Village Talk

Growing Family Roots at Knapp Ranch

A ranchstead in Lake Creek devoted to traditional farming and building practices grows into a next-generation sustainability juggernaut.

By Devon O’Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

In late 2019, Brian Knapp was having dinner with his father, Knapp Ranch founder Bud Knapp, while lamenting the impersonal and unrewarding nature of the corporate world. Brian had worked for some of the biggest banks in America—Citigroup and GE Capital among them—but felt unappreciated and stuck in his risk-management job in Charlotte, North Carolina. Bud took his cue and posed a question to his eldest child: Would Brian consider moving to the Vail Valley and working for the family ranch?

“I thought he was kidding,” Brian recalls with a chuckle. “But I found out the next morning he wasn’t. He asked if I’d decided, and I was like, ‘Well, let me have another couple of days.’”

Bud, the founder of Architectural Digest and longtime publisher of Bon Appétit magazine, had run the 373-acre ranch in West Lake Creek for as long as he wanted, after overseeing its growth into a respected purveyor of local organic produce and a key participant in regional climate and horticultural research. His vision was clear, and rooted in family. Brian’s sister, Laura, the youngest of the three Knapp kids, had already relocated to the valley in 2018 to take over as the ranch’s lodge manager and help care for Bud, who now is 85. After consenting to his father’s proposal, Brian and his wife moved to the valley in January 2020 and he became chief financial officer (he’s now CEO). It only took a global pandemic to convince their middle sibling Aaron—a Los Angeles-based food-and-beverage entrepreneur whose businesses collapsed due to COVID-related sanctions—to join them in October of that year as chief marketing officer. Suddenly the three children, all in their 50s, were aligned for the first time as professionals. “The driving force,” Aaron says, “was reuniting our family.”

This was not a story of kids coming home, however. The trio grew up in LA and had never lived in the Vail Valley (Laura ran a computer-repair business in California until she joined Knapp Ranch). Bud and his late wife, Betsy, purchased their virgin Lake Creek tract in 1990, initially to build a family compound. An army of local builders and artisans was enlisted to erect a lodge-like main house and a cluster of cottages that would showcase the principles of traditional hand-tooled carpentry, woodworking and joinery, stonework and masonry  that pioneers had used when the valley had been homesteaded. Along the way, the Knapps looked for a noble purpose for their unbuilt acreage, which led to partnerships with Colorado State University and various research agencies to study weather and climate and experiment with farming at 9,000 feet—everything from kale and cherries to squash and honey.

After building a clientele among local restaurants, in 2019 Knapp Ranch bought Osage Gardens, a certified organic herb and vegetable farm in New Castle that is famous for its basil. In August 2020, the ranch opened Knapp Harvest, a storefront in Eagle Ranch. And this past August, the Knapps announced their purchase of Second Nature Gourmet, a local catering company founded in 2016 by chef Marla Leblow. Her premade meals, salads, soups, and casseroles already were bestsellers at Knapp Harvest, so the expansion didn’t come with many risks. Though Bud still weighs in on big decisions, like whether to expand into luxury lodging (the family explored converting part of the ranch into an upscale guest lodge but has no plans to act on it, Brian says), the future of the ranch is mostly up to his kids. They are modernizing the operation—a new website was set to debut shortly before this issue went to press, adding a blog and e-commerce capabilities—while maintaining its ethos.

“We’re not going to expand this into an industrial thing,” Aaron says. “We’re going to continue to try and be the best we can be, but on a boutique scale.”—D.O.

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