May 11, 2017
From 2009: The daughter of a Navy pilot (father) and public relations entrepreneur (mother), Karen Vandergrift spent her formative years in peripatetic travels, moving every two years as orders took her father to far-flung locales the world over.
She received her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Public Relations from San Diego State University in 1988. While in college, Karen began her hospitality career working for the Intercontinental Hotel in San Diego and establishing the concierge desk for Le Meridien Hotel in Coronado, California.
Upon graduation, Karen moved to Washington, DC as the catering coordinator for The Watergate Hotel, working with clients such as Pete Townsend of rock band “The Who;” La Commanderie de Bordeaux; and Senator and Mrs. Robert Dole, among others. She began her culinary immersion at the side of renowned Michelin 3-Star chef Jean-Louis Palladin.
Following The Watergate, Karen returned to California and accepted a job as Catering Manager at the Mobil 5-Star hotel The Stanford Court in San Francisco. She left the hospitality industry to work in broadcast advertising, sales, marketing and public relations for radio stations KBOQ and KFSD.
In 1995, seeking to fulfill a dream of creative design, Karen began work towards an M.S. degree in Textile Design at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University). While in the Masters program, she completed a summer in Florence, Italy studying hand-woven silk jacquard design at the world-renowned Fondazione Arte Della Seta Lisio. Her sideline studying art and architecture in Tuscany would prove to influence her decisions in every facet of design in the years to come.
With graduate degree in hand, Karen established Vandergrift Textile Design in 1998, producing high-end, custom-designed horsehair fabric for the interiors and carriage trade. Critical success came immediately: product placement in national magazines such as Metropolitan Home, Veranda, Southern Living, FiberArts, and California Home and Design, but financial success eluded her and she ceased production in 2002.
Undaunted, she searched for another entrepreneurial opportunity and serendipitously found herself, along with her husband, the owners of an estancia in Carmelo, Uruguay. They purchased the derelict property, complete with outbuildings and 80 overgrown acres in 2002. Perched on a bluff overlooking a small river, the main house was originally built in 1830 in the Tuscan farmhouse style that corresponded beautifully with Karen’s affinity for Italian architecture.
Renovations were completed in 2007 and Karen opened Estancia Tierra Santa, a luxury guest ranch welcoming sophisticated travelers seeking an alternative to the standard high-end hotel experience.
A working ranch as well as a hotel, the estancia produces its own organically-fed lamb and beef, along with its own honey, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Wool is sold to a local cooperative and the outlying acreage is farmed in alfalfa and oats for the horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and chickens.
Karen resides at the ranch in Uruguay during the seven months the hotel is open for guests. The remainder of her time is spent with her husband in San Francisco where she tests recipes, gardens, builds on her considerable wine knowledge and enjoys time with friends and family.