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Alta Maria Vineyards – Antithesis of Common Sense

August 12, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 3 Comments

James Ontiveros and Paul Wilkins have impressive resumes.

James Ontiveros is a 9th generation Californian. His great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Juan Pacifico Ontiveros, the son of a Spanish soldier and a one time Corporal at San Gabriel Mission. His family originally settled in what is now Orange County on Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana (modern day Anaheim), which Juan Pacifico Ontiveros’ father was granted by the Mexican Government in 1833. A connection to wine came early to the Ontiveros family, when Ontiveros sold 1,165 acres of the land to the Los Angeles Vineyard Society in September 1857 for the cultivation of wine grapes. It was the first commercial vineyard in California.

In 1855, Ontiveros purchased the 8,900-acre Rancho Tepusquet from his father-in-law Tomás Olivera, who acquired it in a land grant in 1837. In 1957, he relocated to the Ranch in what is now the Santa Maria Valley, constructed an adobe, and lived there until his death in 1877. During his time there he raised cattle and horses and even planted wine grapes. Rancho Tepusquet, which today includes famed vineyards such as Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills made up the north side of the Santa Maria Valley. The south side was Rancho Tinaquaic, some 9,000- acres that were granted to Benjamin Foxen, another son-in-law of Tomás Olivera and Ontiveros’ brother-in-law. Ontiveros and Foxen were the first two Anglos to settle the region (Foxen, is the namesake of Foxen winery, which was co-founded by his great-great-great great-grandson Dick Doré).

It was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that James Ontiveros met Paul Wilkins and together they discovered a mutual love for an unlikely interest: wine. Paul came from a family of farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley and the two shared not only a love of the fermented grape, but a love of agriculture. They were soon adding activities outside of their school schedules to learn more about wine and its cultivation.

Upon graduating, James worked as a grape buyer for Kendall-Jackson and later Gallo of Sonoma, an experience that allowed him to walk and learn from hundreds of vineyards all over California. While still in college, Paul spent time at Paragon Vineyards and Edna Valley Winery (at the end of its “heyday” he says with a laugh). After meeting him at several of his extracurricular activities, Paul was asked to take a role as assistant winemaker to famed Rhône producer John Alban. For nearly a decade, Paul learned the craft of winemaking under the direction of one of California’s greatest Rhône producers.

Like so many school friends, the two drifted apart after college. Paul was busy in San Luis Obispo County with Alban, while James, after his time with Kendall-Jackson and Gallo of Sonoma headed back to the Santa Maria Valley. There he applied what he learned as a grape buyer as Director of Sales and Marketing for Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, French Camp, the Central Coast Wine Services, and the Paso Robles Wine Services (yeah, there’s a reason why he jokes he “could not be any more full-time in the wine industry”) . He was back on the land his family once owned.

Unbeknownst to him, James had also set the foundation for a reunion with Paul when he planted an 8 acre Pinot Noir vineyard on his family’s Rancho Ontiveros a few miles as the crow flies from Bien Nacido. It was a mutual friend in the mid 2000’s who suggested Paul take a look at “what this guy James Ontiveros” was doing with his Pinot vineyard in Santa Maria. When Paul saw what his old college friend had planted he was more than curious. It wasn’t long before the two decided to reunite, this time to make wine. The reunion would prove to be a fruitful one, bringing together Paul’s expertise in winemaking and James vast knowledge of viticulture.

This is the story of how three brands: Native9, Autonom, and Alta Maria came to be shared by two friends.

It was a late July afternoon when I pulled off to the side of Clark Ave. in Santa Maria. Paul was waiting for me on the side of the road in his red pick-up truck. He smiled as I pulled up and waved for me to follow. A few miles up the road the asphalt gave way to dust and rocks as we turned onto Rancho Ontiveros. Dead tractors lay in the surrounding fields and the landscape was dotted with oil pumps. It was rustic and wild to say the least. As we crested a hill before us, a sliver of Bien Nacido’s Block 8 was visible in the distance the vineyard came into view. Even in July, the small yellow flowers from the cover crop were still hanging on in what has been an abnormally cool summer. In the middle of a former oil field, the vines appear to have almost sprung up of their own free will, as if they chose this somewhat humble location to call home. It is a dramatic setting for Pinot Noir. I loved it.

The Vineyard doesn’t just offer views of the Santa Maria Valley and Bien Nacido, it provides a window into California’s past. Cattle and other livestock once grazed this land. The cattle ground eventually gave way to the great oil booms of the region and oil wells grew in abundance from the land like strange heavy headed beasts. With the planting of the vineyard came a third transition for the well used land. Where the earth once gave up its raven black blood; it now nourishes vines that produce some of the finest wine grapes in the world.

There are three labels under James and Paul’s direction, each with a different philosophy. Autonom is a Rhône project, utilizing Paul’s skills from his many years working with John Alban. Native9 (James is a 9th generation CA native) is the estate Pinot Noir project. Alta Maria is a Pinot and Chardonnay project focusing on fruit from the Santa Maria Valley that allows flexibility the estate project does not. While Native 9 is the highest expression of their own terrior, Alta Maria’s fruit is sourced from a variety vineyards based on the characteristics James and Paul want to bring into the wine. Given James years spent as a grape buyer and his current position, few people know as many unique spots around Santa Maria to source outstanding fruit. It has been working. Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff gave their 08′ Alta Maria Pinot Noir 93 points in the upcoming September issue. This pairs perfectly with the 93 points they earned from Wine Enthusiast for their 08′ Chardonnay earlier this year.

There are numerous misconceptions about wine: You can tell the quality of a wine by the number of “legs” that run down the side of the glass. It’s only good wine if it costs more than your friends and co-workers can afford. Pinot Grigio is good. One women actually told me, and I quote, “all grapes are Cabernet. They add flowers or berries to make it a Syrah or Malbec, but it is all Cabernet grapes.”

One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that winemakers are all wealthy. For many, like Dick and Bill of Foxen or Clay Thompson of Claiborne and Churchill, starting a winery means years of sacrifice in both time and treasure. When you look at the long term risks for potentially small rewards, it is amazing anyone takes it on. “It’s the antithesis of common sense,” Paul says of the wine industry. “There is no other business like it in the world.”

At times, it is the winemakers themselves that put restrictions on profits. For example, crop yields.

Common sense says, ‘plant as much crop as you can. Yield more, earn more.” In almost any other crop the goal is usually quantity first then quality. Wheat is wheat, corn is corn, Adam Sandler movies are Adam Sandler movies. High yields equal high returns, but the quality is less important. While a lower yield vineyard may make a better tasting wine, it will make the fruit more expensive as there is less available to sell. From a traditional farming perspective it makes little sense. From a winemaker’s perspective, the quality is often worth the cost. James, both a farmer and a winemaker sees both sides.

“As a farmer you want to see that strong yields can make incredibly concentrated wines. The reality is, I don’t think I have ever had something that’s been above average yield that’s made anything special. Can it make good wine? Yeah, but there is a reason that the great wines of the world that people go out of their way to find, there isn’t much volume of them and it comes from some little place that that’s all they do.”

In so many words, James’ statements sum up what they are striving to achieve at Alta Maria: small productions of unique wines that champion the best of the Santa Maria Valley. It is a commitment they carry into their estate vineyard. “We have committed ourselves to this project and this piece of land and the risks that come with it and the few rewards that may come with it.” James says. For over two hundred years, James’ family has been dedicated to the lands of the Santa Maria Valley and they intend to keep that tradition alive.

Paul and James make up the next generation of Central Coast producers, who studied under names like John Alban, Richard Sanford, and the late Dick Graff. All of these were pioneers in their own right and it is impressive to consider what they achieved in a few decades. Now, the next group of winemakers are expanding on the foundations that those before them established. With producers like Paul and James, Mac Myers and Russell From of Barrel 27, and Matt Trevisan of Linne Calodo, just to name a few, who are still in their thirties, there is a lot of time for growth. Enough of the pioneers are still around to continue producing and mentoring through the next decade or two, but the heirs to the thrown have another three or four decades to continue expanding. It will be exciting to watch.

Sometimes I get hung up for hours trying to bridge gaps in my articles. How do I transition into a question? Do I need a long intro, or some kind of commentary that makes me appear smart and witty? Sometimes it helps to add those parts. Other times, it makes my long winded writing even more exhausting. So with that in mind, here are some questions I asked.

What are your thoughts on Chardonnay considering that so many dislike it?

Paul Wilkens (PW): “I’m walking proof. I didn’t want anything to do with Chardonnay. I came from the ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay), Local Chapter 101. It was nowhere more fiercely shouted from the mountain tops, ‘don’t drink Chardonnay, drink Viognier, drink Roussanne!’ I don’t want to say I was brain washed, but I didn’t have the opportunity to really find out what Chardonnay was about, how masterful and graceful and exotic and beautiful a wine it can be. I think the sea of Chardonnay is the problem. So, few people get to have that ethereal type of wine. That is for me, what made me change my mind about Chardonnay.”

James Ontiveros (JO): “I totally think it will always be the largest portion of the white wine market period. I drink a lot of wine. I drink a lot of imports because that’s where you learn what can be, by tasting stuff that’s not from your backyard. I agree, it got to be everybody doing the same clumsy thing for a time [with Chardonnay]…”

James whishes people could understand what Chardonnay can taste like, Chardonnay like theirs. “It’s got minerality, it’s got good acidity, yet it’s got great viscosity, it has a long finish,” he says of their wine. “There is a little bit of tropical fruit, there is a citrus component to it. It’s just got so many things going on. And yet, often times as we go into the market place and go into a restaurant, people in that professional level will try to clear their brains, but a lot of times I want to blind it and say ‘you tell me what it is?’ Because as soon as you start with the reference, ‘you wanna try our Chardonnay?’ half the time people are already like ‘ehh, I don’t know if I am really into Chardonnay today.’ And that’s a shame. When it’s planted in the right area and handled judiciously, it can make amazing wine.”

Do you have a favorite aspect of winemaking?

PW: “It pretty much all terrifies me. I think if I ever got to the point where I liked any part of it too much, I’d second guess myself even more than I do now.” Paul is famous for assembling his final blends up until the last moments before the wine is bottled, sometimes with the bottling team waiting. It isn’t a lack of confidence in his abilities as a winemaker, but rather, it is the unknown of what time in a bottle will do to the wine that gives him pause. “I have had enough time with enough wine to know that what you think you put in the bottle, might not be what it really is. I think that any winemaker that doesn’t sit there and second guess himself has basically resigned himself to a position and I think that most people who do that are just going to be mediocre most of their career.”

JO: “The thing that I enjoy is, that the piece that people don’t get to see, is probably the hardest decisions we have to make…That’s where you and your partners have to sit there and play out the scenario: ‘when we blend this and this, what’s this all going to do?’ And like Paul said, you don’t really know. You can spend tremendous amounts of effort and time and change things to try to get some element to come through and the reality is, it may not. You don’t really know, at some points for years.”

James Ontiveros and Paul Wilkins

Although they do produce some Rhône wines under their Autonom label the primary focus is on the Burgundian duo: Pinot and Chardonnay. In Santa Barbara County, many wineries have rosters that look something like this: Chardonnay, Roussanne, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, with many others that pop up like Riesling, Merlot, and Cabernet. It is a testament to the amazing and diverse climate of Santa Barbara County. Almost anything can and does grow here. Still, I wonder at times, can any producer really do that many varietals well?

JO: “[Paul and I] would have different opinions on that I would guess. I work in probably every variety that is grown in California in my day job. To me, I think that you can only do so many things well. My desire to make other things is always perking up though, probably not for the reasons most people would. I would love to do Nebbiolo, because everyone has written off that you can’t grow Nebbiolo because most of the Italian’s that have been done in California were shitty. We can grow phenomenal Nebbiolo in Santa Maria Valley. I would love to do it just to prove it can be done, not because I want to prove that I am a genius but because I don’t want people to close the door on something. The best vineyards in California have not been planted yet.”

PW: “It’s one of those things where it’s not so much of a varietal thing as it is, what’s the definition of a great vineyard? There’s still to this day not enough of those in California. That’s the goal behind the wines that we make, you have to have that first…” This is where my iPod died. It had been a very long interview, several hours, one of the longest to date. So if I may, let me continue what Paul was getting at. In short, the vineyards matter. It isn’t simply a question of weather or not a winemaker can succeed with a varietal, it is a question of what they have to work with. The wrong grape in the wrong vineyard will never produce something amazing and that is why Paul and James choose vineyards of distinction for their wines.

I am extremely impressed with Paul and James. We sat with them in James’ living room, in his home behind the vineyard. Surrounded by artwork the reflected a deep appreciation for the cowboy lifestyle his family has lived for generations, I couldn’t help but be taken in by how down to earth and honest both men were, qualities reflected in their wine.

I don’t often offer much in the way of opinions of the wines I drink (pretty dumb for a WINE blogger), but in this case I will. From the source of their fruit to their brilliant label designs, I was blown away by the intuition of these humble and warm Santa Maria Valley farmers. The wines where crisp and bright, but wear their California fruit well. They are a pleasure to drink.

For many more reasons than I had time to go into, I will be watching to see what James and Paul do next and so should you. What they have done so far and what they plan to continue doing says good things about where California wine is going; especially in the quiet, unassuming place we call the Santa Maria Valley.

Alta Maria Vineyards

Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Paul Roberts says:


    We met at Ojai Vineyard when you interviewed Adam T. Sorry I have not checked in earlier. I drank the Alta Maria Chardonnay last night and really liked it. I couldn’t find much information on the wine and fortunately searched and ran into you again. Very nice article and your cliche-free enthusiasm is a good read. I will be following you as I can and recommend you to my friends. Maybe I will show up at another winery and you’ll be there. In the meantime, I am going to try and buy some of the tasty white from these guys.

  2. Wayne says:

    Paul, how great to hear from you! I am a big fan of Alta Maria and Paul and James’ other two projects, Native9 (Ontiveros estate Pinot) and Autonom (crazy Rhone project). My gut says these two guys are on the cusp of greatness and will be highly sought after. It was one of the greatest experiences I have had. What an honor to get to meet so many winemakers and still, Adam is one of the most impressive winemakers I know. I had a great time sitting with him and meeting you. I will have to buy you a glass sometime.

  3. […] Native9 Pinot Noir, Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 14.5% – highly […]

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