California Vineyard Sought Out By The ‘Royal’ Family Of U.S. Wine World

Flying through the air like an eagle, soaring high above the all-inspiring landscape. Below are beautiful waves of vineyard rows appointed with majestic oak and sycamore trees and the sound of horses adding to the sensory delight of such a unique experience. There, hanging from a zipline, “big Karl” flew through the air while wearing his favorite cowboy hat while letting out a sound of pure joy. Big Karl is one of three owners of what might be one of the wineries with the most ziplines, six in total, each giving a thrilling flying experience across his 14,000-acre ranch. Also, Karl and his partners own the only vineyard in the wine sub-region of Santa Margarita Ranch AVA in Paso Robles, California.

Big Karl
Photo Credit: Ancient Peaks

Karl Wittstrom, Rob Rossi and Doug Filipponi are all part of multi-generational ranching and winegrowing families. Over twenty years ago, Robert Mondavi, the legend who helped to make Napa Valley wines some of the most respected in the world, was interested in other potentially great vineyard areas of California. He was instantly taken when he came upon Santa Margarita Ranch with its drastic temperature swings and complex soil composition. He made an offer to Karl, Rob and Doug to buy 2,000 acres of their property. They were not willing to sell but they came to an arrangement that Mondavi could have a lease on the property for 36 years.

So Mondavi spent “tens of millions of dollars” planting the vineyard, which would become known as the Margarita Vineyard, that included lots of research into each plot and ensured everything was done to produce high-quality grapes. Robert’s son, Tim Mondavi, and Ken “Byron” Brown, one of Santa Barbara County’s pioneering winemakers, were in charge of establishing and overseeing the process of the various vineyard plots on the Santa Margarita Ranch. The beginning of this exciting partnership was in 1999. At the end of 2004, Robert Mondavi sold the Robert Mondavi Corp., including wineries and vineyards, to the enormous corporation, Constellation Brands. Since they were only interested in established wine brands without interest in developing a new vineyard, they made Karl, Rob and Doug buy the lease back. 

A New Dream Materialize 

Ancient Peaks estate at sunset
Photo Credit: Ancient Peaks

It was undoubtedly a blow to the dream of having the man himself discover a great potential in one’s land, invest in it and, perhaps, turn it into one of those legendary vineyards in the excellent winemaking state of California but that dream seemed to die overnight. Yet another dream materialized – they had a vineyard already planted by one of the greats, they just needed someone to make the wines for the 2005 vintage. Doug called winemaker Mike Sinor, someone he has had a long relationship with and was already making a name for himself in California’s Central Coast. 

How many people can say that they have a vineyard chosen by wine royalty and planted by the best of the best in California? Maybe those who have a billion-dollar fortune but certainly not multi-generational ranchers and grape growers. So Mike Sinor was a critical factor as he was already a well-respected winemaker on the Central Coast. At first, when co-owner Doug called him, Mike was already working with a premium boutique Central Coast winery as well as starting up side wine projects. So when Doug approached him about making their wines from their Margarita Vineyard as another one of his side gigs, he also put it out there that they would be interested in Mike becoming the founding winemaker of their new winery if he ever wanted to leave his current situation.

Karl Wittstrom, Mike Sinor and Doug Filipponi Photo Credit: Ancient Peaks

Tragically, in 2006, Mike lost his parents in a plane crash causing him to reassess his entire life. He decided to go down to Margarita Vineyard and tell Doug and the other co-owners that he would become the founding winemaker of their new winery, Ancient Peaks, but he had to be a true partner when it came to making decisions about the winery and vineyards as he not only wanted a state-of-the-art winery but there also needed to be more meticulous hands-on care of each section of the vineyard with it being broken up into several plots that were each micro-managed.

Following The Biggest Dreamer Of All

Harvested grapes underneath the open sky on the Ancient Peaks estate Photo Credit: Ancient Peaks

A pivotal moment early on in Mike’s winemaking career was when he was able to observe one of the last major projects of Robert Mondavi; Mike worked at Bryon Winery until 2000, and Robert Mondavi owned it during that time, so when Mondavi started his Margarita Vineyard project, Mike asked if he could go down there and help out in any way they needed just so he could learn; learn how one of the greats chooses a vineyard, plants it and gets the best fruit possible. Not only did Robert Mondavi end up selling his company at the end of 2004 but the great giant of the wine world passed away just four years later.

That experience left a deep impression on Mike that carried with him throughout his successful career. Even though he was doing great where he was before, he took that leap to come down to work with Margarita Vineyard, just like how Robert Mondavi took a leap to showcase Napa Valley wines worldwide, even at first when many just laughed at the notion of Napa wines.

When Mike goes out to the vineyards and picks up the ancient sea bed soil, just one of the five soil types, grabbing one of the heavy rocks with oyster fossils etched into it, he thinks of that time when he was just a young man thirsty for knowledge, who got to be a tiny part of a project headed by the ‘royal’ wine family of the US, and how he could never guess that he would be continuing one of the last dreams of the biggest dreamer of all.

Lineup of Ancient Peaks wines
Photo Credit: Ancient Peaks

***Link to original Forbes article:

Starting with the newly released 2020 vintage, Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge and Pearl Cabernet Sauvignon will be packaged in bottles weighing 42% less than those used in previous years. The lighter glass requires less energy to produce and less fuel consumption during transportation — lowering the overall carbon footprint of the wine. This is inline with their core values of protecting the environment that is evident by their sustainable practices that include natural pest and vegetation management, wildlife corridors, water conservation and solar energy. 

2021 Ancient Peak, Chardonnay, Santa Margarita Ranch, Paso Robles, California: 100% Chardonnay. Refreshing lemon zest on the nose with pretty notes of citrus blossom with juicy stone fruit on the palate and a hint of minerality.

2021 Ancient Peak, Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Margarita Ranch, Paso Robles, California: Majority Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of Petit Verdot, Malbec, Petite Sirah and Syrah. An inviting pretty nose with violets and blueberry scone notes with touches of gravel and plush tannins along the generous palate balanced by refreshing acidity.

2019 Ancient Peak ‘Oyster Ridge’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Margarita Ranch, Paso Robles, California: 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot, 6% Merlot and 2% Malbec. ‘Oyster Ridge’ represents best practices in the vineyard and winery as it is the top selection of the best barrels and is predominantly made up of Cabernet Sauvignon from ancient sea bed soils. Complex nose of black cherry, tobacco and hints of sea shell with layers of black fruit intermixed with cocoa nibs on the palate wrapped in silky tannins and a long expressive finish with lingering aromas of salted capers.

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