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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.
We are blessed to reside in in the Paso Robles wine country, which is composed of small-town communities such as Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero and our hometown of Santa Margarita.
Neighborliness is alive and well in these parts, and we feel very supported by our local customers and wine club members, not to mention our peers in the wine industry. For this reason, we join many other local wineries in striving to help make San Luis Obispo County an even better place.
One of our latest ventures is a Halloween pumpkin drive. We stocked a small pumpkin “patch” at our tasting room, and all proceeds from the pumpkin sales go to the Santa Margarita Elementary School PTA.
“Parents come in for wine tasting, and the kids get to walk out with a pumpkin,” says Nina Leschinsky, our direct to consumer sales manager. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
When it comes to charitable efforts, we place an emphasis on causes that align with our own winery culture, including those that benefit agriculture, sustainability, education, land stewardship and historical appreciation.
Accordingly, we have also provided donations and support to Santa Margarita Beautiful, a local beautification nonprofit, as well as the Paso Robles High School girls’ basketball team and California Women for Agriculture, among others.
“Often times it’s our own employees or wine club members who ask for support for something near and dear to them,” Nina says. “My son attends Santa Margarita Elementary, and I appreciate how our winery ownership is supporting the local school. There are some big hearts here.”
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 harvest is well underway at our estate Margarita Vineyard and the crush is on at our winery, which means that several of the 2014 vintage wines are now happily fermenting away.
But while fermentation is the most obvious and celebrated part of the crush, there’s something else important taking place right now: maceration.
Maceration signifies the leaching of “phenolic” materials—such as tannin, color and flavor compounds—into the new wine by way of the skins, seed and (sometimes) stems. In other words, maceration is vital to developing the color, flavor and tannin structure of any given red wine.
Since red wines are fermented with grape skins and seeds, the maceration process takes place naturally as the fermentation progress and the grape matter breaks down (see above photo of mid-fermentation wine). However, maceration must be managed and manipulated in order to make great wine.
Here’s how we manage maceration at Ancient Peaks:
Cold Soaking: This is the act of soaking the “must” (the juicy crushed grape mass) prior to fermentation, typically for 24 to 48 hours. “Once fermentation starts, the presence of alcohol tends to extract more seed tannins, which are harsher,” says Winemaker Stewart Cameron. “When we cold soak, we’re mainly getting flavor and color extraction. So cold soaking allows us to create a more extracted wine without the tannin levels getting too astringent.”
Punchdowns/Pumpovers: As fermentation proceeds, the grape matter tends to float to the top of the bin or tank. By punching the mass down into the wine, or pumping the wine over the top of the mass, you make sure that everything remains mixed during fermentation. “There has to be contact between the skins and the wine in order for these compounds to be extracted into the solution,” Stewart says. “It’s something you have to manage throughout fermentation.”
Extended Maceration: This is the act of leaving the wine on the skins after fermentation for a period of time, to develop further extraction. However, we don’t employ extended maceration at Ancient Peaks. As Stewart explains, “We typically have enough tannin in our Margarita Vineyard fruit naturally, where I don’t think a short-term extended maceration would help. If our tannins and phenolics were light, then it might be something we’d consider.”
So there you have it, the lowdown on maceration, the unsung hero of red wine creation.
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.
The Central Coast’s signature food and wine event is almost here, and we are happy to be right in the thick of it…
Indeed, the main event of Sunset Magazine’s Savor The Central Coast will be held right here in Santa Margarita at our historic Santa Margarita Ranch on September 27-28.
The main event will feature a Marketplace with offerings from more than 100 local wineries and restaurants. Other attractions include a Farm to Table Stage and Travel & Adventure Stage (more on that below), as well as a Central Coast Pavilion and educational seminars from leading chefs and winemakers. Trust us, your palate will not be disappointed, and your eyes will be opened!
In addition to pouring our wine at the main event, we are also leading an Ancient Peaks Adventure Tour on Thursday, September 25—and tickets are still available. During this tour, you will be invited to walk on the wild side by creating your own unique blend (see action shot below) of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Malbec.
Under the guidance of our Director of Winemakeing Mike Sinor, your personal blend will be bottled, custom labeled, and finished with a wax dip. The festive blending session concludes with a gourmet lunch hosted by Sunset’s Wine Editor Sara Schneider in the heart of Margarita Vineyard against the backdrop of the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains.
Also, our affiliated Margarita Adventures zipline canopy tours will take over the Adventure Stage at the main event on Saturday from 1:45 p.m. to 2:15 p.m. and Sunday from 2:45 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. During these free sessions, Margarita Adventures will showcase its entire tour experience spanning ziplines, history, nature and wildlife. We won’t spill all of the beans yet, but be on the lookout for decked-out guides, four-legged friends and much more.
We look forward to seeing you at Savor the Central Coast!
We like to say that our wine club members are part of our family, which may explain why you never know what we will spring on them…
Our latest out-of-the-box wine club adventure was “Gone Fishing” with winery co-proprietor Karl Wittstrom, who invited wine club members out for a morning of fishing along the 13-acre reservoir at our estate Margarita Vineyard . Along the way, Karl (the photobomber above in white, behind guests the Mylan family) instructed the group on how to catch and release the reservoir’s largemouth bass.
A total of 18 club members came out, and all of them caught fish. Club member Ron George, pictured below, kindly called it “heaven on earth.” Another member, Gary Smuts, said that they had a “fintastic” time.
The fun didn’t end there. “We had snacks and water on-site, but once the club members had their fill of fish they headed back to the tasting room to quench their thirst in the tasting room,” says Erin du Fresne, our wine club manager. “What better way to spend a Sunday on the Central Coast?”
If you’re a club member, stay tuned for our next adventure. If you’re not a member yet, click here to check out the many benefits that await (including the occasional fishing expedition).
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.
Last week, we wrote about the good tidings of our 2012 Merlot, which is our finest vintage to date.
We've been bullish on Merlot since day one, even when the varietal was in the proverbial doghouse after its Sideways-inspired backlash.
Well, as Director of Winemaking Mike Sinor confirms in the following video, Merlot is back, baby!