Historic ranch offers a step and a sip back in time
July/Aug. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Santa Margarita Ranch is a hidden jewel for those looking to escape in San Luis Obispo County.
The cattle brands that hang from the Santa Margarita Ranch sign pay tribute to the three families that own the property. The ranch has been a productive agricultural site since its founding in 1774.
It boasts a rich and powerful history, one that includes Franciscan missionaries and Mexican rancheros. It encompasses more than 14,000 acres and produces award-winning wine and prime natural beef. It also offers a haven for city dwellers looking to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. Yet few people have heard of it.
Surviving for more than 230 years now, the Santa Margarita Ranch is a unique and living piece of California history. And if this land could talk, oh, the stories it would tell!
"It's like a beautiful, hidden jewel of San Luis Obispo County that we've been entrusted with," said Doug Filipponi, who owns the ranch with partners Karl Wittstrom and Rob Rossi.
Nestled among stately oaks in a lush, fertile valley about 8 miles north of San Luis Obispo, the ranch is located within the small town of Santa Margarita. With a population of 1,300, Santa Margarita is one of those rare towns left in California where everyone knows everyone's name. And it has been home to a working ranch almost every year since it was founded.
As history books tell it, Franciscan Fr. Junipero Serra founded Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772. But soon the padres realized they needed an "asistencia" nearby—a small-scale mission to supply the agricultural needs of the main mission. The Santa Margarita Valley afforded an ideal location. Tucked in the Santa Lucia Mountains, the valley was well protected from coastal winds, provided a warm climate and received an abundance of rainfall. It was a perfect site for an asistencia; grapes, wheat and a variety of other crops were planted.
Once covered by the ocean floor, the rich land of the Santa Margarita Ranch was used by Franciscan missionaries in the 1700s and 1800s to raise crops and cattle. Today it is home to a cattle ranch and winery run in part by Doug Filipponi (left), Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins and Karl Wittstrom.
During its first, precarious years, the land struggled through near famine. But as time passed, thousands of cattle grazed the rolling hills and grain crops flourished. The records of Mission San Luis Obispo show that Asistencia de Santa Margarita contributed large stores of wheat, grapes for the mission's wine, and hogs, sheep and cattle.
During the mid-1800s, the land took on yet another role and became known as the "Queen of the Cattle Ranchos" for its elaborate fiestas and rodeos. This was a time when cattle roamed the countryside and life was pure and simple and far removed from urban life.
The ranching continued into the 1900s and over the next century the property was owned and operated by several prominent California citizens. In 1999, longtime local residents Filipponi, Wittstrom and Rossi were able to realize a dream and purchase the historic parcel.
"We all knew each other and were friends, and then this opportunity to own the land together just kind of fell into our laps," Wittstrom recalled. "It was a no-brainer. We leapt at the chance to call this place home."
Ranch buildings that were once part of the California mission system are now used to host special events.
"I was raised literally within a mile of the ranch," Filipponi said, "so I've known about the history of this place for basically my entire life."
The three men have varied interests outside the ranch, but here they come together with a common goal of keeping the land as beautiful and productive as previous generations kept it. All are involved in the ranch's vineyard and winery, while Filipponi and Wittstrom manage the nearly 14,000 acres and 600 head of cattle that comprise the ranching operation.
Although the partners have recently begun to market their beef to local restaurants, the majority of the steers raised at the historic ranch are sold to Harris Ranch in Coalinga. Santa Margarita Ranch belongs to the Harris Ranch Natural Beef Program and Partnership for Quality, and to meet the program's strict standards, the partners practice low-stress, natural handling. They also employ something called rotational "pulse" grazing. This is when a group of cattle spends two to four days in one area of pasture before being moved. Then the land is given time—sometimes weeks or even months—to rest, allowing the native grasses to recover before being grazed again.
Fossils from as long as 10,000 years ago are sometimes unearthed at the vineyard, such as these shells held by Doug Filipponi.
"We all believe here in an emphasis on conservation and progressive rangeland management," Wittstrom said. "The cattle literally act as a resource for nurturing the natural habitat and controlling noxious invasive weeds. All in all, these animals can be used as tools to positively affect the land they live on."
This is just one of the many facts about agriculture and rural life that the men and Wittstrom's daughter, Amanda Wittstrom-Higgins, say they enjoy sharing with their urban neighbors.
And education is why the three families decided to open their ranch to visitors. In addition to hosting large-scale gatherings like this past spring's Earth Day Food and Wine Festival and this fall's Savor the Central Coast event, the ranch has found a niche among visitors looking for a picturesque spot for wedding receptions, corporate retreats and educational tours.
"By having folks out to the ranch, it gives them a sense of place," Wittstrom said. "Before, they may have driven by and never thought twice about farming or ranching. At least now, no matter what event brings them to the ranch, they have an idea that agriculture is happening right in their own backyard."
Under the Ancient Peaks label, winemaker Mike Sinor works with the ranch and winery owners to produce award-winning wine from the Margarita Vineyard.
And while much of the land is still a working cattle ranch, a big part of Santa Margarita is its grape-growing operation. Rossi took the advice of his close friend, the late Robert Mondavi, and spearheaded a campaign to resurrect the ranch's vineyards. He enlisted Mike Sinor to help. A local boy and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, graduate, Sinor worked side by side with the families, replanting some of the vines and eventually introducing their new wine label, Ancient Peaks, in 2006.
"For me, the best part of starting up a winery from scratch was educating the families here on the treasure they had," said Sinor, director of winemaking. He was also intrigued by the site of the new vineyards—the exact spot where the asistencia's grapes had been planted more than two centuries before.
Stretching across more than 900 acres, the Margarita Vineyard has one of the longest growing seasons on the Central Coast. Eight winegrape varieties flourish here, including sauvignon blanc, merlot, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
"We are the southern-most vineyard in the Paso Robles appellation. We are also the closest vineyard to the ocean in the area, so we get those ocean winds coming over to cool us off," Filipponi said. "That lets us keep the growing season going longer than most. We can leave our grapes on the vine longer, which gives our wines a more intense flavor."
The winery's Ancient Peaks label pays tribute to the geologic heritage of the area.
Ranch owners Karl Wittstrom, Doug Filipponi and Rob Rossi hope tourists to the Central Coast will visit their historic ranch, enjoy their wine and maybe even take a ride on the ranch's steam train, once a central attraction at Disneyland when it first opened in 1955. Photo courtesy of Santa Margarita Ranch
"Eons ago, the ranch was covered by the ocean floor. As the floor rose and the coastal plates collided, they forged the tall peaks surrounding the Margarita Vineyard," Wittstrom explained. "Over time, these same geologic forces bestowed upon us five distinct soil zones—ancient seabed, sedimentary, shale, volcanic and granitic—that bring profound complexity to the wines here."
"It's funny. Sometimes I forget about the history of this place until I reach down and grab a handful of soil," Rossi said. "That's when you can really tell that this area used to be part of the ocean seabed, because you see shells and fossils in the soil."
"Wine tastes of place," Sinor added. "We want people to taste a little bit of history when they sample our wines."
So in 2008 they opened a tasting room in downtown Santa Margarita, where they offer tastings, advice and even transportation to enjoy tours at the Margarita Vineyard. They also have formed a wine club for their customers, many of whom participate in hands-on seminars that allow them to actually harvest the grapes.
"They are always surprised how much work it takes to just fill up one bucket and how heavy it is," said Wittstrom-Higgins, who in addition to working on the ranch is vice president of sales and marketing for Ancient Peaks.
And harkening back to their history, all three families enjoy having get-togethers at the ranch. Whether it's an intimate affair with friends and family, an educational winemaking dinner for wine club members or a lavish wedding reception, the feeling is one of sharing the beauty of the land with others.
All three families come together daily, as it takes a group effort to keep the historic Santa Margarita Ranch thriving.
"Given the long history this land has, we really consider ourselves caretakers and stewards of the land," Wittstrom said. "Our main goal is just to keep it going so the next generation can enjoy it as much as we do."
The families have adopted a saying in recent years: "The land lives on through each grape that is grown and harvested as Margarita Vineyard." They hope to keep it living for centuries to come.
Santa Margarita Ranch hosts food and wine showcase
Wine-tasting master classes will be held each day at the Santa Margarita Ranch.
What's not to like about the Central Coast? Conveniently located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the area offers delicious dining, an abundance of agriculture, a rich history, award-winning wineries, all kinds of recreational opportunities and miles of lush scenery. And from Sept. 30 through Oct. 3, it will all converge at one magical event at the Santa Margarita Ranch.
Called Savor the Central Coast, the event brings together farmers, celebrity chefs and Sunset magazine's editors, who will guide attendees through culinary tours, winemaker dinners, historic excursions and culinary showcases. While all activities take place in San Luis Obispo County, the event celebrates the beauty and bounty of Monterey, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as well.
Cooking seminars and wine-tasting master classes will be held each day at Santa Margarita Ranch's historic asistencia, the farm that once supplied the agricultural needs of Mission San Luis Obispo. Chefs from throughout the Central Coast will dazzle guests with regionally inspired dishes, while celebrity chef Tyler Florence will whip up a few of his signature recipes. Central Coast winemakers will pour their best vintages to pair with the dishes served.
Hungry for more culinary knowledge? Guests will have the opportunity to meet a variety of Central Coast farmers to learn how they grow their crops and also to get tips on how to select and use these harvests. Farmers will be located in the Farmers Market pavilion.
Featured farmers, who are California Farm Bureau members, include: avocado and lemon grower David Schwabauer of Ventura Country; vegetable grower Benny Jefferson of Monterey County; greenhouse operator Pete Overgaag of Santa Barbara County, whose Hollandia Produce company specializes in hydroponic crops; Brad Buckley, manager of the Abalone Farm in San Luis Obispo County; and the Gonzales family of San Luis Obispo County, which grows walnuts, produces walnut oil and operates a wine-tasting room.
Guests can also travel to local farms to experience aquaculture, organic farming, olive oil production and the winegrape harvest.
Savor the Central Coast is sponsored in part by the California Farm Bureau. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.savorcentralcoast.com.
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Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.