On a chilly December morning in Santa Barbara, California, guests in denim and boots make their way to the rolling Roblar Ranch for the unofficial arrival of Christmastime in the Santa Ynez Valley—Mindy Rice’s annual wreath-making party. Accustomed to orchestrating elaborate weddings everywhere from snowy Aspen to glittering Lake Como, the floral designer and event planner spends the low season hosting the kind of parties she considers more fun than fantasy, more intimate than impressive. “Weddings are work. Wreath-making is just fun,” says Rice, with an infectious grin. “Every year, my mom, sister, cousins, and I would make wreaths together for our own property.” Now, six years and counting, the holly and ivy–inspired party is a beloved tradition.
Upon arrival through the property’s wooden gate and down the gravel road, the hostess presents two dozen of her dearest girlfriends with welcome glasses of Champagne. “The secret to a great party is giving your guests a sense of comfort when they arrive. I like to make sure everyone has something in their hands and get them busy immediately—it can be eating, drinking, or creating,” Rice says. “The party will come to life instantly!” Like the setting itself, the classic white clapboard barn, Rice’s Nubian goat, Wally (whom she rescued from a gopher hole), and the guests’ wintry ranch attire bring to mind a rustic camp atmosphere. Even the invitations echo the relaxed mood: “I actually never send out a paper invitation. I use Paperless Post, because the date changes a hundred times before we settle on one,” she admits.
Inside the pop-up workshop, no detail has been overlooked. A lush tablescape, styled by Rice and her team the day before, features bales of hay and antique buckets spilling over with olive branches, moss, pinecones, and dried flowers. “We live in an area where many people have amazing ranches with foliage,” says Rice. “It’s beautiful, so I’m encouraging everyone to bring the outdoors inside.” The guests, who range from investment bankers to landscape architects, were also asked to forage their properties for greenery and organic elements to last the season. “One of my friends has a beautiful succulent garden, one has a walnut farm and gold-leafs her walnuts and gorgeous magnolia, and another brings bay leaf and dried hydrangea—you name it,” says Rice of the rich, collaborative mix. Her ribbon collection rounds out the offerings. “My grandmother was a couture designer,” she says, “so I’ve always collected vintage ribbon and I repurpose it from weddings.”
Friends flee in to find their workstations marked by feed bags bearing their names, canvas butcher aprons, and wreath-making supplies such as pruning shears, clippers, and wire wreath forms. “I always try to change it up and surprise
them with something different,” says Rice, before conducting a brief tutorial sprinkled with tips, from “I find pine is the best wreath base,” to “If you’re drawn to one material, then use only that.” The experienced host asserts, “I try not to direct too much; otherwise the wreaths look the same.” With yards of burlap wrapping each roughhewn table, the scene is set for hours of work. “At first, attempting to make a wreath after Mindy’s short instruction to the group seems quite intimidating and overwhelming,” says Michelle de Werd, who has hosted the party from her ranch in past years. “However, Mindy in her witty and generous spirit jumps in to assist those who need the help to get started. But she will never make the wreath for you—as I begged her to do the first year.”
“Between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., we usually work, eat, and drink nonstop,” says Rice. “It takes some encouragement to get
everyone to lift their heads from their projects and walk outside to enjoy the surroundings.” Ultimately, many of the partygoers set out with their harvest bags for the 54-acre property, amongst the oldest ranches in the Santa Ynez Valley, in search of more natural materials to incorporate in their wreaths. “It’s a former cattle ranch built in the early ’30s,” says the estate’s owner Kelley Witt, who is also the best friend of Rice’s mother. “We have a big magnolia tree, lemon trees, a lot of laurel, and California holly berry.” The seasonal blooms and hearty greenery lend a lush, layered vibe to wreaths that will dry and keep throughout the season. “Because they’re so beautiful, my friend Michelle keeps hers up, and I’ve had to make her take it down,” says Rice with a laugh. “I told her we can deconstruct it and make a new one.”
A MOVABLE FEAST
In lieu of a sit-down lunch, Rice keeps things casual and to-go with the menu her friends look forward to each year. Chicken curry sandwiches on a French roll, her mother’s classic egg salad served on a pretzel roll, and grilled winter vegetables on ciabatta, each wrapped in brown waxed paper, labeled with a calligraphed band, are eaten under a centuries-old oak tree. Platters of the handmade sandwiches weaving in and out of woodland-style flourishes and cranberry colored crystal dishes and stemware are festive touches to the serving table.
By the day’s end, with wreaths made, photographs taken, the last bottle of Champagne drunk, and the sun falling deeper in the sky, Rice presents her girlfriends with a final treat: L.A. Burdick hot cocoa served with heaping dollops of whipped cream and homemade pecan pie tartlets. It’s a sweet ending to a day filled with hard work, beautiful results, and the holiday spirit.
By Alison Miller | Photos by Elizabeth Messina