Did you ever drink an authentic California “ranch” wine?
Ancient Peaks Winery in Paso Robles is firmly placed on my bucket list.
It’s located on the historic Santa Margarita Ranch which is still operated as a cattle ranch.
The estate vineyard, Margarita Vineyard, stretches out over 857 acres at 1,100 feet above sea level. It’s set against a majestic backdrop of the 140-mile long Santa Lucia Mountain Range. The Pacific Ocean is 14 miles away.
Blue sky, hot sun, ocean breezes, gorgeous landscape and plentiful wildlife.
“It’s John Wayne country,” says Karl Wittstrom, one of three longtime local wine-growing and ranching families that bought Margarita Ranch in 2001 and launched Ancient Peaks Winery in 2005. The other key “pardners” are Rob Rossi and Doug Filipponi.
What a place for a vineyard.
Robert Mondavi planted the original Margarita Vineyard in 1999. He saw potential in the rugged terrain, ocean-influenced climate, and five diverse soil types (ancient sea bed, rocky alluvium, shale, volcanic, granitic) that could provide distinctive character to select grape varietals.
Two years later, however, Mondavi’s business plans changed, leading the famed winemaker to sell the property to its present owners. In 2005, the Wittstrom-Rossi-Filipponi families established Ancient Peaks under the direction of Central Coast veteran winemaker and consultant Mike Sinor.
Today, Sinor still lends support to the operation although his former assistant, Stewart Cameron, is now Ancient Peaks’ chief winemaker – a lead role he assumed in 2013.
The winery’s strength rests in its diverse terroir, strategic vineyard plantings and committed sustainable land management.
Fourteen grape varietals are grown on the estate in 55 individual blocks noted for a specific soil type. Wines are crafted to pick up on the land’s natural characteristics and sense of place.
Ancient Peaks offers two quality wine tiers: estate and the Pearl Collection.
The former includes five 100% varietals – Sauvignon Blanc ($18), Chardonnay ($20), Merlot ($22), Cabernet Sauvignon ($25), Zinfandel ($22) – and a Syrah-driven Bordeaux blend Renegade ($26).
The Pearl collection is a limited-production premium line made from hand-selected grapes chosen from Margarita Ranch’s top vineyard blocks. Pearl Cabernet Sauvignon costs $72 a bottle. There’s also a Petit Sirah ($50), Cabernet Franc ($50), Petit Verdot ($50), Pinot Noir ($32) and Chardonnay ($30) A sparkling rose` sells for $45 a bottle.
Oyster Ridge ($60), a Bordeaux-style blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, rounds out the wine program. Grapes are sourced from a vineyard that sits on an ancient seabed of sandy loam, gravel and fossilized sea shells.
Here are two Ancient Peaks whites that I tasted and highly recommend for enjoyment.
Ancient Peaks Sauvignon Blanc 2019, Paso Robles, SRP $18, abv. 13.5% – Crisp, clear and full of mouthwatering energy, this white wine is made for enjoying a day at the beach or with platters of seafood appetizers. My pick is oysters, both ice-cold raw and baked Rockerfeller styles.
Right from the start, Ancient Peaks Sauvignon Blanc gives off aromas of ripe, fragrant fruit. I sensed a tropical vibe of grapefruit, lemon trees and sea grass. And jasmine. Where’d that come from? Does it really matter? Smell and you shall receive.
The intoxicating scents carry over to the palate. Flavors of pink grapefruit, nectarine and citrus zest come alive, joined by a speck of ginger. The finish is dry, extended and stimulating. You know the next sip is going to be just as good as the last.
The Sauvignon Blanc is estate grown in a mixture of stony soils and other organic materials. Winemaker Stewart Cameron says the lean soil structure makes the vines work hard to survive, leading to small clusters of fruit with intense traits. Fermentation and aging (five months) take place in stainless steel tanks.
Ancient Peaks Chardonnay 2021, Paso Robles, SRP $19, abv. 13.5% – Margarita Ranch has the distinction of being the closet, southernmost vineyard to the Pacific Ocean in Paso Robles. It sits in a cool climate zone where ocean breezes moderate warm temperatures.
Fruit develops to its full potential under the sunny conditions. Ancient Peaks Chardonnay is a classic for its balance – fresh, lovely fruit tastes, a subtle creamy texture and precise acidity stamp this wine for a companion at both the party table or for patio sipping.
I really enjoyed the way this Chardonnay stimulated the senses, first with tropical aromatics and later with a mouth-filling richness of citrus and lemon meringue pie flavors. As noted, the texture was soft and refined. The finish is round and mellow with a trace of saline minerality.
It’s noteworthy that Chardonnay grapes are grown in a specific northeast block of the vineyard on granitic soils.
Winemaker Cameron takes a deft approach in preserving the fruit. He ferments 87 percent of the pressed juice in stainless steel tanks. The remaining 13 percent ages in barrels on the lees and receives regular stirring. The oak-aged segment also undergoes secondary malolactic fermentation. The process produces a soft-textured wine with authentic fruit flavors.
The 2021 Ancient Peaks Chardonnay is limited to 6,000 cases and it’s well worth trying to secure a few bottles from the winery before the vintage is sold out (www.ancientpeaks.com).