Chateau Noel, outside view
Chateau Noel, outside view
YOU CANNOT approach the grandeur that is Stonepine Estate in Carmel Valley without hearing the distinct roar of the 1920s, a sound almost amplified by the startling absence of modern cacophony.

It's here where the Crocker family — California royalty with an empire built on railroad ties and bank notes — lived a Gatsby-esque existence, replete with the Fitzgerald novel's themes of love, money, social classes and the American dream.

Not long after the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey became the destination for the social elite basking in the glow of that decade's excess, the Crockers built a Mediterranean-style villa in Carmel Valley as an escape from the rigors of "city life" felt at their estate in Pebble Beach.

Inside Chateau Noel, decorated for Christmas.
Inside Chateau Noel, decorated for Christmas.
They spent summers in the valley, hosting society soirees, enjoying languid picnics in the immaculately kept gardens, or riding horses through the 2,500 acres of rolling hills studded with oaks and cypress and criss-crossed by meandering streams.

The Crockers sold off parcels over the years, at the end leaving 330 pristine acres, including the villa, the expansive gardens and a vast equestrian enterprise. Stonepine was home to the California Thoroughbred Association beginning in 1937 and boarded such noted racehorses as 1969 Kentucky Derby winner Majestic Prince.

In 1983, Gordon and Noel Hentschel purchased the property from the Crocker estate.


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They renamed it Stonepine, after the stately, 80-foot-tall Italian stone pines planted decades earlier by Harry Russell and Helen Crocker Russell, but retained the essence of a bygone era.

Today it's still an idyllic retreat with a decidedly European flair — a quiet, secluded compound of sorts where nature rules and the only sounds emanate from a rushing river, the whinny of horses or the contented sighs of privileged guests. It's a rarity in the U.S.

A view from the pool
A view from the pool
, a family-owned estate with historic roots that has not been sold, redeveloped or opened to the public as a museum.

"You don't see estates like this anymore," said Gordon Hentschel, pointing to Hearst Castle (run by the California State Parks) and the Vanderbilt Estate (run by the National Park Service in New York) as the two most obvious examples. "People are always selling off their dreams."

Stonepine is first a family home, the Hentschels insist, but it's also an inn, with eight suites contained in the main villa, Chateau Noel (in honor of Mrs. Hentschel), along with several cottage-like accommodations dotting the property.

A horse grazes at the Equestrian Center.
A horse grazes at the Equestrian Center.
Stonepine is a member of Historic Hotels of America and is still a place where appropriateness reigns and guests dress for dinner — and wouldn'tdream of receiving a text under the table or wearing earbuds to the pool.

The Henschels purchased what would become Stonepine as a wedding gift to each other and envisioned the estate as a place to raise their children (they went on to have seven).

It became that — and much more.

"We wanted to create something reminiscent of that era," said Gordon Hentschel, a former vice president for Hyatt Hotels based in Hawaii. "It's fun to uphold that tradition because it's what it was meant for."

The parties became legendary, with the Hentschels throwing more elaborate affairs as the years passed.

The estate entrance
The estate entrance
Once in the late 1980s, the piercing sounds of gunfire shattered the estate's tranquility as invited guests reenacted the Battle of Gettysburg in full Civil War dress. "I just love 'Gone with the Wind,'" Noel Hentschel said as she recalled the scene. The party ended with a hired actor (apparently the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln) delivering the Gettysburg Address from the back of a carriage.

"We had so much fun we did it again,and then again," said Gordon Hentschel. "Then we got a little bored so we had the South win. That was interesting, changing the course of history!"

What followed were other grand themes, including, of course, "The Great Gatsby" and elaborate Chinese parties complete with kung-fu masters and chefs flown in from the mainland.

Daniel Barduzzi with "Maribu" prepares for the annual Kentucky Derby party at Stonepine, one of the many elegant events hosted at the estate over
Daniel Barduzzi with "Maribu" prepares for the annual Kentucky Derby party at Stonepine, one of the many elegant events hosted at the estate over the years.

Wendy Brodie worked as culinary director for the Hentschels in the 1980s. She enjoyed the creative energy required to devise menus for all those special occasions.

"The equestrian format with the draft horses and carriage rides provided such a sense of romance, creating a feeling of going back in time," she said. "It was an inspiring culinary backdrop."

Brodie describes her four years at Stonepine as "thrilling."

"There were so many famous guests, and most felt at home, some even wanting to help in the kitchen," she said.

Stonepine quickly became a draw for filmmakers and others seeking beautiful backdrops. In 1985, actress Doris Day, a Carmel resident to this day, filmed her first TV episode of "Doris Day's Best Friends" at the estate, featuring a gaunt and obviously sick Rock Hudson in what was his final interview before his death due to complications from AIDS.

In happier times there's the memory of Three Dog Night playing at the Equestrian Loft above the stables. Or the time Anne Bancroft and husband Mel Brooks joined close friends Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner to conduct an impromptu, weekend-long murder mystery inside the stately villa.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Stonepine played host to dignitaries, heads of state, religious leaders, Saudi princes and Hollywood glitterati. Andre Agassi and Brook Shields married here, as did Harry Hamlin and Nicollette Sheridan, and Dennis Franz and Joanie Zeck. Society weddings have included the son of Edgar Bronfman (Seagram), along with the daughter of Teresa Heinz (Heinz Corp.).

Stonepine has earned a reputation ofmaintaining privacy and secrecy. Industry moguls Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have hosted off-the-radar conferences at the estate, and ABC News secretly sequestered the notorious Mafia hitman and underboss Sammy "The Bull" Gravano at Stonepine for five days before his interview with Diane Sawyer in 1997. Gravano, who in 1991 turned state's evidence against mob leader John Gotti, was thought to have a contract out on his life at the time.

Bob Hope celebrated his birthday here, and Stonepine has hosted the likes of Alan Alda, Jim Carey, Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman and The Rolling Stones. And in past years, passes for weekend stays at Stonepine have been stuffed in Oscar swagbags.

And then came Sept. 11, 2001.

"After that tragedy we felt a strong need to scale back and keep Stonepine as a family destination," said Gordon Hentschel. "But now the kids are grown and have their own lives. So we said 'let's reopen it the way it was before.' We're thrilled to be ableto share Stonepine again with the world."

But the Hentschels have also reached out more to the local community, holding Friday night cocktail receptions at the Blacksmith Shop, which has been reincarnated as a western-themed bar. They host charitable events, especially those linked to Mrs. Hentschel's labor of love, her Noel Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering the principles of Mother Teresa.

Future plans include a full-scale wedding chapel and a vineyard.

Stonepine has also become the official West Coast site for the international culinary group Les Disciples d'Escoffier, with Stonepine food and beverage director Jean-Paul Peluffo recently named vice president of West Coast operations. The French-born Peluffo, who in 2000 served as executive chef at the G8 Summit in Genoa, Italy, will host quarterly dinners inducting California chefs as Escoffier disciples. He will also be a creative force behind future events at Stonepine.

"(The Hentschels) allow me to do so many things, and give me the freedom to make Stonepine stand out and be different," Peluffo said.

And, of course, Stonepine still stables horses, and has become the home to TROTT, which stands for Training Race-horses Off The Track (www.trottusa.org).

"It's fitting to have racehorses back at Stonepine," said Gordon Hentschel.

At Stonepine, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

"We are stewards of God's place," said Noel Hentschel. "And that feeling will never change."