Serendipity. It’s the word you could use to describe the divine forces at work that led to Columbus’ discovery of America. It’s also the word that could be used to explain how three families, the Filipponis, Rossis and Wittstroms, came to own a fertile piece of sprawling land, called Rancho Santa Margarita, that is the source of some of the most consistently great wine varieties, for the money, produced on California’s Central Coast.
Shrouded beneath the Santa Lucia Mountain peaks, 14 miles off the Pacific Ocean, lies nearly 800 acres of the Margarita Vineyard—home to ANCIENT PEAKS winery. The land is a rich amalgam of five distinct soil types which are littered with fossils, stones, volcanic deposits and other organic artifacts. Once upon a time, this land mass used to be the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the ancient influences on the vineyard make the wines that much more interesting and characterful. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc—15 varieties in total—are all grown here.
Santa Margarita Ranch is its own sub-appellation within the Paso Robles appellation. That’s because the terroir here is unlike the rest of the region. This area is the furthest south and the coolest part of Paso, and receives twice as much rainfall as well as a generous water runoff from the surrounding mountains. Planted in 1999, there was no way to know, at the time, what a bounty of riches the Margarita Vineyard would bring. Thanks to the quality of fruit, to this day the winery has subsisted through selling about 70% of its crop. The 30% or so the winery keeps—and they’re keeping more and more of it these days as wine production has doubled in the past three years—is allocated for the estate wines made under the Ancient Peaks label. This fortuitous ability to leverage allows the winery enormous flexibility to keep prices at a shockingly reasonable level. It’s just a very rare thing in America to find 100% estate Cab, Zin, Pinot or Chard for 15 to 18 bucks a pop. But, Ancient Peaks is able to do it, very successfully, and with zero sacrifice to wine quality. It’s a win-win all around—these prices are good for the winery and good for us, the consumer. That’s what you call serendipity.
Rumor has it that Joaquin Estrada, a migrant Mexican who owned this property from 1841 to 1861, lost his right to the land playing poker. The Murphy family, of San Jose, California, took over ownership and, by 1889, established the town of Santa Margarita. Jump forward to the year 2001, and the partners of Ancient Peaks acquired the 14,000 acres of property that accommodates the town (population just over 1,000 today), a cattle ranch, and the Margarita Vineyard. The winery was established in 2005. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, Rancho Santa Margarita still operates as a cattle ranch. Stepping into this town is like stepping back in time. The kind of social environment where everyone in town knows what’s going on with you, but everyone’s there for you. This tight-knit sense of community pervades throughout the operations of Ancient Peaks. The winery is, in every sense of the term, a truly family-run operation. In existence now for 10-plus years, the Ancient Peaks brand has gone through a refresh, including a new look to the wine label. The decision to update their branding came about simply because it was time. A desire arose from the owners for people to notice that “we’re here.”
Trekking through the vast open space of the Margarita vineyard, you’re captivated by a cacophony of chirping birds. You come across a woodpecker pecking on one of the signature Oak trees of the region. There’s geese, hawks, eagles, bears and wild hogs that live here too. You marvel that the earth beneath your shoes used to be 50 feet under ocean water—until geological forces caused the mountains to rise, which pushed the coastline back. Spend enough time here, and your feet will inevitably step on a calcified fossil, or you might stumble upon a large, beautifully layered piece of shale rock. Everyone involved in the making of wine at Ancient Peaks have truly come to know this unique land—the Ranch is their home—and through the intimate, meticulous managing of the vineyard, it is no surprise that the crafted wines reflect the uniqueness and special character of its place. This spectacular piece of land is something of a miracle . . . a product of serendipity. Ask the winery, and they’ll tell you: “The mountains gave this to us.”
Owners: Doug Filipponi, Rob Rossi, Karl Wittstrom
Winemaker: Mike Sinor
Location: Paso Robles, California
A few of our favorites:
CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2014
$18 | 90 pts
Give the people what they want: an 18-dollar Cab that tastes great, isn’t overpowering, isn’t intimidating, is smooth and easy to like, is great with food or by itself, and is made with high quality and integrity. You can check every one of those boxes here. Add on top of that, the extraordinary reality that the Ancient Peaks Cab is 100% estate fruit. Furthermore, there’s practically nothing missing—freshness, suppleness, pleasingly forward fruit (plum, blueberry, boysenberry), chocolatey goodness, solid structure and no flatness or flabbiness, and even complexity in its acid and mineral component along with an intriguing note of chalkiness in texture. It’s no wonder this Cabernet Sauvignon continues to be an explosively popular wine for the winery. For the money, it can’t be beat. search
$18 | 92 pts
What an achievement. A wine from a ruggedly American grape (which immigrated from Croatia) that is so fresh and vibrant and alive, while priced so reasonably, ought to be considered an American treasure—it’s one of the best under-$20 bottles you’ll find on the store shelves. The crowd-pleasing, delicious flavors and aromas of black and red cherry, blackberry jam, lavender and a touch of white pepper plus refreshing acidity, solid structure and effortless finesse are all in very nice balance and harmony. Like Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful,” expect this Zin to remain a graceful, timeless classic. search
$18 | 91 pts
It’s great to have a glass of the Ancient Peaks to remind us just why Merlot is so easy to like. First of all, good American Merlot should never be too expensive. Historically, in America, Merlot was meant for the working and middle class and, arguably, it was the wine that started the red wine craze in this country in the first place. Secondly, when it comes to pairing with a meal as Americana as hamburgers, hotdogs, ribs and tri-tip on the grill with baked beans, potato salad and corn-on-the-cob, not to mention fixins like bacon, BBQ sauce and slices of cheddar cheese, what better wine is there than good ole Merlot? What sets this Merlot apart is a level of complexity in its texture—credit the Margarita Vineyard soils for that—showing a level of class and elegance that’s truly unexpected. search
WHITE LABEL CHARDONNAY 2014
$36 | 91 pts
A Chardonnay with unabashed personality, like a loquacious dinner guest who is inexhaustibly charming, sunny, bright and entertaining and becomes the life of the party. There’s a honeysuckle sweetness that’s worthy of affection, in addition to appealing, generous notes of apricot and pineapple. The toastiness of new French oak finds just the right balance, and the granitic soils of the Chardonnay blocks of the Margarita Vineyard bring a note of stoniness amidst a texture that has just the right touch of creaminess. So much fun to be around.
$36 | 92 pts
A good Malbec ought to be exotic and tantalizing in a rather mysterious and unfamiliar way, and this is a rare California rendition of the wine varietal that succeeds in every desired measure. On the nose there’s new leather, new wood, exotic spices and tobacco leaf. This initial machismo, however, makes room for the fresh, lively and fruity aspect of the wine’s personality. Rich, ripe and juicy, especially in bold plum flavor and also an undercurrent of cola and red licorice, the wine maintains, however, a lean physique—the furthest thing from flabby. Great personality and has a great body . . . who’s gonna say no?
$24 | 93% Syrah, 4% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot | 91 pts
Remember the old Batman tv series from the 60s, whenever the caped crusader and his sidekick Robin would get into a fight with the enemy and you would see those callouts popping up on the screen?—Bam! Boom! Pow! That’s kind of what you get with this immense, intense and almost over-the-top red blend. What keeps the wine in check, as well as lending a level of sophistication, is the acid and mineral component, reflective of the vineyard’s varied terroir. With prominent blueberry notes on the nose that goes into deeper, darker notes of boysenberry and strong coffee on the palate, the Renegade is relentless in its boldness—and we all know everybody loves a badass. search
OYSTER RIDGE 2012
$50 | 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Petite Sirah, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec | 94 pts
You can call it a Bordeaux-style red blend with extra muscle, thanks to the 25% Petite Sirah in the mix. The prestige bottling in the Ancient Peaks lineup is a supple, aromatic, concentrated, intense and bold grandstander that showcases the layers of complexity embedded in the ancient seabed soil areas of the Margarita Vineyard as well as the committed craftsmanship of the winemaker. Vibrant and hitting it way up there on the drinkability factor—the plump quality of the wine’s body and the richness of dark fruit flavors is hard to resist—for sophistication and pure enjoyment, the Oyster Ridge is the top of the peak for Ancient Peaks. search
Great Wine: Force Majeure Syrah