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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.
There’s word that at least one winery in Santa Barbara County is harvesting Pinot Noir today (that’s right, in July!), a sure sign that we are all headed for a very early harvest in 2014.
Or are we?
At our estate Margarita Vineyard, our fruit is only just beginning to show signs of “veraison”—the process whereby the berries turn color and transition from the growth phase to the ripening phase. In other words, we still have a ways to go before the harvest begins in earnest at Margarita Vineyard.
According to Winemaker Stewart Cameron, our harvest timing is stacking up to be similar to last year, which was somewhat early by historical standards, but not extraordinarily so.
At the same time, many other wineries are said to be on pace for harvesting up to two or three weeks earlier than normal. This has been a year with mild-to-warm temperatures and very little rain—conditions that are known to accelerate things in the vineyard.
So why is Margarita Vineyard trailing by comparison? The reasons go to the heart of what makes the vineyard unique from a climate perspective.
Margarita Vineyard is sheltered by the coastal mountains and can be very cold in the spring, so the vines take their time emerging from dormancy, resulting in a later start to the growing season.
Then, come summertime, a pronounced marine influence begins to exert itself. As the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, Margarita Vineyard is located just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and the afternoons tend to be considerably cooler than other areas of Paso Robles. The same mountains that shelter the vineyard in the spring are powerless to stop the cold marine air rushing over their peaks, and the result is an extended growing season and later ripening.
In the end, we don’t mind being later than most, because we feel that the extra “hang time” allows the grapes to develop intense flavors without losing their structure and balance.
We talk a lot about the rare diversity of soils at our estate Margarita Vineyard, but sometimes it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper to get the complete story.
On that note, we are excited to share the accompanying photos of the pronounced shale soils in our Block 32 Zinfandel.
While plenty of shale flakes percolate up to the surface in this part of the vineyard, much of the soil base is obscured by a thin layer of topsoil. By digging pits, we are able to get a much better look at exactly what the vines are rooted in, and to discover exactly what lies beneath.
In the above photo, you can see the layer of darker topsoil along the top of the ground. Below that is the deep base of compacted stratified shale. You can often pry this shale apart with your bare hands. Some of the pieces crumble apart into thin wafers, as if Mother Nature had neatly stacked a million corn flakes. It’s truly a geologic marvel.
Many people will look at this and ask, “Vines grow in that!?”
The answer is yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. When vines grow in extreme rocky conditions like this, the roots are challenged and soil moisture is scarce. This results in vines with limited vigor and smaller yields that produce intensely flavored grapes—and ultimately exceptional wine.
Shale is one of five soil types that ebb and flow through Margarita Vineyard, the others being volcanic, granitic, rocky alluvium and ancient sea bed. Not all of these soil zones are as visually extreme as the shale pictured here, but each brings its own unique influence to our wines (for example, check out this earlier post on our ancient sea bed soils).
If you hear us talking about soils a lot, this is why. Soil diversity speaks to the uniqueness of our place, and therefore the essence of our wines. You can see it with your eyes, and you can taste it in the glass.
Earlier this week, we wrote about how two producers from The Weather Channel visited us to explore the effects of the current drought.
We are now pleased to share that their segment on the Paso Robles wine country and our estate Margarita Vineyard aired today as part of a larger series called “Cracked: California.”
This segment does an admirable job of reporting on the challenges of the current drought as well as the sustainable water conservation practices that we and other winegrowers are employing to mitigate drought impacts.
You can click here to view the segment on Weather.com.
Last week, we were visited by a couple of producers from The Weather Channel, who came to the Paso Robles wine country as part of a larger story on drought conditions across the West.
Viticulturist and Ancient Peaks Co-Owner Doug Filipponi (pictured above) and Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor enjoyed showing them around our estate Margarita Vineyard, and sharing their thoughts and strategies for conserving water in the vineyard.
There’s no denying that the drought is troubling. Water management is now on the front-burner of the civic discourse in many California communities, including our own. It could get worse before it gets better. An El Niño year can’t come fast enough.
However, it’s still possible to maintain an optimistic outlook as we head out to work in the vineyard each morning. We have survived past droughts. Mother Nature is resilient, and has been known to follow drought years with abundant rainfall. In fact, some are predicting that El Niño conditions may begin later this year.
This doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye to the drought, or that we needn’t consider the possibility that climate change is intensifying our drought cycles in California. It just means that we’re keeping our finger off the panic button and focusing on what we can do in the vineyard to ride this drought out.
As a SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certified winery, we are proactive when it comes to resource conservation. For example, we have installed “pulse emitters” throughout the vineyard for frost protection. These emitters cut water usage by more than 30 percent compared to traditional overhead frost-protection sprinklers. We are also vigilant when it comes to monitoring soil moisture with the latest technologies, so that we only irrigate when absolutely necessary, and only with the necessary amount of water.
These are things that we can control, so that is where our focus lies—on making the most of what we have without borrowing trouble. Of course, we’ll keep praying for rain as well.
We were honored last week to host a group of top sommeliers as part of the CABs of Distinction festivities across Paso Robles. They came out for a tour of our estate Margarita Vineyard, and for a look at the vineyard’s rare diversity of soil types. They tasted our wines along the way, and were the first people outside of the winery to experience our Cabernet Sauvignon soil trials in progress.
To say that these folks have discriminating palates would be an understatement, so we were pleased when they seemed to like what they tasted. The wine that really seemed to ring some bells was our new 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon “Jackpot,” a limited-edition reserve wine made from four selected barrels.
The soil trial tasting consisted of 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples from three distinct soil types. During the last harvest, our winemakers, Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron, chose fruit from three separate Cabernet Sauvignon blocks rooted in ancient sea bed, diablo series clay and Monterey shale, all picked at the same ripeness. Each of these small Cabernet Sauvignon lots is now being made with the same winemaking and aging practices. This will give us a more controlled opportunity to compare the effects of the soils and to share our discoveries.
“The somms were very knowledgeable, and I think they appreciated the fact that we offered something different,” Mike says. “Few vineyards have five distinct soil types like ours, so it’s natural for us to focus on that and share how it shapes our wines.”
On that note, here are our current observations on the soil trials at the moment:
• Block 15 – Ancient Sea Bed
Rich, dense, black fruit core. Shy nose will open up in time.
• Block 50 Bottom – Diablo Series Clay (Rocky Alluvium)
More red fruit on the nose, cherry, zingy, bright and high toned.
• Block 50 Top – Monterey Shale
Earthy, mineral aromas. Supple, round black and red fruit on the palate.
Of course, it’s still early and the wines will evolve, but the distinctions are already apparent. Stay tuned for more details as the trials progress.