Ancient Peaks Winery is the story of three families with one vision — to be proud stewards of a land steeped in Mission-era history and Wild West mythology. Doug Filipponi, Rob Rossie and Karl Wittstrom, a trio of local winegrowers and ranchers, and their families are the proprietors of the 14,000-acre Santa Margarita Ranch, one of California’s oldest continuously-operated ranches located in the hamlet of Santa Margarita. Here the partners founded the Ancient Peaks Winery in 2005 with wines produced from the coveted Margarita Vineyard. The only vineyard in the Santa Margarita Ranch AVA (American Viticultural Area) is cradled along the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountains, just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Recently remodeled, the Ancient Peaks tasting room on El Camino Real is furnished in an eye-catching contemporary farmhouse style. However, the Santa Margarita Ranch’s illustrious pedigree harks back to the Chumash and Salinas Indians more than 10,000 years ago.
Visiting the ranch is like stepping back in time. Several years ago I first experienced the sprawling ranch in a Jeep tour with Wittstrom, gathering large white oyster fossil shells scattered in the hundreds on the ranch — a testament to the area’s origin as an uplifted seabed, our host explained.
From luscious rich reds to crisp, fresh whites, the Santa Margarita AVA produces distinctive wines. The region’s pronounced marine influence allows the grapes to enjoy a long growing season. Add to that five types of soils — ranging from volcanic and granite to rocky alluvial, shale and ancient seabed, formed as result of tectonic friction in the surrounding Santa Lucia mountain peaks — and you get a richly complex portfolio of some 18 different types of wines produced at Ancient Peaks each year.
“Only six wines are available through distribution channels and the rest at the tasting room or through wine club,” said Mike Sinor, when I recently met with the director of winemaking at the tasting room. We were joined by Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, fourth-generation vintner and vice president of operations. We started with some deliciously crisp white wines, savoring an aromatic 2016 Blanco, a blend of chardonnay and muscat Blanco.
“Good for a concert in the park or on the porch,” Higgins said.
The 2017 chardonnay, fragrant with tropical fruit, was a standout for its affordable price point at $19.
“It’s a competitive category,” Higgins offered. “I was looking for a food-friendly profile for chardonnay under $16 per bottle, with not too much oak or acid.”
Higgins gathered more than 200 chardonnays for her research and the winemaking team came up with the versatile chardonnay.
During the tasting line up, Sinor recalls an interesting period of the vineyard’s history. The late Robert Mondavi, known as the Godfather of Napa Valley, took a lease on 1,000 acres of Santa Margarita Ranch in 1999 from the trio of partners. “When Mondavi saw the location and weather, it was his vision that planted this vineyard,” Sinor said about the Margarita Vineyard. “He signed up for a 30-year lease.”
Mondavi’s initial planting in 1999, concluded in 2001, was of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties to blend with Napa Valley fruit to produce high-end wines. A few years later, though, the faltering Robert Mondavi Winery was sold to Constellation Brands. In 2005 the three families bought the lease back from Constellation.
It was a blessing in disguise. Now the three families got in the business of producing wine and as Ancient Peaks it became an estate winery, Sinor noted.
Ancient Peaks is known for its flagship Oyster Ridge, a lush cuvèe of cabernet sauvignon-driven Bordeaux style blend, and other distinctive reds. The 2016 merlot is loaded with dried cherries and layered with black fruits, the 2015 zinfandel rings with heady aromas of blackberries with traces of brisk minerality and the grainy tannins add depth and a long finish to the 2016 cabernet sauvignon. The 2014 petite Sirah is a mouthful of rich cherry cola while the inky, muscle-flexing 2016 Syrah-driven Renegade is seamlessly blended with Zinfandel, malbec, petit Verdot and petite Sirah.
Higgins is in charge of sales and marketing as well as human resources and special events. She has pioneered several projects at the winery — among them a three-month internship program at Ancient Peaks Winery and Dream Big Darling, a nonprofit agency offering full scholarships to women in the wine industry. This year Higgins launched Wine Speak Paso Robles in Atascadero, a four-day immersive experience filled with seminars, workshops and tastings. The 2019 event is scheduled from Jan. 7-10 and promises to foster camaraderie and collaboration between wine aficionados and industry professionals.