Ancient Peaks is one of the featured wineries in the Paso Robles Wine Alliance Tastings coming up at K&L SF and RWC this week on Thursday 7/14 and Friday 7/15 respectively.
Ancient Peaks is a small family-owned estate winery that produces wine from a single site, the Margarita Vineyard, which was first planted to vines by the Franciscan missionaries in 1774. Situated in the Santa Lucia Mountain Range near the San Luis Obispo border, 14 miles from the ocean, the Margarita Vineyard is the most southerly site within the Paso Robles appellation, where it enjoys a cooler climate and longer growing season than its neighbors to the north. The climate factor, combined with the unique and varying soil types of the Margarita Vineyard, result in the ability of Ancient Peaks to stand out in Paso as producers of terroir-drive wines wines with great balance and finesse.
In this interview below, Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins of the Ancient Peaks family shares with us a little Ancient Peaks, as well as details regarding the unique terroir of the Margarita Vineyard and wine pairing advice. Read on:
Q&A with Amada Wittstrom-Higgins of Ancient Peaks
How did Ancient Peaks get started? What is your role?
The winery is owned by three families-the Filipponis, Rossis, and Wittstroms. We are longtime friends, and we had owned Santa Margarita Ranch and Margarita Vineyard for more than five years prior to launching Ancient Peaks. We initially sold all of the fruit from Margarita Vineyard, and we could taste what other winemakers were accomplishing with it. It was pretty obvious that this was a special vineyard, and that is what inspired us to become vintners as well as winegrowers. We knew that we could cherry-pick our favorite blocks, take the fruit from ground to glass, and make some really distinctive wines with a strong sense of place.
My main role is to manage the national distribution and direct sales of Ancient Peaks wines. I also oversee our marketing initiatives, which include advertising, media relations and special events, as well as the Ancient Peaks tasting room. We're a fairly small family winery, so we all wear a lot of hats.
Describe the Ancient Peaks winemaking philosophy.
For us, it comes down to three core winemaking values: ensuring that the unique character of the vineyard is vividly expressed in the wine; preserving and honoring true varietal character in each wine; and achieving natural quality without a reliance on heavy-handed winemaking techniques.
Each of these values goes hand in hand. Because we grow our own fruit, we are able to control all facets of the winegrowing process, and that includes being dedicated to sustainable farming practices. Margarita Vineyard is also quite diverse, with five different soil zones and numerous microclimates. This enables us to mix and match different blocks to build natural dimension and complexity into the wine. Also, our winemaker, Mike Sinor, takes great care to nurture the vineyard's pure fruit character throughout the winemaking process. All of these things help us capture that strong sense of place and varietal character in the wines.
Where is the Margarita Vineyard situated and what makes the terroir unique?
Margarita Vineyard is tucked into the Santa Lucia Mountain Range outside the town of Santa Margarita, approximately 22 miles south of the City of Paso Robles and just 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
When you come out to the vineyard, you immediately see why we chose the name Ancient Peaks for our winery. The mountain range towers over the vines along the western flank of the ranch. These mountains were created by the collision of the coastal plates, which also blessed us with a rare diversity of soils. There are five distinct soil zones at Margarita Vineyard-ancient sea bed, sedimentary, shale, volcanic and granitic. Each soil type brings its own nuance to the resulting wines. The most dramatic soil is found in a block that we call Oyster Ridge, where large white oyster fossils are literally spilling out of the ground.
Climate is another major factor that shapes our wines. The vineyard sits atop the Cuesta Grade, which is the natural border between the cooler conditions in San Luis Obispo to the south and the heart of Paso Robles to the north. We're right on the fogline.
What are some of the challenges of producing wine in Paso Robles? Are there any special practices you employ at Ancient Peaks to overcome them?
If you travel around the entire Paso Robles AVA, you will discover a range of growing conditions. Margarita Vineyard occupies one of the coolest growing environments in the AVA. So our primary challenge is ensuring that our fruit gets sufficiently ripe-which is something you rarely hear in Paso Robles!
With later-ripening varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, we sometimes find ourselves on what we call "the edge of ripeness." That's actually right where we like to be, because it typically yields fruit with fine balance and varietal character.
During later harvests, however, it can be a bit stressful, especially if bad weather is looming. For this reason, in cooler years, we often take proactive measures, such as reducing crop loads and manipulating the vine canopies, all in an effort to make sure that the fruit that's left has the best chance to get sufficiently ripe. We are very meticulous in the vineyard, but sometimes we just have to go with our gut when it comes to deciding when to pick.
What's your position on wine-pairing and what do you like to pair Ancient Peaks wines with?
I think it's more about "guidelines" than "rules." Yes, there are some tried-and-true combinations with certain dishes and specific varietals. But that shouldn't stop you from being adventurous and creative, either. We make a few blends that are non-traditional in composition. They break the rules. So there can't be any rules when it comes to pairing them with food, either.
I'm probably most partial to pairing our wines with a variety of beef dishes, since we are cattle ranchers as well as winemakers. A couple of favorites are Ancient Peaks Cabernet Sauvignon with herb-rubbed filet mignon, and Ancient Peaks Zinfandel with classic Santa Maria-style tri-tip.
What advice do you have to offer people interested in learning more about Ancient Peaks and the wines of Paso Robles?
Come on down! The best way to learn more about Paso Robles is to hit the road and visit the wineries, and taste why our wines are getting so much recognition. You'll also discover that Paso Robles can't be easily generalized or categorized. The terrain is diverse, and the local winemaking community is creative and unafraid to take chances. Most of our wineries are family owned, too. It may sound like a cliché, but it's also true, and it's a big part of the welcoming culture of our wine country.
Our tasting room is in Santa Margarita, a small historic town between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, right off Highway 101. Here, you can taste all of our current releases, including our limited-edition White Label bottlings. We also offer vineyard and ranch tours by appointment on the first and third Saturdays of the month-there's no better way to learn about our wines than to experience Margarita Vineyard and see the soils that make it so special.
TASTE AND SHOP ANCIENT PEAKS WINES THIS WEEK AT K&L!
When: 5pm-6:30pm Thursday 7/14 in San Francisco and Friday 7/15 in Redwood City
Where: K&L SF and K&L RWC
Buy Ancient Peaks Wines now on KLWines.com