Monday, May 2, 2011


Ancient Peaks Winery

A trip to Paso Robles, California promised a high level of exposure to people who live and breathe wine.  Before my destination arrived, I took the Santa Margarita exit from US Highway 101 and found myself immersed inAncient Peaks Winery.

The Vineyard Tour

It wasn't just a tasting room visit, either.  I hopped up into Karl Wittstrom's huge pickup truck and headed for the vineyard, stopping just up the road for a bag of sandwiches to bring along.  That's how they do the tour at Ancient Peaks.  They get you out of the cozy tasting room and take you where the wine business really happens.

Ancient Peaks is owned as a partnership by three winegrowing families.  Karl Wittstrom is one third of that partnership.  A towering rancher who knows the vineyards like he knows low gear in that pickup, Wittstrom is a fountain of knowledge about the grapes, the vines, the dirt, the rocks, the mountains, the flora and fauna, the bugs - he knows about everything you can see from any point in his vineyard, and that's a lot.  I didn't ask, but I'm sure he could identify every grain of dirt on his dusty floorboard mats.

Karl WittstromThe thing is, you don't have to ask.  Karl Wittstrom has all this information ready to spill forth anytime someone looks interested, which I suppose I did.

His urge to share is so great and his energy so boundless he's the natural choice to guide the tour.  At one point he stopped the truck and had me get out to look at a compost station.  He turned the mulch with a shovel and stuck his hand in to grab some, so I could see the worms.  With boyish enthusiasm he motioned with his head back to the pickup, where my wife was chatting with our companion on the tour.  With a complete lack of irony, he asked, "D'ya think she wants to see the worms?"  I offered that she could probably skip this lesson, and he continued undaunted, poking the compost with the shovel and explaining how the worms figure into the winegrowing process.

I knew before the tour that there was a lot I didn't know about growing grapes.  During the tour, it became increasingly apparent just how much I didn't know.

The People of Ancient Peaks

Wittstrom owns his own family vineyard as well as the partnership vineyards with Ancient Peaks.  Doug Filliponi - a longtime local winegrower - oversees all vineyard operations for the winery and Rob Rossi - Ancient Peaks' planning and development guy - is connected in the business side of things.

Mike Sinor - Director of Winemaking - has15 years Central Coast winemaking experience.  2006 was his first full vintage at Ancient Peaks.  Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins is the winery's VP of sales and marketing.  She's a fifth-generation Paso Robles native.

Growing Grapes

All fruit used by Ancient Peaks comes from their sustainable estate vineyards - SIP certified (Sustainability In Practice) - which allows them to "express the personality of the vineyard."
The different varieties of grapes are allowed to ripen at their own pace.

Vineyard pests are controlled naturally, with a program utilizing boxes as habitats for bats, bluebirds, owls and other predatory birds.  No oak trees were removed during the planting of Margarita Vineyard, and wetlands requirements were exceeded.

Margarita Vineyard - sustainably farmed - is the southernmost vineyard in the Paso Robles appellation.  It's surrounded by the Santa Lucia mountain range which are the ancient peaks from which the name was taken.  It is the only vineyard in the area, and its location in the Santa Margarita Ranch is where grapes were first planted by Franciscan missionaries in 1780.

Oyster shell fossils at Margarita VineyardThe vineyard features five distinct soil types: ancient sea bed, sedimentary, shale, volcanic and granitic.  The folks at Ancient Peaks feel these different soil types bring added dimension and complexity to their wines.  Wittstrom delighted in showing off the ancient oyster shells which are imbedded in outcroppings and even scattered about the hillsides of the vineyard.

Wittstrom concluded the tour by taking us through the rest of the historic Santa Margarita Ranch property dotted with old barns, old things in storage and even an old train built by Walt Disney in 1955.  There's history everywhere you look.  The train still functions, and they crank it up now and then for special events.

The Wines

Back in the cozy confines of the Ancient Peaks tasting room, we were poured through the wine list.  The Ancient Peaks wines are exceptional, each one of them.  Most of their wines are in the $14 to $17 price range, with the exception of the Malbec and the Petit Verdot, which sell for $35.

Interior of old barn at Santa Margarita RanchSauvignon Blanc 2010 - Grapes from the cool-climate Margarita Vineyard are augmented by a bit of fruit from San Juan Vineyard, in the eastern portion of the Paso Robles AVA.  Grass and minerals dominate the expressive nose and the steel-fermented wine is crisp and refreshing with a very nice acidity.

Rosé 2010 - Great floral and cherry notes highlight this stainless steel pink made of Pinot Noir from Margarita Vineyard.

Blanco 2010 - Ancient Peaks shows off three of Margarita Vineyard's five soil types in this one.
The Pinot Gris comes from ancient sea bed, the Chardonnay from granitic soil and the Sauvignon Blanc from a sedimentary block.  The PG comes on stronger than the Chardonnay, and there's a nice touch of Sauvignon Blanc; minerals galore.

Zinfandel 2008 - Lavendar notes on the nose and a hint of chocolate on the palate make for a delicious experience.  The Zin is joined by a splash of Syrah.

Merlot 2009 - This is the variety upon which the brand was founded.  Superb minerals play off a cherry/blackberry theme.  A bit of help from the Cabs, Sauvignon and Franc.

Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 - Very smooth, and very complex, this Cab has 8% Petit Verdot and 8% Malbec.  Cassis and graphite come forward.

Malbec 2008 - One of my favorites here, this wine features a fantastic nose showing traces of violets and chocolate.  8% Syrah.

Petit Verdot 2008 - This 100% varietal wine utilizes grapes from Margarita Vineyard and the warmer climate Wittstrom Vineyard northwest of Paso Robles.  It's dark and complicated, with cassis aromas paving the way for a smooth and juicy palate.

Petite Sirah 2008 - The 85% Petite Sirah comes from Karl's personal Wittstrom Vineyard, while 15% is Margarita Vineyard Syrah.  A brambly bouquet leads to a dark palate with firm tannins and a caramel finish.  This wine carries a 15.7% alcohol number.

Oyster Ridge 2007 - Much of the fruit for this beauty comes from the section of Margarita Vineyard known as Oyster Ridge, the ancient sea bed.  Cabernet Sauvignon takes its cues from Petite Sirah, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  The nose is big, fruity and floral while the palate shows plenty of minerals.  One taste brings the sight of all those oyster fossils into clear focus.

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