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You will sometimes hear us throwing around the term “AVA,” particularly now that our estate Margarita Vineyard is part of the new Santa Margarita Ranch AVA.
So what is an AVA? It’s shorthand for “American Viticultural Area,” which is a term for a federally recognized and defined winegrowing area.
By default, an AVA can be mere political boundary such as “California” or “San Luis Obispo County.” But it is more frequently meant to describe a specific geographical area unified by climate, soil and other geographic factors that consistently influence the characteristics of wines grown in that area.
Let’s use the Paso Robles region as an example…
The Paso Robles AVA was established in 1983 to recognize the common characteristics of wines from this region.
Over the ensuing 30 years, the Paso Robles wine industry flourished, and in time certain areas within the Paso Robles AVA began to exhibit their own unique characteristics—much in the way that “Oakville” and “Stag’s Leap District” have become recognized pockets within the Napa Valley AVA.
So the next step was to establish “sub-AVAs” of Paso Robles, to further drill down into the diversity of our region. This was not some whimsical exercise—it was a very involved process born of demonstrable distinctions that were officially recognized by the federal government.
Thus, 11 sub-AVAs of Paso Robles were established last year (pictured above), and one of them is the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA. In fact, our estate Margarita Vineyard is the only vineyard in the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA, which truly sets out wines apart.
So now you know the story of why our wines going forward will include references to both “Paso Robles” and “Santa Margarita Ranch” on the label, to celebrate our unique sense of place.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and here is a perfect example—a photo taken the other day of coastal fog clutching the peaks of the Santa Lucia mountains in Santa Margarita on an otherwise sunny morning above the Cuesta Grade.
We often talk about the climate of our estate Margarita Vineyard here, because we are on the dividing line between the warmer inland environs to the north and the cooler coastal region south of the grade.
As such, our climate is a bit of a hybrid that is vividly captured in this photo—a borderland of sun and fog, situated in the mountains but only 14 miles from the beach.
Of course, this can’t help but have a significant impact on our fruit and ultimately the character of our wines.
Indeed, this consistent cooling effect creates a long growing season with later harvest dates. We are still able to fully ripen signature Paso Robles varieties such as Zinfandel, Cabernet and Merlot, but in a manner that maintains a signature structure and balance that are rooted in the climate. You can taste it, and sometimes you can even see it on a September morning like the one pictured here.
The big news around the Central Coast last week was the start of the California wine harvest, with Pinot Noir leading the charge at a handful of wineries.
However, here in Paso Robles, “soon” is the operative word—although at our estate Margarita Vineyard, you might say “later.”
That’s because we enjoy some of the latest picking dates across the region. In fact, some of our fruit is still undergoing veraison, the process whereby the berries turn color and transition from the growth phase to the ripening phase (see accompanying photo taken 10 days ago).
So while some of our earlier ripening varieties can expect to come off the vine starting in a few weeks, we’ll still be harvesting grapes well into October and possibly November depending on the autumn weather.
Such relative lateness is a hallmark of Margarita Vineyard, where a strong marine influence creates one of the region’s coolest growing environments. The result is an elongated growing season with longer hang times. When people taste our red wines, they typically notice the common threads of structure and balance—two qualities that are directly related to the longer, later growing season.
Consequently, we’ve learned not to be anxious about the start of harvest, because good things happen when the fruit hangs out.
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.