Food and Drink

The Cattle Ranch Pioneering American Wagyu

Lone Mountain’s Western-style ranching of the rarefied Japanese breed produces happy cows and truly extraordinary steaks.

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OUT IN NEW Mexico’s dusty high desert, about an hour up the storied Turquoise Trail from Albuquerque, some of the finest bulls and cows in America are being raised with the utmost tender love and care in a place called Lone Mountain Ranch. Over 700 Wagyu cattle live across its striking 27,000 acres — dotted with cholla cactus and cottonwood trees, which are bright yellow on the autumn day I visit. Everything here looks the ideal of American ranching, with wide-open pastures and big blue skies. However, this isn’t the typical Angus beef cattle operation. Instead, Lone Mountain specializes in the rearing of beautiful Black Wagyu cattle, a rarefied breed all the way from Japan that is prized for its fatty and delicious meat. Here, in the spare brown foothills of Golden, New Mexico, is the makings of a steak that will knock your socks off, with a quality so fine that it practically melts in your mouth.

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You have likely seen Wagyu — which modestly translates to “Japanese cattle” — offered at a steakhouse at some point in the last 15 years. It’s recently had a meteoric rise in popularity, evermore of a coveted demarcation of excellence in the industry. You may have even heard the (partially true) stories that Wagyu is made from cows in Japan treated so kindly that farmers massage the animals to keep them supple. In truth, Wagyu is mostly a genetic marker, meaning any of four specific breeds of heritage Japanese cattle, all of which tend to produce high-fat, utterly delectable steaks, with Black Wagyu as the gold standard. In Japan, they have also been historically raised in special stress-free environments, as anxiety in cows releases adrenaline that toughens their meat. Some even spray their cattle with sake to keep their bodies soft, though the rumor that classical music is piped in to relax cows is probably overstated.

Because of lax USDA regulations, even when you see the word on a menu in the States, you might be eating a product that’s only around 50% Wagyu. Lone Mountain, though, is the real deal — every steak they make is 100% full blood, raised in a way that echoes the Japanese method to ensure the absolute finest, loveliest result possible. They use the wisdom of the ages — treating animals and land with respect — as well as heaps of data collecting that helps them understand which mothers and fathers are producing the best offspring. A nutritionist optimizes healthy meals for fatty cattle of different sizes and ages. They even send their herd to small family-owned finishing farms and slaughterhouses to ensure the animals are treated ethically and responsibly at the end of their lives.

While Wagyu in Japan are often kept in small confines to keep their muscles (aka meat) extra tender, Lone Mountain still maintains many Western-style ranching techniques. These include letting their cattle roam in sprawling pastures, which makes their steaks a beautiful blend of Japanese-style succulent fattiness with some of the heartier, juicier varieties we’re used to from, say, more athletic Texas cattle. “We love the balance between how fatty their product is,” says Michelin-starred chef Jeremiah Stone, who serves Lone Mountain at his two beloved New York restaurants Wildair and Contra, “and yet, because they raise their cattle in a Western style, how very meaty it can still be; a real American steak.” The ranch does everything they can to keep life stress-free, like using modern handling methods to avoid traumatizing the animals. One afternoon, I note to ranch manager Rio DeWitt how silent the cattle on Lone Mountain are, and he tells me there’s not much mooing because happy cows are generally quiet cows.

When it comes to the cuts themselves, you can see with your own two eyes what makes top Wagyu like this so tip-top before you’ve even taken a bite: The white marbling on the raw meat is gleaming and profuse, spread throughout the steak in an ivory-colored web; it’s this intramuscular fat that gives it the sumptuousness and texture of soft butter. When I tried my first few slices of a Lone Mountain rib eye, the steak performed a kind of magic trick in my mouth, dissolving brilliantly yet smoothly on my tongue in a way so unlike what I’m used to from tough chophouse dishes.

Lone Mountain breeds and sells highly prized Wagyu cattle to other ranchers and also provides wholesale steak to restaurants like Wildair. But it’s their direct-to-consumer e-commerce that exploded in popularity during the pandemic, when people were looking for quality ingredients to use for cooking at home. It hasn’t let up: The cuts are expensive compared to the grocery store’s selection, but they have customers regularly spending $6,000 on orders. Once you go Wagyu, it seems you never go back.

A lot — a lot — has gone into making steak this spectacular. Lone Mountain had been a more conventional operation — rearing types like Angus, Charolais, and Hereford — for decades before switching to the Japanese breed. Everything changed thanks to one man, Bob Estrin. A famous film editor of movies like “Badlands” and “A River Runs Through It,” he married Mary, a ranch owner’s daughter, 50 or so years ago. Though he knew nothing about ranching despite being raised in New Mexico, he began helping his new in-laws with their seasonal cattle drives in the 1970s, herding cattle to the Colorado high country for grazing and then back to Lone Mountain in the fall.


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Estrin is a fascinating guy, someone who can tell you stories about partying with Barbra Streisand and Mel Brooks during the height of his film-editing days and then, on a dime, flip to chatter about ideal birth weights for calves. He took over Lone Mountain in 2003 at a time when the business was losing money. By chance, the following year, he tried a Wagyu steak at a Santa Monica restaurant, was blown away by its flavor, and decided he wanted to take a risk and convert Lone Mountain to a Wagyu operation. “We couldn’t figure out how in the heck to make any money just running a commercial cow cattle operation,” he says. “When I ate the Wagyu, I went, This is terrific. It’s expensive. And I think I want to do it.”

‘There’s been a lot of misinformation about Wagyu. A lot of American Wagyu producers tried to push less-than-full-blood product — you started seeing Wagyu beef sliders on every middle-American menu.’

Proclaiming it a national treasure, the Japanese banned the exportation of Wagyu cattle and Wagyu cattle semen in 1997, but around 200 Wagyu had already made it to America since importation started in the 1970s. Estrin found and bought a couple of Wagyu bulls that originated from those first American Wagyu. In the beginning, he was crossbreeding them with conventional cows. Even then, he could tell he was onto something, as a whopping 90% of the first batch they ended up slaughtering could be certified as USDA Prime, which means that the meat has anywhere from 9 to 12% intramuscular fat. From there, he decided to convert the operation to completely Wagyu, buying about nine cows for breeding with the bulls so that he could have full-blood offspring. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, you're frickin’ crazy. You’re crazy!’” he remembers. “But I was determined.”

Nearly 20 years later, Estrin has been vindicated with a business that’s booming and a ranch that stands out in the landscape of American cattle farming. “There’s been a lot of misinformation about Wagyu. A lot of American Wagyu producers tried to push less-than-full-blood product — you started seeing Wagyu beef sliders on every middle-American menu,” says Chef Jeremiah Stone, “but the level has been stepped-up in terms of what’s available — and that’s through a lot of the work of these high-end ranches.” Stone says there is an increasing appetite for high-quality Wagyu and that Lone Mountain steak has become something of a draw at his restaurants. “It’s one of the more talked about dishes — when it comes out, everyone stares at it,” he says. “People will come in just for it.”

Plus, it’s not just the tomahawks and filets here that will blow your mind — it’s Lone Mountain itself, the place, the sense of purpose, the peace. Estrin built a home on the land designed by renowned architect Rick Joy, a kind of minimalist temple finished with shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique of charring wood black for weatherproofing. The house, which he kindly lets me stay in with him while I’m on the property, is all silky straight lines and floor-to-ceiling glass, allowing you to sit inside and watch Golden’s winds whip and shake across the terrain. “The thing about New Mexico for me is the skies,” says Estrin, now 80 years old. “360 degrees — you can see everywhere.”

One cold, blue November morning, during the second snow of the year, Estrin and I jump into his truck to meet ranch manager Rio DeWitt for the morning feeding; the sleek, shiny Black Wagyu pop against the clean white coating of snow. They’re beautiful animals, upwards of 1,500 pounds but still somehow graceful and lithe, whereas Angus are clunky. Estrin notes how docile they are compared to American varieties. “An Angus or a dairy bull — it’s like a refrigerator coming at you. I’ve jumped many fences running away from one,” he says. “But with Wagyu bulls — I remember first getting them, I would just walk through the pasture and never be scared. My daughter Zoe would sit on the fence and say, ‘Aren’t you worried he’s going to attack?’ I’d tell her, ‘They’re just not like that.’” In moments like this, surrounded by the New Mexican scenery and the quiet cattle, it’s hard not to feel like the tranquility is part of what makes the meat so pleasant on the plate, as if there’s a little slice of Golden charm in every steak. “When I’m here,” Estrin says simply, “I just think, What’s not to like?”

How to Reverse Sear Your Steaks With Ease

OK, so now you’ve got the ideal cut of Lone Mountain Wagyu — but how to cook it to maximize its magic? Reid Martin, the COO of Lone Mountain, grew up on a dairy farm in Northern California, so he knows his way around a cattle operation. But he’s also a pro in the kitchen and a big fan of the “reverse sear,” meaning you cook the steak in the oven before you sear it on the stove. It’s especially powerful for “large-format steaks like the tomahawk and roasts like the tri-tip.” Why reverse sear? “It results in even cooking, edge to edge, while slowly breaking down the connective tissue and marbling of the meat,” says Martin. “You get the best results again and again in an easy, repeatable way.”

Here’s how:

  • Step 1

    Start with a defrosted steak or roast left at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

  • Step 3

    Insert a leave-in meat thermometer and set the alarm for 5-10 degrees below your desired finishing temperature (120-125 F for medium rare).

  • Step 5

    Next, sear the steak hard and fast on high heat, just a few minutes per side. We love to use a cast-iron pan or hot grill for a tomahawk; a broiler or oven turned up to 450-500 F works well to sear a roast.

  • Step 2

    Preheat the oven to 250 F and generously season meat with salt and pepper or your preferred rub.

  • Step 4

    Place the steak or roast in the oven on a rack over a cookie sheet or roasting pan. Once the meat reaches 120-125 F, remove it from the oven.

  • Step 6

    After a few minutes of searing per side, remove the steak or roast from the heat (internal temperature should be 130-140 F) and let it rest for 5-10 minutes. Slice and sprinkle tableside with a dash of flaky finishing salt.

  • Step 1

    Start with a defrosted steak or roast left at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour.

  • Step 2

    Preheat the oven to 250 F and generously season meat with salt and pepper or your preferred rub.

  • Step 3

    Insert a leave-in meat thermometer and set the alarm for 5-10 degrees below your desired finishing temperature (120-125 F for medium rare).

  • Step 4

    Place the steak or roast in the oven on a rack over a cookie sheet or roasting pan. Once the meat reaches 120-125 F, remove it from the oven.

  • Step 5

    Next, sear the steak hard and fast on high heat, just a few minutes per side. We love to use a cast-iron pan or hot grill for a tomahawk; a broiler or oven turned up to 450-500 F works well to sear a roast.

  • Step 6

    After a few minutes of searing per side, remove the steak or roast from the heat (internal temperature should be 130-140 F) and let it rest for 5-10 minutes. Slice and sprinkle tableside with a dash of flaky finishing salt.


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Alex Frank Writer

Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.

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Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.

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