Nestled away in the southernmost part of the Paso Robles AVA, just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean, is Ancient Peaks Winery. The family-owned vineyard, which was was once part of California's famed Mission Trail, is a SIP-certified, sustainable winery. However, the old mission still remains at the heart of the historic property called Santa Margarita Ranch.
Like much of the California's Central Coast, the area was first settled by Chumash and Salinan Indians more than 10,000 years ago. But it was during the 1770s when the site was selected by Father Junípero Serra to become part of the saint's famed Mission Trail. By 1787, Santa Margarita de Cortona had been built and was a sub-mission to Mission San Luis Obispo. In fact, it was during this period that grapes were first grown at the location.
Growing Grapes, Missionary Style
Doug Filipponi explains that "Eventually they built about 40 adobes here and this building that is known as the Asistencia de Santa Margarita de Cortona, which was named after the patron Saint Margaret from Cortona, Italy, and known to be one of the first stone and mortar buildings in California."
The site's historic structure, known as the Asistencia, still remains today.
The property has changed hands many times since, but today it is owned by three local families with a history of ranching and winemaking in the Paso Robles area: the Filipponis, Rossis and Wittstroms.
The ranch's main vineyard, aptly named Margarita Vineyard, sits atop the region's Cuesta Grade and acts as a gateway between the ocean-cooled air of the south and the warmer inland climes. As northern Paso heats up during the day, it creates a vacuum pulling marine breezes and fog over and through the vineyard. This behavior provides the property's other plantings, Moore Ridge and Oyster Ridge, with very distinct microclimates.
The vineyard is also peppered with many different soils types. Oyster Ridge has one of the more interesting profiles. It is named after the gazillion petrified oyster shells which can be found in the property's soil. An uplifted sea bed, the fossil structure is the result of two tectonic plates moving against each other about 10 million years ago. Other elements that can be found on site are flaky shale, volcanic deposits and granite.
"These oysters are 93% calcium so there's a big calcium injection into our soil profile," explains Doug. The high calcium content from the shells provides high-toned flavors and strong aromatics, something quite prevalent in their 2008 Oyster Ridge. The wine, costing $50, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Petite Sirah (20%), Petit Verdot (20%) and Malbec (10%). Each varietal was aged separately for 24 months in French oak, leaving long vanilla notes on the nose. But tasting this wine, it is like tasting midnight. Unfiltered, the wine is swirling with black fruit, eucalyptus and tobacco and has a long, fruit finish.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Syrah are just a few of the varieties grown throughout the vineyard. In fact, they recently planted a small vineyard at the same location as the original Mission vineyard, planted back in 1780.
Ancient Peaks Winery is SIP certified like some of its neighboring wineries, such as Halter Ranch, Robert Hall and Peachy Canyon. The sustainable certification, which began back in 2008, is managed by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, a nonprofit grower group. You can see the full list of qualifying wineries here.
Doug says that was the plan from the start, "Well, we've been members of the Central Coast Vineyard Team prior to buying [Santa Margarita Ranch]. Our other vineyards, we incorporated the same methods of cover crops, etc. And so we were committed to the sustainability model prior to buying this ranch. As members of Central Coast Vineyard Team we've had that commitment already. And using less harsher chemicals, those sort of things have already been in our model prior, and, we've actually enhanced it as we've gone along."
It's also worth noting that not a single oak tree was removed during the planting of Margarita Vineyard. In fact, it's not uncommon to find a tree smack-dab in the center of a plot.
Santa Margarita Ranch is one of California's oldest and continuously operated commercial cattle ranches. The beef cattle, which were introduced back in 1774, belong to Harris Ranch's Natural Beef Program and Partnership for Quality. The cattle are never given antibiotics or growth hormones. Rational grazing is also emphasized with big focus on conservation. As a result, the ranch's natives grasses, such as Creeping Wild Rye, Slender Wheatgrass, Purple Needlegrass and Danthonia Oatgrass, are reestablishing themselves. Even the number of young native oak trees has begun increasing.
While dry farming (which I explain in more detail in our Frog's Leap feature) isn't a standard at Ancient Peaks, they do it some years. The ranch is blessed with over 30 inches of rain a year. As California agriculture becomes even more plagued with water issues, I suspect Ancient Peaks' stance will change.
The winery doesn't have a tasting room at the vineyard, they have a quaint one in downtown Santa Margarita. Their wines are also available online. Most are under $20 but, if you can afford it, I suggest you try their white label wines. Two of my favorite varieties can be found under this brand: Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Both are usually blending grapes but have become more popular as single varietals in recent years. That said, finding Petit Verdot on its own is quite rare.
I walked away from this interview with a lot of Petit Verdot. And when you visit, I suspect you will too. Just remember, you read about 'em here. Cheers!
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