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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.
It’s reasonable to assume that what you see in the photo above is a little grape cluster, but there’s more than meets the eye.
Yes, it’s a cluster—but not yet a grape cluster. Before it becomes a true grape cluster, it must undergo a process known as “flowering,” which typically takes place in later May through early June.
During flowering, the young clusters shed their hard green caps, revealing blooms underneath. These blooms are designed to self-pollinate. Once fertilization occurs, that’s when you actually have grapes to grow.
This photo was taken a few days ago at our estate Margarita Vineyard, specifically in Block 7, which is planted to Merlot. So what you see here aren’t baby grapes, the rather the hard caps that will soon be shed to reveal the blooms and begin flowering to create new Merlot grapes.
Flowering can be a delicate process. Harsh winds or extreme temperatures can disrupt the pollination process. So during flowering, you hope for steady, mild weather. This fosters a thorough grape “set” for a full, healthy crop.
We invite you to join one of our Paso Robles vineyard tours every Saturday for a close-up look at flowering and other growing phases at our estate Margarita Vineyard.
The irony of sustainability is that the more popular it becomes, the more it risks sounding like an empty buzzword.
But at our estate Margarita Vineyard, we can assure you that sustainability is not only real, but impactful.
It helps that our vineyard is Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certified. This certification program is one of the most stringent of its kind, and it lives up to its name by providing real definitions and parameters to the word sustainability.
Even then, however, one can be forgiven for wondering what it all means in the long run. On that note, we are increasing our efforts to quantify the results of our sustainable practices, in order to make them more understandable and relatable. Following are some key examples:
We maintain raised worm beds to produce "vermicompost," a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil conditioner. We brew this compost into a liquid form called "compost tea," which is then delivered to our vines via our irrigation system. The vermicompost stimulates micro-organisms that break down micronutrients for plant uptake, resulting in healthier vines. Reduction in Synthetic Fertilizer Use: 50%
Our two multi-function tractors serve multiple vine rows at a time and offer simultaneous mowing, trimming, pre-pruning and other uses, significantly reducing our tractor passes through the vineyard. This, in turn, has minimized soil compaction while cutting diesel fuel consumption. Reduction in tractor passes: 60%
The progressive pulse emitters installed at Margarita Vineyard are much more efficient than traditional overhead sprinklers when used for frost protection. These emitters generate a fine mist targeted directly onto the fruiting zone. Frost protection water savings: 65%
Bird Boxes, Wildlife Corridors and Wetlands Setbacks
Vineyard pests are managed naturally by promoting habitats for native predators, a program that includes bat boxes, owl boxes and raptor perches. Meanwhile, dedicated wildlife corridors enable animals to pass freely through and around the vineyard. We employ goat herds to provide a low-impact herbicide alternative for vegetation management. We also exceed all requirements for wetland setbacks.
These are just a few examples how sustainability isn’t a buzzword at Margarita Vineyard, but rather a real application that is making a difference.
As the famous holiday song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”—and it certainly looks that way at our estate Margarita Vineyard right now!
The accompanying photos were taken yesterday amid sunny skies and mild temperatures that nevertheless managed to exude a wintry ambiance.
Recent rains have generated a fresh carpet of lush green grass along the vine rows, providing a colorful complement to the fiery seasonal hues of the remaining vineyard leaves. The result is a quintessential holiday season scene in the Paso Robles wine country.
We invite you to come out and enjoy it yourself during one of our guided vineyard and food pairing tours offered every Saturday.
Photo below credit LiLi Tan, KSBY:
You could say that a superhero flew over our estate Margarita Vineyard yesterday…
Indeed, Stephen Amell, star of the hit superhero show Arrow on the CW network, came out to Santa Margarita Ranch on Sunday for a zipline tour with our affiliated Margarita Adventures, followed by a tasting of our wines.
Stephen and his friend Andrew Harding were in the Paso Robles wine country working on a new pilot show project focusing on the wine experience. Stephen and Andrew are also partners in their own wine label, Nocking Point Wines.
After they zipped over our Pinot Noir block on the Pinot Express zipline, Ancient Peaks co-owner Karl Wittstrom treated them to a tasting of Ancient Peaks wines. Pictured above are (left to right) Andrew, Karl and Stephen enjoying our 2012 Renegade red blend.
Thanks to Stephen, Andrew, producer Alan Miller and his crew for turning their spotlight on the Paso Robles wine country. The pilot show featuring Margarita Adventures and Ancient Peaks Winery is set to air this winter, stay tuned for details.
We earlier shared the news about the establishment of the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA as one of 11 new sub-appellations of the umbrella Paso Robles AVA.
Now we're going to dig a little deeper into the distinguishing characteristics of the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA, including the rare diversity of soil types pictured below.
The Santa Margarita Ranch AVA is situated along the foot of the coastal Santa Lucia Mountain Range, roughly 25 miles southeast of the city of Paso Robles and just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the west. Our estate Margarita Vineyard now enjoys the rare distinction of being the only vineyard located within its own namesake AVA
Below are highlights of the growing conditions found in the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA. All quotes are from the adopted Santa Margarita Ranch AVA petition:
These distinctive growing conditions impart a pronounced sense of place in our wines. Paso Robles is our home, and we will always lead with the Paso Robles message on our labels and elsewhere. But the establishment of the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA allows us to drill down more clearly into what makes our location distinctive, and why it matters to our wines.
One little-known fact about our estate Margarita Vineyard is that was planted by the Robert Mondavi family, who are rightfully considered California wine royalty.
Robert Mondavi (pictured above) was a visionary who recognized Napa Valley’s potential early on, and he and his family brought a similar vision to Santa Margarita Ranch many years later.
The story begins in 1999, when, after extensive site research, the Mondavis leased a section of the ranch to plant what would become known as Margarita Vineyard (originally called Cuesta Ridge Vineyard). This was virgin territory for viticulture—other than the mission grapes planted here by the padres in the late 1700s—and there were no neighboring vineyards. But the Mondavis saw something special here, and they went all in. In fact, they actually tried to acquire the ranch outright, but settled for a lease.
At the time, some viewed the ranch as an impractical place to grow the types of grape varieties for which the Paso Robles region is known, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The ranch occupies one of Paso Robles’ coolest growing environments, and it can be difficult to ripen these varietals in cooler years. But the Mondavis knew that with attentive viticulture, the ranch’s late, long growing season would translate to rich flavors with uncommon structure and balance. They also saw the diverse soils and contoured land, and knew that these things would translate to complexity in the field.
The Mondavis also blazed a sustainability trail here on the ranch. At the time, one observer said the Mondavi’s progressive practices put Margarita Vineyard “at the vanguard of sustainable agriculture in the region if not the state.”
By 2005, however, the Robert Mondavi company was under new ownership, which didn’t fully understand what the Mondavis had seen in this land. As the owners of the ranch, were able to buy back the original lease and take full control of the vineyard. Ironically (and fatefully!), the potential of Margarita Vineyard was just beginning to be realized, and it inspired us to start making estate-grown wine under the Ancient Peaks label beginning in 2005.
We are fortunate to be the inheritors of the Mondavi family’s vision, which can today be tasted in the wines of Ancient Peaks, and which is reflected in our continued commitment to sustainable winegrowing.
Big news is breaking here in the Paso Robles wine country, and it’s really big news for Ancient Peaks Winery.
Last week, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) issued a final ruling creating 11 new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the Paso Robles region: Adelaida District, Creston District, El Pomar District, Paso Robles Estrella District, Paso Robles Geneseo District, Paso Robles Highlands District, Paso Robles Willow Creek District, San Juan Creek, San Miguel District, Templeton Gap District…and Santa Margarita Ranch.
Of course, the last one, Santa Margarita Ranch, is home to our estate Margarita Vineyard—which now becomes by far the most predominant vineyard within the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA boundaries.
We’ve long talked about the uniqueness of Margarita Vineyard as the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, standing alone and apart just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This new recognition of Santa Margarita Ranch as its own distinct AVA confirms what we’ve been saying all along, and we’re very excited about it.
In the words of the TTB, an AVA designation “allows vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.” AVA designations are not taken lightly. They must be petitioned, and their unique growing conditions must be proven.
As the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA petition stated, “The Santa Margarita ‘valley’ has a distinctive maritime and mountain-valley climate within the large Paso Robles AVA, different than the other proposed viticultural areas… The region is very much a true, cool Region II climate.”
We will be drilling deeper into this topic and the special attributes of the new Santa Margarita Ranch AVA. Stay tuned…
The crush is on here at our estate Margarita Vineyard, as we finish up our Sauvignon Blanc harvest and move into the picking of our Merlot. Several other varietals, such as our Zinfandel (pictured above) and Cabernet Sauvignon, will follow over the next four to five weeks.
Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor is already bullish on the 2014 vintage. “It’s pretty exciting. The fruit is looking really good, and we’re seeing great fruit intensity in the fermenters.”
Mike says that the grapes overall this year have low juice content, partly as a result of the ongoing drought conditions.
“There’s not much water or plumpness in the grapes this year,” he says. “The tragic reality is that we’ve had so little rain here on the Central Coast, but the silver lining is that the grapes have a high skin-to-juice ratio. This results in more fruit intensity, and that’s going to make the wines taste really good.”
As we wrote earlier, the harvest at Margarita Vineyard is a bit earlier than normal, but still far behind many vineyards in our region, owing to our coastal proximity and pronounced marine influence. The spring can be quite cold at Margarita Vineyard as well, so we’re always on the later side for bud break, and then the marine cooling lengthens the growing season come summer and fall.
Another signature of the 2014 harvest season is that many varietals at Margarita Vineyard are set to reach peak ripeness in rapid succession. This is what’s known as a condensed harvest, and it will require long hours in the vineyard and cellar to make it all happen.
“This is one of those harvests where we need to fasten our seatbelts,” Mike says. “Pretty soon, it’s going to come fast and furious, but we’ll be ready for it.
We are inching ever closer to the 2014 harvest, but the hard work has already begun in the vineyard.
One of our pre-harvest activities is green harvesting, a.k.a. “crop dropping”—the act of removing imperfect grape clusters from our red variety vineyard blocks.
Our crew travels down the vine rows, looking for grape clusters that are lagging in the ripening process—specifically those that are still more than 50 percent green after veraison is well underway (click here for more on veraison). These clusters are unceremoniously cut from the vine and left to compost back into the vineyard.
By removing these greener clusters, we achieve three things: (1) we establish more uniform ripeness in the remaining fruit; (2) we reduce the crop load, allowing the vine to impart more intensity to the remaining fruit; and (3) we open up the fruit zone, creating more airflow to reduce the chance of mildew later in the season.
Of course, it would be easier to not invest the time and money into green harvesting, and to leave more crop in order to maximize production—but when quality is the name of the game, you go the extra mile.
In the following video, you can see crop dropping in action, courtesy of a team training session with our tasting room staff.