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While the vines are bare and the autumn grape harvest is still eight months away, we are already taking action in the vineyard to maximize the caliber of the fruit to come—starting with pruning.
As our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor says, “The 2014 vintage starts right now with pruning season. The wines of 2014 are already being shaped by things we are doing in the vineyard—long before the grapes have even started growing.”
Our estate Margarita Vineyard is planted to a VSP (for vertical shoot position) trellis system. With this system, the main part of the vine is shaped like a “T,” with the vine branches trained upward with catchwires. The vines in a VSP system consist of four key parts: the trunk, the arms (called cordons), the spurs (the large knobs on the cordons) and the canes (the branches).
We prune for quality over quantity, so we select one cane per spur and cut it back so that just two buds remain. The buds will open up during “bud break” in early spring. From the buds grow new canes and, ultimately, the grape clusters.
Pruning sets the stage for the upcoming growing season. With pruning, you directly control your grape yields, which in turn impacts fruit balance and intensity. Pruning decisions also affect the amount of sunlight and airflow that will penetrate the fruiting zone of the vine. Diffused sunlight aids with grape ripening, while healthy airflow keeps mildew in check.
Smart pruning requires training and commitment. The vineyard crew must move quickly, making split-second decisions on where to best make their cuts.
“When deciding where to cut, you have to think of where you want the clusters to sit on the vine,” says Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz. “You want to separate the clusters as much as you can to get that airflow and sunlight, and to deliver the best quality to the winery.”
And so begins the vintage to come...
Our Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor likes to call it “moon dust,” but it actually comes from the ocean, not outer space…
Of course, we are talking about the uplifted ancient sea bed at our estate Margarita Vineyard, along a block that we call Oyster Ridge.
Here, massive white oyster fossils—some as large as footballs—are literally spilling out of the ground, embedded in fine pale calcareous soil that looks like, well, moon dust.
Considering that Margarita Vineyard is tucked into the Santa Lucia Mountains at the top of the towering Cuesta Grade above San Luis Obispo, the sight of old sea creatures here is rather astonishing. So, how did they get here?
Well, the vineyard is tucked between two local seismic faults, and it is located only about 45 miles from the massive San Andreas fault. Over thousands of years, tectonic grinding and localized earthquakes have turned the old inland sea into today’s dry ground.
Still, you rarely see an ancient sea bed exposed along the surface like you do at Margarita Vineyard. We just happen to be located in a very geologically active spot, which explains why the vineyard spans a rare array of five soil types.
But the bottom-line question is: What does all of this mean to the wine?
For starters, Calcium-rich soil is coveted by winemakers worldwide. And considering that Wine & Spirits Magazine called Oyster Ridge “perhaps the most dramatically calcareous chunk of earth in the entire state,” that is saying a lot.
“Oyster Ridge is planted predominantly to Bordeaux varietals,” Mike says. “The fruit from this soil displays pretty aromatics, with high-toned flavors and really fine tannins. The Cabernet from this spot is different from the Cabernet on other parts of the ranch.”
He adds, “At the end of the day, it gives us another color to paint with, and to create an estate Cabernet blend with balance and complexity.”
The rare diversity of soils at our estate Margarita Vineyard is something we talk about frequently. It’s part of the fabric of our wines—a point of differentiation that defines our sense of place. And if you can’t get excited about a wine’s sense of place, then you’re missing perhaps the most vital aspect of wine appreciation!
Margarita Vineyard lies along the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains between two fault zones, where ongoing geologic upheaval has blessed the land with a striking mix of soils. Walking around the vineyard, you will find fields of flaky shale, slopes of fine sediment and expanses of calcareous ancient sea bed riddled with oyster fossils. Granitic and volcanic soils are also present.
While we can’t say that the mineral content of a certain soil type fosters a specific flavor (such as blackberry, blueberry, etc.), we do know that soil type has a bearing on the available nutrients and how those nutrients are taken up, as well as moisture retention and root zone development. These and other soil factors do have a significant impact on the resulting fruit and wine, in terms of texture, fruit intensity, flavor profile and tannin profile; and these factors shift as you transition from sedimentary soils to calcareous soils to shale soils.
The differences in the resulting wines are obvious to our winemakers, Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron. They like to say that the varied soils give them more “colors” to paint with when it comes to assembling final blends, allowing them to build natural complexity and dimension into a single estate-grown wine.
Starting with the 2013 vintage, we are taking these observations to a more experimental level. Mike and Stewart chose fruit from three separate Cabernet Sauvignon blocks rooted in three distinct soil types, all picked at the same ripeness. As Mike explains in the video above, each of these small Paso Robles 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 with you down the line. Stay tuned!
P.S. If you want to see some of these soils firsthand, including the sea bed with oyster fossils, come out for one of our Paso Robles winery tours.
The phrase “old vines” has become a bit overused in the wine industry, but when it comes to some of the vines at our Santa Margarita Ranch, the term is truly fitting. Indeed, pictured here is a vine whose roots may extend all the way back to the late 1700s. Here’s the story…
This wild vine is located in a creekbed near the ranch’s “Asistencia” building, which was established by Franciscan missionaries in the 1770s. We know that the padres planted grapevines here, both for the sacrament and their regular diet (in fact, records show that one of the padres here was excommunicated for selling wine to the Russians!).
Here’s where the story takes some detective work. We have a photo from the 1880s showing a small vineyard adjacent to the Asistencia, and the trunks of the vines are quite thick—indicating that they’d been planted there decades before the photo was taken. We also have a photo of the adobe ranch house from the same period, showing a vine trellis that is still growing there today.
We had cuttings from the creekbed vine tested and compared with cuttings from the ranch house vine trellis, and confirmed that they are the same species—so it’s safe to say that both originated from that old vineyard photographed in the 1880s. The question is: when was that vineyard planted? Is it the original Mission vineyard from the late 1700s? It very well could be.
Regardless, we theorize that at some point, the vineyard was ripped out, with at least some of the vines tossed over into the adjacent creekbed, where one of them took root. Today, this wild vine extends nearly 60 feet, looping and winding along the ground and up into the trees. It is a remarkable sight to behold.
At the very least, we’re looking at a wild vine that is more than 150 years old, reaching back all the way to the formative days of early California.
P.S. You can learn more about Santa Margarita Ranch and Margarita Vineyard during one of our Saturday vineyard tours.
When painting with a broad brush, you could call Paso Robles a warm winegrowing region. And it's true that Burgundian varietals such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—which are known to excel in cool regions—aren’t typically associated with Paso Robles. Here, it’s Bordeaux and Rhône varietals that make the most noise.
But the broad brush often misses the nuances, and that's why we are confidently producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from our estate Margarita Vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA.
Margarita Vineyard is the southernmost vineyard in the region, with a pronounced marine influence. It's often cool and sometimes cold here during the growing season. That's our baseline.
From there, we've planted our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the vineyard's coolest spots. One such spot is at the mouth of Trout Creek, where marine air spills through a notch in the coastal mountains.
In these spots, the notion of growing a premium Paso Robles Pinot Noir or Chardonnay isn't wild and crazy. It's simply a logical fit for the growing conditions.
On that note, we are excited to release our 2012 Chardonnay from our White Label (reserve) series. We think that this wine shows just how good a Paso Robles Chardonnay can be. This follows our 2011 Pinot Noir, which was also varietally true and equally delicious. Right now, these wines are very limited in production (in the range of 100 to 150 cases), with our wine club members getting first dibs.
Our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir will never supplant our Bordeaux varietals in acreage or production. But we are excited about where these wines are headed. They speak not only to the diversity of our vineyard, but of the Paso Robles region as a whole.
When it comes to Paso Robles, you’ve probably heard about the eastside and the westside, but here at Ancient Peaks, we’re on the southside—and still in the thick of the 2013 harvest at our estate Margarita Vineyard. View and read our report below:
On the whole, we are just past the halfway mark in our picking. As of October 13, only about 20 percent of our Cabernet Sauvignon is in the house. About 60 percent of our Syrah has been picked, and all of our Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc fruit is off the vine. Zinfandel is mostly done. But we just began harvesting our Malbec, and haven’t even started on the Petit Verdot.
At this rate, we should be fully done with the grape harvest by the end of October or first week of November. This is rather typical—and even a bit early—for Margarita Vineyard, which is the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles AVA. It’s cooler here, and so the growing season is long.
Yields are a bit larger than normal, which is somewhat surprising in the wake of such a dry year. We’re not alone, as larger yields are one of the stories of the 2013 vintage in California.
The sailing has been smooth this harvest, especially compared to recent years. In 2008, we experienced eight inches of rain in one harvest day. In 2010, an unusually cool summer forced us to drop an inordinate amount of crop just to make sure we got things ripe. The 2011 growing season was fairly cool, too. Last year was nice, but a bit more erratic with regard to hot weather events.
But this year has been rock steady—warm but rarely hot, with consistent temperatures heading into fall, and just a few drops of rain one day in early October.
Even with the healthy yields, we’re getting a nice intensity of color and flavor out of the fruit. Yesterday morning, during our first Malbec pick, the picking bins were stained a dark purple—an unscientific yet clear indication of what we’re getting in terms of concentration. By mid morning, the air was still chilly and thick with fog, demonstrating why we still have a few weeks to go.
With later-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, we sometimes find ourselves on what we call “the edge of ripeness”—that long wait for the grapes to fully mature. And we’re fine with that, because it’s a great way for the fruit to maintain its balance and varietal character.
This year, however, full maturity is coming more easily. We’re not looking over our shoulder at a coming storm or at our watches waiting for the fruit to get in gear. Mother Nature has smiled upon us, and it should result in a banner vintage.
Spontaneity is the spice of life, so we recently invited our A-List Wine Club members out for an impromptu vineyard walk with a just a few days’ notice—and were delighted when nearly 50 members took us up on it!
On a bright, warm morning, winery co-proprietor Karl Wittstrom led the group on an informative two-mile walk that circled Block 49 at our estate Margarita Vineyard. Along the way, guests got to sample Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah grapes on the precipice of harvest.
Halfway through the walk, Vineyard Manager Jaime Muniz (pictured below) joined the group to share insights into vine canopy management and other viticultural techniques. The walk concluded with morning snacks (including grapes, of course!) in the shade of a large legacy oak.
This is the latest example of how we like to go the extra mile—or two, in this instance—for our wine club members. For those of you who are thinking of joining, check out this chat with our own Nina Leschinsky, who shares the many unique benefits of being an A-List Wine Club member.
Duke the beagle is the boss of Assistant Winemaker Stewart Cameron, and the official winery dog of Ancient Peaks.
Today, we present "A Day in The Life of Duke" to show off his many talents, including vineyard management, staff training, winemaking and hospitality.
We salute Duke and all of the hard-working winery dogs out there!
We like to say that soils are the ingredients behind our wines, as our estate Margarita Vineyard is home to a rare diversity of soil types that ebb, flow and intermingle from one block to the next. These soil types include shale, sedimentary, granitic, volcanic and ancient sea bed.
In some blocks, the base soil composition is obvious, such as at Oyster Ridge, where the ancient sea bed soil is literally percolating up to the surface in the form of ancient oyster fossils.
In other blocks, however, the nature of the soil isn’t plainly evident. Have a look at the exposed soil pit pictured above in one of our Zinfandel blocks. As you walk along the surface of this block, your boots get covered in young soil that is dark, fine and fluffy.
But as you can see, just 18 inches beneath that young soil layer is a solid foundation of stratified shale rock. It’s a stark and sudden shift that speaks to the true nature of the growing conditions in this block.
Here, the vine roots tend to grow laterally once they hit the hard rocky soil, seeking an easier way to acquire moisture. Consequently, the vines in this block have limited vigor and produce small, intensely flavored berries. In other words, the soil sets the tone for the fruit—and ultimately the character of the resulting wine.
And when the soils are as diverse as they are at Margarita Vineyard, it gives us that many more ingredients to create wines with natural depth and complexity.
Our estate Margarita Vineyard occupies one of the Paso Robles region’s coolest growing environments, but it sure didn’t feel that way over the past weekend during a heat wave that swept across the West Coast.
Temperatures reached 105 degrees at Margarita Vineyard. In other areas of the region, temperatures reached 111 degrees. Thankfully, things are now starting to cool back down.
As we always do when extreme heat is predicted, we took preemptive action to minimize potential damage. Four days before the high temperatures arrived, we started irrigating more steadily to ensure sufficient vine hydration. We also ceased all leaf removal activities to ensure that the fruit wasn’t overly exposed to hot direct sunlight.
As a result, we avoided sunburn of the grape skins, as evident in the accompanying photo taken yesterday of a young Zinfandel cluster. Even our vulnerable new Merlot plantings (pictured below) are still sitting pretty without any leaf burn.
It helps that this heat wave came relatively early in the growing season. When the grapes are small and green, the skins are thicker and tougher. High heat can be more problematic later in the season, when the fruit is ripe and skins are more delicate.
It’s hard to fathom that exactly one month earlier we were experiencing freezing morning temperatures at Margarita Vineyard. Such is the adventure of agriculture, and whether it’s hot or cold or in between, we always need to be on our game and keep our cool.