What do the film The River Runs Through It and a heritage breed of Japanese cattle, prized for the marbling and flavor of its meat, have in common? That would be Robert “Bob” Estrin, who edited the former and now breeds the later. It’s the kind of career trajectory––from the editing rooms of Hollywood to a ranch in the rolling hills of Golden, New Mexico—that Bob never planned on. And yet, in a state known both for its frontier ranching heritage and a thriving television and film production industry, where the landscapes become setting for countless Western-themed narratives, the transition has a subtle and intuitive logic. It makes sense in New Mexico.
Lone Mountain Ranch has been in the family for over 50 years, purchased in 1965 by Marion and Glen Lloyd, parents of Bob’s wife Mary. After running the ranch for 20 years, Marion passed the reins to Bob; it was the right of passage of a family-run farm, as the next generation steps in to steer. That was 1995, and at the time, they were raising “regular” beef cattle.
Then Bob ate the steak that changed his life. It was his first Wagyu steak, and he was bowled over by the balance of rich umami and the tenderness that is characteristic of the meat. At the time, the ranch was recovering from a devastating drought in the early aughts that forced them to sell off much of the herd. He was searching for a way to keep the ranch sustainable. After tasting Wagyu, and seeing the premium price it commands, it occurred to Bob: “If they drank the same water and ate the same grass as my other cattle, why not raise Wagyu?”
As it turns out, raising Wagyu to produce the exquisite marbling and tenderness Bob savored wasn’t quite that simple. It took time just to track down initial breeding stock. In the mid 1990s, several Japanese farms and ranches had sent about 225 full-blood Wagyu to the US. Shortly after, the government, fiercely protective of their own ranching industry, named Wagyu a Japanese Living Legend, and prevented any other Wagyu leaving the country.
Eventually, Bob found his first two bulls, a few cows, and by 2005, Lone Mountain celebrated its first full-blood Wagyu calf. What began as an uncertain experiment blossomed into full-blown and passionate obsession. Today, Lone Mountain is one of the premier producers of Wagyu cattle in the US.
Specifically, the breed raised at Lone Mountain is called “Japanese Black.” Wagyu (pronounced wag-you), or 和牛, translated literally means “Japanese Cow,” of which there are four breeds. The term is sometimes confused with Kobe Beef, which refers to Wagyu raised in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. Just as a sparkling wine is only truly Champagne if it both comes from the Champagne region and is produced under the rules of the appellation, so is the use of the phrase “Kobe Beef” rigorously regulated. As Bob puts it: “Kobe is the place, Wagyu is the breed.”
As compelling as the elaborate details of Japanese beef nomenclature may be, none of that really answers the question: Just why is Wagyu so damn good? Trust a chef to set things straight. Mark Kiffin, James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of The Compound in Santa Fe is an outspoken fan of Lone Mountain and the meat they produce. For Kiffin, it’s clear: “Chefs love fat. Fat is flavor. And in Wagyu, it’s butter. It’s incredibly well-marbled, and grills up perfectly.” For a chef striving to source the best ingredients as locally as possible, Lone Mountain excels. “They’re a ranch that comes to you. It’s local; I can talk with the rancher when he brings deliveries.” It’s not just ingredient acquisition, it’s an ongoing relationship.
Within New Mexico, The Mineshaft in Madrid, Marcello’s Chophouse and the Nob Hill Bar and Grill in Albuquerque also serve Lone Mountain Wagyu. Other restaurants, like Terra Encantada, select Lone Mountain Wagyu for special-event menus. For the home chef, Lone Mountain sells directly through their website at lonemountainwagyu.com, where you can select from a variety of steak cuts, brisket, chuck, ground beef and their newest offerings, beef jerky, sausage links and summer sausage.
Bob’s personal favorite is the New York Strip, and his preferred way to cook it is as basic as it gets: seared in a cast iron pan. Something this good doesn’t require extensive preparation or presentation: the goal is to let the taste of the meat speak for itself. From a scientific perspective, the flavor is really about the marbling, or intramuscular fat—the dispersion of fat within the lean meat. The name derives from the marble-like appearance this creates. But unlike other edible temptations, the same qualities that make the meat so delicious are precisely the qualities that make it healthy. The genetic characteristics of Wagyu yield a beef that contains a higher percentage of essential Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids (these are the ones our bodies cannot produce) than typical beef. The increased marbling also increases the ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats. Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs)—like those found in olive oil, avocados and nuts—are considered to be the “good fats.” According to the American Wagyu Association, 100-percent Wagyu beef contains higher concentrations of MUFAs and Oleic Acid (Omega 9 Fatty Acid) than wild-caught salmon.
Producing this meaty delicacy is an increasingly exact science, as well, one that Lone Mountain has been fine-tuning for over a decade, and they are continually learning and improving their methods. Every step in the development of a Lone Mountain cow or bull is meticulously measured and observed. Bob oversees the breeding program, selecting bulls to emphasize good genetic traits and decrease the negative. Artificial insemination and ultrasound now enhance the way nature takes its course.
In addition to pasture grass (that same grass Bob’s angus used to graze) Lone Mountain feeds their Wagyu a custom ration of grassy alfalfa and grain, developed by a nutritionist, which influences the marbling. Everything done at the ranch, from breeding to feeding to minimizing any stress on the cattle is focused on producing that perfect “beyond prime” marbling. This synthesis of science and tradition is the hybrid vigor at the heart of Lone Mountain’s success. Ironically, while New Mexico is a premier location for filming Western narratives of yesteryear, the reality of modern ranching tells a different story. Lone Mountain is not unique in its adoption of scientific techniques; what distinguishes them is how well they’ve evolved to bridge the gap between romantic notions of the way things were, and the pragmatic realities of staying sustainable in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
The cattle themselves are unaware of their sophisticated upraising, and appear perfectly content to spend their days doing what they do best: grazing, napping, ruminating in the sun. They are a gentle, docile breed with monochromatic black coats. Smaller than the average American beef cow, Wagyu are notably hearty and adaptable, thriving just as well in humid Florida as the arid valleys of Northern New Mexico.
Cattle ranching is not a one-person undertaking––there’s much too much to do, and too much land to do it on. While Bob and his team oversee the breeding and product programs for the ranch, the man on the ground who oversees the daily care of the cattle and upkeep of the ranch is one Stan Hartman.
Like the Wagyu, Stan himself is a rare breed––a working rancher who has spent his life in the trade. For decades, originally on horseback, now using the “horsepower” of his truck, Stan has made the morning rounds, feeding cattle, checking their numbers, their condition, the water sources, the land. It’s physically demanding, tough, honest work. There are no “days off,” and there’s no such thing as a “snowday.” For Stan and his small crew of young ranch hands, this life is a choice, a commitment to living on a large and relatively isolated piece of land, with all the physical rigors demanded by running a ranch. As the production of food becomes increasingly concentrated and automated, these types of jobs are harder to come by, and experienced ranch managers are even more so. Lone Mountain and Stan are lucky to have each other.
It’s a strong partnership. “Stanley––he’s a wonderful man,” Bob says emphatically. “He and I get along together really well, and I appreciate his laugh and his understanding of how to run a ranch. He brings a lot to the table, and I trust him.”
A working ranch holds strong symbolic resonance in the collective American psyche. It represents the promise of an open land, the grit of hard work––a kind of authenticity we long for that few of us have ever experienced. I’d suggest there’s one more reason, beyond marbling, that Lone Mountain Wagyu tastes so good. It’s knowing that it came from just down the road, from one of those places that, despite scientific advances, is still fundamentally an icon of American history. Good to know it’s in our future, too.
Story by Gabriella Marks