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The French concept of “terroir” is something that goes to the heart of Ancient Peaks wines.
In simple terms, terroir signifies the influence of “place” on a given wine, namely the soil, topography and weather.
Now, any time you talk about terroir, it comes at the risk of sounding high-minded or pretentious. But that’s not our intent here. Our intent is to simply understand and embrace how a sense of place makes different wines distinguishable and ultimately more enjoyable.
We believe that our estate Margarita Vineyard is the epitome of terroir. It stands alone as the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles region, with its own distinct microclimate and a rare array of five soil types.
These singular interconnected conditions, in turn, have a direct influence on the fruit and the character of the resulting wines.
It’s also worth noting that “place” is not exclusive of “people.” There is a cultural aspect to terroir. Functional vines don’t grow without supervision, and wine can’t be made without guidance from the human hand—a subject that Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor and Winemaker Stewart Cameron discuss in the accompanying video.
Terroir is what separates wine from a mere recipe or formulaic commodity. In that sense, you could say that terroir is what makes wine fun and interesting. And there’s nothing pretentious about that.
P.S. Come out for one of our Paso Robles winery tours to get a hands-on taste of Margarita Vineyard’s terroir.
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.”
You’ve probably seen a stainless steel wine tank before. In fact, you walk right by them on most winery tours. Stainless steel tanks are popular in winemaking because they are durable, easy to clean and temperature controlled. You can ferment and/or age wines in stainless steel, depending on the style of wine you're trying to achieve.
Stainleess steel tanks are fairly straightforward vessels, but they do have a lot of moving parts. Have you ever wondered what all of the ports and levers are for? If so, here’s the scoop:
The swirling patterns along the side of the tank are glycol channels. Glycol is a viscous liquid that can be chilled well below 32 degrees without freezing. We typically chill our glycol to a temperature of 25 degrees. As it flows through the channels around the jacket, the cold glycol chills the wine to a desired temperature. We can control the wine temperature with a thermostat (the little box on the right) that regulates the glycol. Temperature level plays a major role in shaping fermentations as well as the aging environment.
When new wine is placed in a tank, natural solids settle to the bottom and become what is known as “lees.” The lees can be fairly thick at the bottom of the tank, so when you want to rack (ie: transfer) the wine, you start by hooking up the hose to the higher valve on the left, known as the racking valve, to make sure you’re not sucking out a bunch of lees.
Once you’ve racked wine via the racking valve, you can open the upper racking door. That allows you to peer in and see how much more wine you can manually skim off the top of the lees.
This gives you access to the inside of the tank for cleaning and removing lees. Come on out, we could use a hand!
The bottom valve is used for filling an empty tank.
The tiny little valve protruding on the right of the tank allows you to quickly draw a sample of wine for evaluative purposes.
We are excited to introduce Chris Thompson as our East Coast Sales Specialist starting in 2014.
In this newly created position, Chris will be charged with taking our East Coast distribution to the next level while growing the visibility of the Ancient Peaks brand. Chris actually joined us earlier this fall as a harvest intern to learn winemaking from the ground up (as pictured above). Prior to that, he served as a wine consultant for The Country Vintner in North Carolina, one of the nation’s premier fine wine distributors. His experience in wine sales and distribution spans more than eight years.
We caught up with Chris to get his take on how he got here, and where he’s going with Ancient Peaks:
Why were you drawn to Ancient Peaks in the first place, to the point of coming out west to work the crush?
Two things really stood out. First, the ownership families…There are such great people involved here in the ownership and management of this winery, and they’re very hands-on. That was a big influencing factor. Also, Margarita Vineyard and Santa Margarita Ranch…This is such a unique place, with its own climate, and it’s very different from any other part of Paso. Not only do you have the vineyard, you have the history and the cattle, and now the zipline tours. There’s so much diversity here and so many things going on. It seemed like a great company to work for, and a good place to gain winemaking experience.
What was your favorite part of working in the winery?
It’s hard to say. There really wasn’t one task that stood out overall. I just enjoyed learning the various aspects of winemaking and the physical labor of it all—and having that instant gratification of helping make something with tangible results. All that hard work makes a beer taste even better at the end of the day, too.
What’s your vision for Ancient Peaks on the East Coast?
I want to establish Ancient Peaks as a household name. The first step is to get wine directors, managers and buyers excited about Ancient Peaks, so that they turn their customers onto our wines. That’s the way to start building a market presence. In time, however, I want Ancient Peaks to become a brand that people recognize and depend on and ask for by name. That’s something you already see here on the Central Coast with Ancient Peaks, and I want to make it happen on the East Coast as well.
I also want to educate people about Santa Margarita Ranch, which is set to become a sub-AVA of Paso Robles. A lot of people don’t know about the unique pockets and microclimates that make up Paso. They may have heard about the Westside or Templeton Gap, but there are a lot of other spots like El Pomar and Santa Margarita that aren’t as well known yet. Being the only grower in Santa Margarita sets us apart, and I want to get the word out about that.
P.S. Here’s Chris starring in our punchdown video:
One of the more iconic annual moments in the winery cellar is the “barreling down” of new wine to begin the aging process.
Today, our team is barreling down Cabernet Sauvignon from Block 50 at our estate Margarita Vineyard, which is one of the last 2013 vintage lots to make the transition from tank to barrel.
The cellar is surprisingly quiet as the wine is barreled down. The Cabernet Sauvignon is being racked (transferred) from a larger tank about 100 yards away from the awaiting barrels. It is flowing through the hoses via gravity, so there are no pumps making noise. As the wine flows into the barrel through a long racking wand, it makes a splashing sound at first, and then goes silent as the level rises.
Gravity racking is preferable because it’s very gentle on the wine. Also, if there are any hiccups, you can just shut the valve on the racking valve without having to make an uphill 100-yard dash to turn off a pump!
The splashing and aeration of the wine as it fills the barrel is also beneficial. After fermentation, the wine has been resting in the tank with very little air exposure. Barreling down allows any suspended CO2 in the wine to blow off (if CO2 remains suspended in the wine, it will taste spritzy). This controlled air exposure also gives the wine a moment room to breathe and develop, setting the tone for the maturation period.
You have to be alert when barreling down. Right now, our cellar master Octavio is operating two racking wands. He starts one barrel, and then about halfway through he starts another. It takes three minutes for a 60-gallon barrel to fill up. So once the barrel is nearly full, Octavio has less than 90 seconds to gently top it off (see below photo), secure the bung and move the wand to begin filling the next barrel before rushing over to the other barrel that is rapidly filling.
Any hitch in the rhythm can result in what is known around the winery as a “volcano”—red wine erupting from an overflowing barrel. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Rumor has it that Winemaker Stewart Cameron recently had a nice sweater ruined by a volcano!
So there you have it—a look at the quiet yet momentous occasion of barreling down at Ancient Peaks Winery.
We invite you to take a break and treat yourself to some seasonal magic at our annual Holiday Open House this Thursday, December 12 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
This complimentary event at our tasting room includes light nibbles, sweet treats, hot cocoa, wine tasting, wine specials and…drumroll…a singing Santa! The Holiday Open House has become a festive tradition here at Ancient Peaks, and it’s always a lot of fun. And the cold weather this week will ensure that it feels a lot like Christmas.
Then, throughout the weekend, we will offer a trio of culinary craft workshops. Click here for more details.
We are also excited to share that our own Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins was on the What’s Cooking on Wine show on CRN Radio last night. During the interview, Amanda shared details about our Holiday Open house and our Paso Robles winery tours, as well as the unique qualities of our estate Margarita Vineyard and how they shape our wines. Click here to listen to the interview (fast forward to the 30-minute mark to hear Amanda).
We hope to see you at our open house, or anytime this holiday season for Paso Robles wine tasting, wine gifts and more.
You may have tasted our Pinot Noir—and now you can fly over it…
Indeed, our affiliated Margarita Adventures has just opened the “Pinot Express,” the newest addition to its zipline canopy tours on the historic Santa Margarita Ranch.
The Pinot Express is now the highest, longest and fastest of the five ziplines—and it zips right over the Pinot Noir block at our estate Margarita Vineyard.
(Pinot Noir in Paso Robles?—yes, as we explained in this recent blog post!)
Margarita Adventures’ 2.5-hour zipline canopy tours also include a guided tour of the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, which was first planted to vines by Franciscan missionaries in the late 1700s. The tours touch on the ranch’s sustainable ranching and winegrowing practices, as well as its diverse wildlife and remarkable geology.
The tours conclude with an optional Ancient Peaks wine tasting. Tour guests receive 20 percent off wine purchases, and the tasting fee is waived with a purchase of one bottle or more. Also, Ancient Peaks wine club members save 20 percent off the Margarita Adventures tour price.
And if you prefer your Paso Robles winery tours to be a little less adventurous, you can always come out for one of our guided vineyard and food tours offered every Saturday.
Syrah is back at Ancient Peaks, and it’s the best we’ve ever made.
Earlier this year, we told you about how winemakers Mike Sinor and Stewart Cameron tasted through all 177 barrels of Syrah from the 2011 vintage. Their goal was to select Syrah for incorporating into our Renegade red blend. But along the way, they also selected four barrels for special treatment and extended aging.
Fast forward to this week’s release of our 2011 “Jackpot” Syrah, which is now available in our tasting room. This is the wine made from those four standout barrels (all French oak, half of them new), and it is the first varietally bottled Syrah we’ve made in three years.
“We set out to produce a Syrah that is loaded with fruit and bigger in style, with a high ‘yummy’ factor but also nice structure,” says Stewart. “It’s opulent in the mouth, with layers of dark berry fruit. On the finish, though, you get the backbone that’s a signature of our estate Margarita Vineyard.”
The 2011 Syrah comes from Block 47 (75%) and Block 43 (25%) at Margarita Vineyard. Block 47 faces the southwest, allowing for enhanced sun exposure and the development of velvety dark fruit flavors. Block 43 is shielded in the afternoon by the adjacent mountain peaks, creating a cooler orientation that nurtures the varietal’s trademark spice and meatiness. Because Margarita Vineyard occupies one of the coolest growing environments in Paso Robles, it allows the Syrah grape to achieve intense varietal expression.
We felt that this wine merited our Jackpot designation, which is reserved for exclusive one-off bottlings that are exemplary of varietal, vineyard and vintage. We invite you to stop by during your next Paso Robles wine tasting tour and enjoy a taste of this standout Syrah.
Also, we are excited to donate $12 per case sold of our 2011 Syrah to MUST Charities, which is dedicated helping nonprofit organizations succeed and make a difference in the local community of northern San Luis Obispo County.
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.