off their private planes and escape the world for a week or a month at a time, hoping to cleanse their minds, bodies and souls. A place where you’ll be greeted by the two beautiful golden retrievers roaming the property, pat a rescued horse on its snout and then harvest fresh eggs from the farm’s chickens to cook up your own breakfast.
The cuisine is gluten-free and largely vegan, excepting those eggs, and a table set amid the gardens provides the ultimate exemplification of seed-to-table cuisine. Don’t mistake clean and healthful for boring or uncomplicated, though. New Tree’s chef, Matteo Silverman, is a vegan mastermind, and might churn out a tray of house kimchi-stuffed garden fresh tomatoes followed by watermelon radish ravioli, each bite as visually impressive as it is packed with flavor.
Guests can get hands-on with the cuisine, too, whether it’s baking pizza in the property’s outdoor pizza oven, taking a class in plant-based cooking, gardening, produce harvesting, or tea making. You can bring in a private yoga instructor, go paddleboarding on the lake, or learn about biodynamic farming practices. Maybe you would prefer to head out on a flower picking expedition or paint in the garden and see what inspiration you find.
It’s all part of the experience at New Tree Ranch. But make no mistake about it, even if you don’t intend to get into the ice and Wim Hof away your troubles, you will. Newell says every guest ends up caving in and giving it a try at some point during their stay.
Was I a convert to Wim Hof, though? Did I expand my human? I can’t deny the rush of energy I experienced after the ice bath, and during the breathwork session, I was zenned out on some far off planet, almost dizzy and high with relaxation. After McGee concluded his instruction for the day, the ice tub was left filled and ready to use, in case we wanted to “get in there and play around,” he said. And that we did, my two companions and I getting back into the ice for a second, and then third time, compelled to go back for another quick turn, guiding each other through meditations and focused breathing along the way. Maybe “hoo ha” says it all.
[Author’s note: Located in Healdsburg, California, New Tree Ranch was caught directly in the path of the LNU Lightning Complex fires which swept across Sonoma County this August. Somewhat miraculously, the ranch was bypassed, with the property and its animals surviving, though nearly the entire surrounding area was burnt. The property is projecting a November reopening date to begin welcoming guests back, and is offering a winter wellness retreat package.]