Central California Wine Country

The thought of traveling to wine country often conjures images of fancy French chateaus, turreted castles and well-groomed countryside vineyards. While those are spectacular sights to behold, my idea for a wine tasting getaway was different. I set out last fall to sample a few Western-inspired wineries tucked in the wine country of Central California while mixing in horse and ranching heritage along the way.

In the Old West, every rough-and-tumble frontier town had a local watering hole. Today, it’s common to also have distilleries, breweries and wine-tasting rooms that cater to locals and tourists alike. Whether you’re a first-time taster, a hobbyist or a fine-wine aficionado, it’s evident that in some regions, wine and Western pair together like a horse and saddle.

Of Vaqueros & Vineyards

In late October of 2022, I attended the Early Californios Skills of the Rancho at the historic V6 Ranch in Parkfield, Calif., about 35 miles northeast of Paso Robles. The four-day event showcases beautiful hackamore, two-rein and bridle horses, with riders using the horsemanship and stock-handling skills passed down from the early Spanish vaqueros and refined through time.

After the event concluded, I drove about 50 miles southwest to Santa Margarita, Calif. This Central Coast hamlet—with a population just over 1,000—is just off U.S. Route 101. It has a quaint, old-fashioned main street lined with antique shops, a market and deli, café, lumber and ranch supply store, and Ancient Peaks Winery. Established in 2005, the winery is owned by the Filipponi, Wittstrom and Rossi families, all of whom are deeply rooted in the Central Coast ranching and agricultural community. They also own the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, an old Mexican land grant from the 1840s and the town’s namesake.

Ancient Peaks Winery in Central California wine country
Ancient Peaks Winery grows grapes in ranch country along California’s Central Coast using methods that are Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certified. Photo courtesy Ancient Peaks Winery

There are several modes of transportation to tour Central California wine country, depending on the area, including hot air balloon, bicycle, limousine and tour bus. I thought the best way to see Ancient Peak’s southernmost vineyard was via horseback. Central Coast Trailrides, based in nearby Paso Robles, offers a ride on the 14,000-acre historic Santa Margarita Ranch. My guide, owner Brian Hallett, took me on a two-hour horseback tour of the ranch, including the Margarita Vineyard.

Brian runs the horseback riding business with his wife, Crystal. Their two children, Mattix and Taylen, sometimes ride along. Partnering with local ranches, wineries, vineyards and other adventure-based businesses, they offer an array of guided trail rides. The guest string of horses has more than 30 surefooted, gentle mounts of all sizes and colors that Brian carefully pairs with riders to ensure a safe, relaxing ride.

Central Coast Trailrides
Brian Hallett, owner of Central Coast Trailrides, guides guests through the Santa Margarita Ranch and Margarita Vineyard. Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

We were joined by Ancient Peaks Brand Ambassador Lindee Newman, who, with Brian, interpreted some of the history and highlights of the winery, vineyard and ranch. Nestled against the Santa Lucia Mountains 14 miles from the Pacific Coast, the ranch is a place where cattle, wildlife and grapevines thrive in an environmentally and geologically diverse region. We meandered through grassy meadows, along creek beds shaded by pines, oaks and dangling webs of Spanish moss, and up flaxen hills with views of the Coastal Mountains in the background. The occasional deer darted across the trail, and we saw an eagle nesting in a tree.

Franciscan missionaries introduced grapes to the ranch in the 1780s, and nearly 220 years later, the Margarita Vineyard was planted and continues to be fruitful. Newman explained that the 857-acre vineyard is part of the Santa Margarita Ranch American Viticultural Area (AVA), which is one of 11 AVAs within the Paso Robles region. The mild climate combined with complex soils and close coastal proximity provide the perfect conditions to grow a variety of grapes. Furthermore, the vineyard rests about 1,000 feet above sea level on five diverse soil types—ancient seabed, rocky alluvium, shale, volcanic and granitic—which influence the wines.

A pit stop during a trail ride in Central California wine country
A glass of Ancient Peaks wine hits the spot after a trail ride from Central Coast Trailrides. Photo by Molly Virginia Morris Photography

After the ride, it was time to head to the tasting room located about 1½ miles from the Central Coast Trailrides headquarters. There, I sampled some of the Ancient Peaks wines I had learned so much about.

The Ancient Peaks tasting room in Central California wine country
The Ancient Peaks tasting room offers subtle samples of Western sophistication. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Before I stepped into the rustic tasting room, I was greeted by Karl Wittstrom, one of the ranch and winery owners. He whisked me away on a pickup ride up a winding dirt road to a high point on the ranch overlooking the Santa Margarita Valley. Then, upon request, he took me to the ranch headquarters.

The centerpiece of the headquarters is the restored Asistencia Santa Margarita de Cortona, a mission outpost about 12 miles north of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the fifth of 21 missions built along the California Mission Trail. The large barn dates to 1774 and was built as a mission outpost. The building stands with some of the original stone structures and is used as an event venue.

The Ancient Peaks Winery in Central California wine country
The Ancient Peaks Winery is located along the main street through Santa Margarita, Calif., minutes from the old Rancho Santa Margarita land grant. Photo courtesy Ancient Peaks Winery

Wittstrom dropped me off at the tasting room, where a flight of six wines awaited. I paired it with a house-made bacon cheeseburger featuring ranch-raised beef. My favorites were the intense, smoky Estate Renegade and the earthy Oyster Ridge from the limited-edition Pearl Collection of wines made from hand-harvested grapes.

A Toast to the Coast

Though Paso Robles offers a myriad of wineries, there was one two hours northwest in Carmel Valley I wanted to visit the next day. Cowgirl Winery is nestled in the heart of Carmel Valley, a small village filled with shops, galleries, wineries and eateries surrounded by rolling, oak-studded pastures and less than 15 minutes from the coast. With 20 tasting rooms located within a few blocks, Carmel Valley is a relatively undiscovered wine tasting destination that has retained its relaxed ranching roots.

The entrance to Cowgirl Winery
Cowgirl Winery pays homage to the women who have and continue to shape the West. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Cowgirl Winery touts itself as “The perfect location to put your boots up and enjoy a glass of wine!” Situated in an old adobe home, the tasting room blends Western with old Mexican décor. I chose to do my tasting outside at one of the tiled tables in the garden beneath a giant oak tree, but there is indoor seating as well.

Owned by Belgian-born winemaker Walter Georis and his wife, Sylvia, Cowgirl started as a special label within Georis Winery in 2001, and a few years later became its own winery. The Georises planted their first grapes in Carmel Valley in 1980 and have the oldest winery and vineyards under the same ownership in the area.

Growing up in Europe, Georis was intrigued by the Old West portrayed in Western films. He immigrated to the United States with his family from Belgium when he was 11 years old, landing in the barren desert of Blythe, Calif., and eventually working his way to Carmel.

“The idea with the Cowgirl label was to honor the spirit of women and horses, which were part of the backbone of the West,” he says, adding that when he developed the label, women drank more white than red wines, so he wanted to make a flavorful red and dedicate it to Western women to entice them to try it.

Carmel Valley was designated as an AVA in 1983, and its cool climate makes it a great place to grow such varietals as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay. Cowgirl specializes in producing small batches (fewer than 200 cases) of each product, and the same wines aren’t represented every year.

“As a winemaker, I like to be able to produce different things,” says Georis. “I’m excited about other varietals we grow such as piquepoul; I like to diversify.

“Wine represents agriculture, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s made in the vineyard and identified in the tasting room,” he adds. “You need good fruit to make good wine. Each vintage becomes a time capsule, so I have close to 40 time capsules reflecting births and passings of family members and special celebrations. It sounds poetic, but I can ‘taste’ a particular year.”

Between sips at Cowgirl, I enjoyed a pizza from the adjacent Corkscrew Café, also owned by the Georises. The couple also has a sophisticated restaurant called Casanova in nearby Carmel. The Corkscrew menu includes small bites, salads, tacos and pizza. Before I left, I checked out the gift shop with an array of logoed merchandise, gifts and wines. I brought home a campfire coffee mug and canvas bag with the Cowgirl logo, and bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay.

The North Coast wine scene receives a lot of attention and is home to some of the most popular wineries, but for someone who lives a Western lifestyle, I found the landscape and easy-going attitude of Central Coast wineries to be more my style. And the locals are welcoming and may even sit down and tell you a few stories about their wine, horses and heritage.

Sips & Side Trips: California’s Central Coast

When visiting the Central Coast Cowboy Wine Country of California, check out these Western-centric stops.

Stay:

Madonna Inn
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
madonnainn.com

Sip:

Ancient Peaks Winery
Santa Margarita, Calif.
ancientpeaks.com

Cowgirl Winery
Carmel Valley, Calif.
cowgirlwinery.com

El Vaquero Winery
Watsonville, Calif.
elvaquerowinery.com

Tobin James Cellars
Paso Robles, Calif.
tobinjames.com

Vintage Cowboy Winery
Santa Margarita, Calif.
vintagecowboywinery.com

Dine:

Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse
San Luis Obispo, Calif.
madonnainn.com

Ancient Peak Winery’s Café
Santa Margarita, Calif.
ancientpeaks.com

Corkscrew Café
Carmel Valley, Calif.
corkscrewcafe.com

McPhee’s Steakhouse
Templeton, Calif.
mcpheesgrill.com

The Loading Chute
Creston, Calif.
@theloadingchute on Facebook

Side Trips:

Carmel Mission Basilica
Carmel, Calif.
carmelmission.org

Central Coast Trailrides
Paso Robles, Calif.
cctrailrides.com

Margarita Adventures
Santa Margarita, Calif.
margarita-adventures.com

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
Carmel, Calif.
parks.ca.gov

For More Information:

Carmel Valley Road Co.
carmelvalleyroadco.com

Paso Robles Wine Country
pasowine.com

Central Coast Trailrides
cctrailrides.com

Travel Paso
travelpaso.com

This is a two-part series. Next time, join us as we explore southern Arizona’s wine and Western scene.

This article about Central California wine country appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Western Life Today magazine. Click here to subscribe!

Jennifer Denison

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