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Three families, one wine

Take a new peek at Ancient Peaks

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GROUP EFFORT :  A large group of people (left to right) Doug Filipponi, Jeff Filipponi, Mike Sinor, Rob Rossi, Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, Steve Rossi, and Karl Wittstrom banded together to create Ancient Peaks. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BELLA CASTLE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF BELLA CASTLE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • GROUP EFFORT : A large group of people (left to right) Doug Filipponi, Jeff Filipponi, Mike Sinor, Rob Rossi, Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, Steve Rossi, and Karl Wittstrom banded together to create Ancient Peaks.

# When I heard about yet another new Central Coast brand appearing in local markets named Ancient Peaks it seemed a wannabe trying to cash in on the success of SLO County wineries. I chuckled, thinking at least it's a name people can pronounce and remember. I became impressed, however, when I learned it was owned by three local families with a solid history of grape growing in the Paso Robles wine region. Not only that, they wisely hired Mike Sinor, one of the most talented winemakers on the Central Coast.

Sinor became well-known by consumers when he was winemaker at Domaine Alfred in Edna Valley. He was hired in 2000 by owner Alfred "Terry" Spiezer to help create their amazing new brand of ultra-premium quality Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. By 2006, they earned a coveted 96-point score from Wine Spectator magazine for their flagship "Califa" 2004 Pinot Noir. Sinor's phone was ringing off the hook with both longtime vintners and newcomers hoping to build a winery calling to offer him a job.

"When word started getting around I was available, people asked, 'What can I do to get a 96 score?'" said Sinor, who left to concentrate on his own wines, named Sinor-LaVallee. "Lots of deals were offered, but not the business goals I was interested in being around."

It's a competitive world in the current wine marketplace, despite the friendly attitude of most Central Coast winemakers. Even local family-owned wineries offer more than one label: Baileyana owns tangent, and Talley Vineyards owns Bishop's Peak. Still, the industry keeps attracting both the young and the older dreamers who believe they've got what it takes to create the hottest new brand. It's certainly easier now that anyone with hope and enough cash can rent space at cooperative winemaking facilities in Paso Robles, San Miguel, Templeton, and Santa Maria.

But I'm afraid that the old cliche "If you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, you have to start with a big fortune" was never as true as it is today. I believe Sinor would agree that passion alone isn't enough to produce noteworthy wine in California. The right opportunity arose when he was invited to join Ancient Peaks, which presented exactly the goals he had in mind.

PURE PASSION :  Mike Sinor, winemaker for Ancient Peaks, kept his eyes open for a job that would fulfill his love of growing wine. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BELLA CASTLE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF BELLA CASTLE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • PURE PASSION : Mike Sinor, winemaker for Ancient Peaks, kept his eyes open for a job that would fulfill his love of growing wine.

# Ancient Peaks is owned by the Filipponi, Rossi, and Wittstrom families, with two generations of each enthusiastically working together. Each family contributes to the brand from well-established vineyards in Paso Robles that have sold premium quality grapes to local wineries for years. The Filipponis own Filipponi & Thompson, the Wittstroms have their eponymous vineyard, and both families co-own San Juan Vineyard. The Rossis' own Margarita Vineyard was leased and planted by Robert Mondavi Winery in 1999. In 2005, the Rossis acquired the vineyard from the corporation that bought out Robert Mondavi Winery. That year, the three families joined forces to create Ancient Peaks.

The winery name was chosen in tribute to the geological history of SLO County. Their goal was to create noteworthy wines from their combined vineyards that expressed the classic characters and qualities of Paso Robles' finest wines. The four vineyards provide grapes grown in the cool and warm climate areas of Paso, allowing Sinor to create complex blends layered in flavors.

Ancient Peaks co-owners Karl Wittstrom and his daughter Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins invited me to tour the beautiful Santa Mar-garita Ranch, owned by entrepreneur Rob Rossi. Margarita Vineyard covers 866 acres of the historic ranch. The Wittstroms reported that they plan to revitalize the original vineyard at the Asistencia (a mission without a resident priest) founded in 1787 by Father Junipero Serra.

"We're trying to preserve the beauty of the property," Wittstrom-Higgins noted. "No trees were pulled out when we planted grapevines."

Even when owners are willing to invest what it takes, no winery gets the big scores without the right winemaker. It takes a zealot with the right experience to cultivate world-class winegrapes and an uncompromising artist who continually strives to make his best wine yet. These owners lucked out in getting Sinor, the veteran who's still earning acclaim from wine critics.

Sinor started in the wine industry in 1992, pretty early in his life at 20 years old but his unbridled passion for wine, both in growing and producing distinctive, classic varietals, drove him rapidly upward. By 1994, he earned the respect of his peers while working at Byron Vineyards in Santa Maria and then moved to Domaine Alfred. When he left in 2006, it was no surprise that many vintners hoped to hire him.

But they found out this was no average Joe looking for the biggest paycheck. Sinor only accepted opportunities that sated his consuming passion for wine growing and making. After leaving Domaine Alfred, he expanded production of his fabulous line of Pinot Noirs and Pinot Gris under his own label, Sinor-LaVallee. But, like most artists, he doesn't own vineyards nor does he have the deep pockets to plant them.

Sinor accepted the position of winemaker and general manager for Ancient Peaks because the project also fulfills his love for wine growing. He pointed out: "I came to this project for the same reason I went to Domaine Alfred: the untapped potential of Margarita Vineyard."

The first wines they've released under the Ancient Peaks brand are focused on value. Sinor will be a partner on another line of wines that are strictly ultra-premium, but they're keeping the lid on that project for now. Sinor's sense of contentment told me that something great is in the works.

"You can't just flick a switch and make great wine. You have to have special ground, and it has to be managed right," Sinor said pointedly. "It's about long-term dedication to the land."

During a tasting of their lineup of four value-priced 2005 reds, I found them all nicely balanced and drinking quite well. I expected nothing less. The Zinfandel and Syrah are 100 percent varietal, while the Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with four percent Malbec and two percent Petit Verdot.

The surprise for me, I'll admit, was the Merlot. Offering lush aromas and flavors of ripe cherry, blackberry, and currant without being overly ripe it ended on a fragrant spicy note. Sinor added four percent Malbec to enhance the velvety texture. Only $12 retail, it's the best Merlot I've tasted under $35 in a long time.

No doubt I'll be watching this group for something awesome in the near future, but in the interim you can enjoy their solid lineup of varietals at affordable prices.

You can reach New Times' Cuisine columnist at Kathy@GrapevineRadio.net.

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