Ancient Peaks Merlot is a wine you can believe in—because we have believed in it since day one, dating back to our inaugural 2005 vintage!
Indeed, we made a commitment to Merlot right from the start because we knew it excelled at Margarita Vineyard.
At that time, however, Merlot’s popularity had taken a nosedive for two reasons: (1) a glut of questionable Merlots had flooded the market and (2) the Oscar-nominated wine movie Sideways had taken a high-profile swipe at Merlot (notably when the main character Miles shouted that “I’m not drinking any f****** Merlot!”), making it “uncool” in the eyes of many.
We caught up with winery co-owners Doug Filipponi (at left) and Karl Wittstrom (at right) to learn more about the backstory of Ancient Peaks Merlot—and why we have championed the comeback of this once-embattled Bordeaux variety:
DOUG: The Merlot made from Margarita Vineyard grapes is, and always has been, extraordinary. Having raised Merlot in other parts of the Paso Robles AVA, we were awestruck by the color and intensity in the Merlot from Margarita Vineyard. It has a wonderful velvety texture and cherry flavors with respectable tannins. It is one of my personal favorites when I go to a red.
KARL: Merlot’s decreasing popularity wasn’t just due to Sideways. California’s Merlot boom of the early 1990s had caused many vintners to plant Merlot in areas that weren’t ideal. These unfortunate plantings often resulted flabby, uninteresting wines, adding more justification for the Merlot haters. But we realized that Merlot seems to grow well in cooler climates, and does well in heavier, moisture-retaining soils like clay. Both of these characteristics are prevalent at Margarita Vineyard.
The challenge with Merlot is that it can be green and herbaceous if the climate isn’t warm enough, but it can quickly turn simple and boring if it’s too hot. Over those first few seasons, we started honing in on phenolic ripeness as a key to determining when the fruit was just right to harvest and we have been very happy with the results.
DOUG: There was concern at the time about the negatives associated with Merlot. At the top of the list were the colorless, flabby flavors that many associated with Merlot. However, we were convinced our Merlot would help lead the variety back to the greatness it had achieved in the past. We are still convinced, as we are one of the few growers who have added Merlot to our vineyard over the years.
KARL: Margarita Vineyard was originally planted by the Mondavi family in 2000 and they planted nearly 200 acres to Merlot. We took over the vineyard operations in 2005 and during the first two years we struggled with the perception of Merlot and all of the haters out here from the movie Sideways.
Then Doug and I took our wives on a walkabout in France. We spent a several days in the Bordeaux region and, in particular, Saint-Émilion—home to some of the most highly acclaimed wines in the world, most of which feature Merlot. This area is famous for producers like Château Pétrus, La Mondotte and Chateau Cheval Blanc. Unlike their American counterparts, the French don’t put the varietal on the label. These great producers are making some of the most sought-after and expensive wines in the world. So, with this in mind, we redoubled our commitment to making Merlot a priority. We laughingly say, “I have never heard anyone say don’t serve me any f****** Petrus!”
DOUG: Remember the wine that Miles revered and drank in the final scene of this very same movie that brought Merlot to its knees? It was Chateau Cheval Blanc, a blend of Merlot and Caberet Franc. Ironic right?