At Ancient Peaks, we like to say that “late is great.” It’s a nod to the fact that our estate occupies the coolest growing environment in the Paso Robles region.
Another favorite saying around here was coined by Founding Winemaker Mike Sinor, who says that “greatness is found at the edge of ripeness.” This means that we have to be patient for our fruit to fully ripen, and this is what drives the strong sense of place behind our wines.
Which brings us to the 2021 vintage. What are we expecting from this harvest? In some ways, more of the same, in the best way possible. But each growing season has its own unique quirks and demands. On that note, we caught up with Mike; Co-Owner & Viticulturist Doug Filipponi; and Winemaker Stewart Cameron to get the inside scoop on how it’s all taking shape to date. Here is our roundtable discussion:
How do you go about planning the upcoming grape harvest at Margarita Vineyard?
Doug: Mike, Stewart and I just did a thorough block-by-block review of the vineyard today along with vineyard manager Jaime Muniz. We analyzed everything—fruit loads, canopy conditions and ripeness levels. It gave us a great sense of what to expect, and how to anticipate our upcoming picks.
The consensus is that we’re going to have a lighter crop. The quality of the berries looks very good. I don’t have a problem with lower yields when quality is high—it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.
Mike: Our review was definitely exciting, we’ve got a really good vintage on our hands. To me, it feels like an “old-school vintage.” In the past five years, we’ve seen a lot of heat spikes and erratic weather. It’s been warm and steady this year, and not as drought severe as we’ve seen in recent years past. Yields are lower, but we’ll take what we can get. We have some newer vines and clones coming on line that are showing huge promise.
How about at the winery—how do you prepare the facility and yourselves?
Stewart: It’s pretty busy in the cellar right now. We’re finishing up some filtering and bottling. We’ve cleaned and checked all of our crush equipment. We are paving the way for the incoming fruit. Assistant Winemaker Patrick Doyle and Enologist Ellie Loustalot are a big help—they know the ropes and how to get ready. We know the long hours are coming. The trick is to accept them and lean into them. We signed up for this. You have to find joy in the process.
Mike: This is the time when we shine. Harvest time is great for people who really love winemaking like Stewart, Patrick (assistant winemaker), Ellie and myself. There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with it. It’s our time to shine and do our jobs.
How would you characterize the 2021 growing season up to this point?
Stewart: We had pretty mild weather in the second half of August. We’re one to two weeks behind what you would call our normal pace.
Doug: Yes, up to this point it’s been a little cooler than the average, at least for Margarita Vineyard. We will start picking Pinot Noir fruit for our roses—including Ancient Peaks and our new One Stone Rosé—around mid September. Our whites will follow, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. I’d say we’re at least a week behind the norm, but things can change suddenly. As mild as it has been, a couple of September heat waves could accelerate things pretty quickly.
Mike: I don’t think we’re behind normal from a 25-year perspective, but we’ve got a nice, cool year on our hands compared to a lot of recent vintages.
In addition to the presses and fermentation tanks, how do you prepare for aging wines in the barrel?
Stewart: After bottling, all of our barrels are thoroughly cleaned. Additionally, we have received hundreds of new French and American barrels that we ordered in the spring. We always inspect new barrels visually. If the wood and staves look tight, we’ll just warm them up with hot water to make sure. If they’re feeling a bit dry and loose, we’ll fill and soak them overnight. The water that is flushed from the barrels goes to our on-site wastewater plant and is repurposed as landscaping water.
What do you foresee in terms of the pace and duration of the 2021 harvest?
Doug: I think it’s going to be more elongated. I would be surprised if we were done by November 15. It’s typically the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot that come off the vine last.
Mike: It takes nerves of steel to wait for all of this acreage to ripen in a mild year like this.
So it sounds like we’ll be right back to that “edge of ripeness” moment this year?
Mike: Exactly. Fruit that rushes to ripeness tends to be softer and more pedestrian. Our challenge is the opposite—making sure it gets ripe enough. So when you’re always on the edge like that, you often see an intense wine, with great phenolic development and fine acidity. It’s all part of our unique location and where we grow our different varieties on the ranch.
Doug: Despite the low yields, we are dropping some crop to make sure the remaining fruit ripens sufficiently and that we get to the finish line. That tells you something. We are all in, as always.