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Here on the Central Coast, we are all celebrating a succession of rainstorms this autumn, with the hope that the recent drought could be increasingly resolved in the year ahead.
Along the way, our estate Margarita Vineyard has lived up to its reputation as a rain magnet. Indeed, there are spots on the surrounding Santa Margarita Ranch that average more than 30 inches of rain annually. Compare that to San Luis Obispo just eight miles to the south (around 19 inches) and the city of Paso Robles just 20 miles to the north (around 13 inches).
So why is Margarita Vineyard historically blessed with so much rainfall? The answer goes right to name of our winery—the “ancient peaks” of the Santa Lucia mountain range that loom over the vineyard.
As moisture-laden air blows in from the ocean and travels upward along these mountain slopes (a phenomenon called “orographic lifting”), it cools and condenses, forming clouds and generating precipitation. It is these cloudbursts that create the elevated rainfall here.
In times of drought (such as recently), the soils can become imbalanced, and the vines can become stressed, requiring a lot of viticultural vigilance. Healthy rains flush accumulated salts from the soils and restore balance, and the vines will respond accordingly. This is what is starting to happen with the recent rainstorms.
Of course, the abundance of rainfall here can occasionally cause headaches: “In October of 2009, we had 10 inches in one day,” says Doug Filipponi, our viticulturist and co-owner. “We were trying to pick Zinfandel at the time, and it really put us to the test.”
Needless to say, that’s the kind of test we will continue to welcome if it means the end of the drought!
Come try the wines that all this rain makes at our Paso Robles tasting room and cafe.
While the harvest action is starting to reach its peak around Paso Robles, things remain relatively quiet here at our estate Margarita Vineyard.
“A lot of wineries are getting through their Cabernet Sauvignon picks right now, but not us,” says Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor. “Which is normal—those guys go, and we watch and come afterwards.”
Winemaker Stewart Cameron sums it up succinctly: “We don’t pick Cabernet this early. September and Cabernet equals ‘no’ for us.”
In other words, it’s business as usual at Margarita Vineyard, which occupies the Paso Robles region’s coolest growing environment, resulting in a long, late growing season.
“We got accustomed to things being a bit earlier the last few years, but right now we’re very much back to normal,” Stewart says. “We’ve picked some of the typical early varieties like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but not Zinfandel, Merlot or Cabernet.”
“It’s going to be an October through early November harvest for us,” Mike adds.
The crop load is more vigorous compared to last year, owing to added winter rainfall. The overall yields, however, are not particularly high. “On Cabernet in particular, it seems to be a bit light,” Mike says.
Additionally, the Cabernet berries are small as usual (see photo above): “That’s one of the signature traits we see here with Cabernet, these small berries that provide rich, concentrated flavors,” Mike says.
Yet while it’s still largely wait-and-see time at Margarita Vineyard, that doesn’t mean the winemakers are taking it easy.
“Stewart and I were out in the vineyard yesterday, and we’re back here today,” Mike says. “We’re not waiting for the sugar samplers to bring their stuff to the barn and write it down. We’re out there looking over their shoulder, asking ‘What do you got?’ It’s a time of high anticipation.”
Geographically speaking, our estate Margarita Vineyard is at the tail end of Paso Robles, as it is the southernmost vineyard in the region.
But it’s also at the tail end in an agricultural sense, as it is one of the last vineyards to be harvested each year. The reason is simple: Margarita Vineyard occupies one of Paso Robles’ coolest environments—the Pacific Ocean is just 14 miles away—which translates to a long, late growing season.
Consequently, Margarita Vineyard is only just now entering the heart of veraison—the process whereby the grapes turn color and transition from the growth phase to the ripening phase (pictured above). Meanwhile, in many parts of Paso Robles, veraison is already completed. “Everything happens later here,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron.
Yet while this means that the winemaking team will once again have to bide its time while other wineries start harvesting later this month, Stewart is not complaining.
As he explains, while a longer growing season does create a bigger window for inclement fall weather to potentially disrupt the harvest, the advantages of being late are significant. “With a long season like ours, there’s more time for the fruit not only to develop sugar ripeness, but also phenolic maturity and overall balance,” Stewart says.
In other words, when you taste Ancient Peaks wines, there is an undeniably direct connection between Margarita Vineyard’s singular climate and the correspondingly unique character of the wine.
We are excited to share that our estate Margarita Vineyard will soon be generating more electricity than it consumes with the installation of two new solar plants at the historic Santa Margarita Ranch.
The two plants will feed solar power into the electric grid to help our local utility serve customers during periods of peak consumption. Meanwhile, the vineyard’s irrigation facilities and other electrical demand will continue to be run largely during off-peak hours. The net result is that when the solar installations are fully operational this spring, we will be generating more electric than we use at Margarita Vineyard.
We are also converting our pumps from propane to electric power, further minimizing the vineyard’s carbon footprint. All pumps are also being outfitted with new variable frequency drives for enhanced energy efficiency. Other recent vineyard additions include wind machines for frost protection. Our total investment in the ranch’s solar plants and new high-voltage facilities will exceed $1 million.
As Ancient Peaks co-owner Rob Rossi puts it, "The new solar plants are the next chapter in our ongoing sustainability progression at Margarita Vineyard."
This progression dates back to the planting of the vineyard by the Robert Mondavi family starting in 2000. At the time, one observer said that the Mondavis’ environmentally conscious practices put Margarita Vineyard “at the vanguard of sustainable agriculture in the region if not the state.” We have endeavored to advance this commitment since acquiring the vineyard lease in 2005, ultimately earning Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification in 2010.
As we've said before, sustainability is not just a buzzword to us. Rather, it is something that produces measurable benefits for our vineyard, our wines and the environment. And we are far from alone, as many local winergrowers subscribe to similar practices, which is a pretty cool thing to consider the next time you enjoy a glass of wine!
The vines at our estate Margarita Vineyard are now getting their annual haircut in preparation for the growing season ahead, as shown in the above photos taken this week.
Winter pruning is not only a fundamental act of vineyard cultivation--it can also have a significant impact on the quality of the vintage to come. In the words of Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor, "Pruning is something that is critical to making the wine taste great. Winemaking isn't something that just happens at the winery, but something that happens all year long, starting in the vineyard."
For this reason, we are vigilant when it comes to pruning, to ensure that the vine grows in a balanced manner through the growing season, and to keep yields in check for the development of rich, concentrated fruit.
After harvest and when the winter season sets in, we are left with a skeletal vine with bare branches, called canes (see top photo). When we prune these canes, we leave just two buds per spur (the little knobs on the cordons, or arms, of the vine). These buds will later push new canes, and these canes will bring forth the new fruit of the growing season ahead. By limiting the amount of buds, we control the eventual grape yield.
But it's not just a matter of flying through the vineyard and cutting the canes according to the two-bud rule. In fact, pruning is an art, whereby the vineyard team must also choose where to make the best cut and which buds to leave. From a quality standpoint, the ideal vine will have clusters and canes that are evenly spaced, with enough room for air to flow through the canes, and diffuse sunlight to filter through.
And that's exactly what Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz and his crew are aiming for right now with their pruning activities, so that we can get the most out of our upcoming 2016 vintage wines.
As we've noted before, sustainiability isn't just a buzzword for us. It's a real tool that produces measurable results that benefit the vines, wines and environment at our estate Margarita Vineyard on the historic Santa Margarita Ranch. You can read more about our sustainable practices here.
But sometimes sustainability is experienced in more ethereal ways, such as yesterday, when our affiliated Margarita Aventures zipline canopy tours joined with Pacific Wildlife Care to release a native golden eagle back into the wild, right here on Santa Margarita Ranch.
The drama began earlier in the week, when a citizen saw the golden eagle strike a power line alongside Highway 58. The bird was immediately distressed, and it was placed under the care of a veterinarian at Pacific Wildlife Care, whose mission is to support San Luis Obispo County wildlife through rehabilitation and educational outreach.
“Pacific Wildlife Care reached out to us, because they knew about our commitment to wildlife education, and because they understood that Santa Margarita Ranch would be a fitting and safe environment ,” says Sherryl Clendenen, staff naturalist at Margarita Adventures.
After the eagle was nursed back to health, it was released yesterday--a joyful moment of all involved.
Moments like this reaffirm why we have worked hard to maintain wildlife corridors, wetland setbacks and other sustainability practices that nurture the natural habitats across the ranch.
Deer, mountain lions, bobcats, turkeys, boars, bears, bald eagles and, yes, golden eagles are among the many wildlife that have been spotted in and around Margarita Vineyard. We truly believe that the wild beauty of our vineyard contributes to the soul of our wines, and we hope to see this young eagle again in the skies over our vines.
You will sometimes hear us throwing around the term “AVA,” particularly now that our estate Margarita Vineyard is part of the new Santa Margarita Ranch AVA.
So what is an AVA? It’s shorthand for “American Viticultural Area,” which is a term for a federally recognized and defined winegrowing area.
By default, an AVA can be mere political boundary such as “California” or “San Luis Obispo County.” But it is more frequently meant to describe a specific geographical area unified by climate, soil and other geographic factors that consistently influence the characteristics of wines grown in that area.
Let’s use the Paso Robles region as an example…
The Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983 to recognize the common characteristics of wines from this region.
Over the ensuing 30 years, the Paso Robles wine industry flourished, and in time certain areas within the Paso Robles AVA began to exhibit their own unique characteristics—much in the way that “Oakville” and “Stag’s Leap District” have become recognized pockets within the Napa Valley AVA.
So the next step was to establish “sub-AVAs” of Paso Robles, to further drill down into the diversity of our region. This was not some whimsical exercise—it was a very involved process born of demonstrable distinctions that were officially recognized by the federal government.
Thus, 11 sub-AVAs of Paso Robles were established last year (pictured above), and one of them is the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA. In fact, our estate Margarita Vineyard is the only vineyard in the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA, which truly sets out wines apart.
So now you know the story of why our wines going forward will include references to both “Paso Robles” and “Santa Margarita Ranch” on the label, to celebrate our unique sense of place.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and here is a perfect example—a photo taken the other day of coastal fog clutching the peaks of the Santa Lucia mountains in Santa Margarita on an otherwise sunny morning above the Cuesta Grade.
We often talk about the climate of our estate Margarita Vineyard here, because we are on the dividing line between the warmer inland environs to the north and the cooler coastal region south of the grade.
As such, our climate is a bit of a hybrid that is vividly captured in this photo—a borderland of sun and fog, situated in the mountains but only 14 miles from the beach.
Of course, this can’t help but have a significant impact on our fruit and ultimately the character of our wines.
Indeed, this consistent cooling effect creates a long growing season with later harvest dates. We are still able to fully ripen signature Paso Robles varieties such as Zinfandel, Cabernet and Merlot, but in a manner that maintains a signature structure and balance that are rooted in the climate. You can taste it, and sometimes you can even see it on a September morning like the one pictured here.
The big news around the Central Coast last week was the start of the California wine harvest, with Pinot Noir leading the charge at a handful of wineries.
However, here in Paso Robles, “soon” is the operative word—although at our estate Margarita Vineyard, you might say “later.”
That’s because we enjoy some of the latest picking dates across the region. In fact, some of our fruit is still undergoing veraison, the process whereby the berries turn color and transition from the growth phase to the ripening phase (see accompanying photo taken 10 days ago).
So while some of our earlier ripening varieties can expect to come off the vine starting in a few weeks, we’ll still be harvesting grapes well into October and possibly November depending on the autumn weather.
Such relative lateness is a hallmark of Margarita Vineyard, where a strong marine influence creates one of the region’s coolest growing environments. The result is an elongated growing season with longer hang times. When people taste our red wines, they typically notice the common threads of structure and balance—two qualities that are directly related to the longer, later growing season.
Consequently, we’ve learned not to be anxious about the start of harvest, because good things happen when the fruit hangs out.
We rarely talk about the summer weather here in Paso Robles because there’s usually nothing to talk about.
After all, it's typically quite predictable--warm to hot days followed by reliable marine cooling in the evening. It's an ideal winegrowing climate that usually unfolds just like clockwork.
But on Sunday, the clockwork was thrown a curveball in the form of a sustained thunderstorm that dropped as much as 3.5 inches of rain in parts of the region, shattering previous rainfall records for the month of July. The lightning was abundant as well (local photo above by Jon Berezay).
So what did this weather disruption mean in the vineyard? Thankfully not a lot, beyond bringing some much-needed water to the land during this extended drought.
Now, there are plenty of times of the year when a sustained rainstorm such as this could cause serious viticultural trouble--such as the delicate flowering phase of the vines in the spring, or later in the harvest season, when wet conditions can create mold problems and logistical issues.
But right now, the grapes are as bulletproof as they’ll ever be. They have yet to undergo the process of “verasion,” whereby they begin to gain color and grow softer and become sweeter. Instead, at the moment, they are just firm green berries (see below). If you pop some in your mouth, you will find them crunchy and bracingly tart. So they’re pretty hardy at this stage in their development.
There was another upside to the summer rain, as co-owner and viticulturist Doug Filipponi noted, "This was a good test for everyone to find the weak spots in the vineyard roads and culverts. It was a reminder of what we used to take for granted."
Of course, any time you get rain followed by humid conditions in the vineyard, you have to keep an eye out for mildew pressure. But all things considered, this was okay—if bizarre—timing for some much-needed rain here in the Central Coast wine country.