James Ontiveros checks the vines at Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard. Photo by Carole Topalian.

Santa Maria Agriculture and Legacy

In Ontiveros, Veritas

His day job might pay the bills, but Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard is at the pulsating heart of James Ontiveros’ life and history. After all, it’s no average bit of land. For James, Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard represents nine generations’ blood, sweat, tears and steadfast faith in the potential of Santa Maria agriculture.

While his heritage in California is traceable to the year 1781, James’ relationship to Santa Maria began eight generations ago with Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. In 1856 Juan Pacifico drove 1,200 head of cattle north from Orange County to claim from the Mexican government an outstanding grant of 8,900 acres on the northern edge of Santa Barbara County. Called Rancho Tepusquet, his prize included the crossing of the Sisquoc and Cuyama Rivers—highly desirable land for raising livestock and farming. As he arrived and settled into the peaceful, protected valley, he called it Santa Maria in gratitude for the blessings of sun, soil and water.

Nearby, Juan Pacifico built a beautiful two-story adobe for his family, where he prospered with horses, cattle, sheep, grains and wine grapes. But despite his success, over the course of the next several generations Juan Pacifico’s 8,900 acres were sold off in pieces until nothing remained in the Ontiveros name—not even the adobe. The revered Bien Nacido Vineyard would eventually be planted around the original Ontiveros home, which was owned for a while by Allan Hancock, then bought by the Miller family, who own it today.

The opportunity to reclaim something of the past came in 1976, when James’ parents, Mark and Louise Ontiveros, received the offer to lease-option a ranch on Dominion Road occupying land overlooking Rancho Tepusquet. It took 10 years of hourly wages from working on oil rigs for Mark and Louise to buy the ranch and take back just a view of what their forebears had lost. Ironically, those same oil rigs also studded the landscape of this new property, the only parcel near the original Rancho Tepusquet grant that the family could afford.

From Cowboy to Connoisseur

From the start, Mark, Louise and James intended to run cattle on the ranch. “I was a cowboy in high school,” James says. “That was my life.” As such, Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo was an ideal choice, with its famously strong agriculture and animal science programs.

But during his first year, James embarked on a fateful camping trip that would find him sipping a 1992 Lane Tanner Pinot Noir, his eyes opened and his palate forever changed. While his focus of study didn’t budge too far—dual majors in Crop Science and Fruit Science—his life trajectory changed completely. He was going to plant a vineyard and make wine at Rancho Ontiveros.

“As a parent, I can’t imagine my 20-year-old child wanting to plant a vineyard, but that’s exactly what I wanted,” says James, who planted several acres of vines with his own two hands after class each day. And, as if the whole idea wasn’t harebrained enough, he chose to plant the vineyard with a persnickety and oft-maligned varietal: Pinot Noir.

“Planting Pinot was not the conventional wisdom of the time,” he says. “Chardonnay was the grape to grow. But that’s the beauty of Santa Maria: Just about everything thrives here.”
Whether he knew that or not at 20 years old, it was certainly true of his Pinot Noir. Today, the eight-acre Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard is one of the most sought-after Pinot Noir vineyards for fruit that is expertly—obsessively—farmed. James sources entirely from Rancho Ontiveros for his Native 9 Wine, a cult classic on the Pinot Noir scene; and partially for his joint label, Alta Maria Vineyards, which he cofounded with longtime friend and winemaker Paul Wilkins.

Additionally, James sells to a handful of winemakers who appreciate the depth and complexity of his fruit. For indeed, due to its situation and the way it’s farmed (organic, small berries, compact vines, low yields), Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard provides some of the darkest, most nuanced and expressive Pinot Noir on the market today.

In 2012, James entered into a long-term lease of Rancho Viñedo Vineyard—across the street from Bien Nacido—for estate bottlings of Alta Maria Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Like its famous neighbor, Rancho Viñedo was planted in 1973 and once belonged to the Rancho Tepusquet grant, fulfilling James’ longstanding desire for old Ontiveros land. Still, for all his satisfaction in watching his family’s story come full circle and his personal dreams flesh out, owning vineyards remains risky.

“Do you know what the payoff is for a vineyard like this?” he asks, gesturing to Rancho Ontiveros. “Sixteen years. And that’s with free land, no employees and just me managing the whole operation.”

Hence his “day job”—the agricultural investment company he started with third-generation wine broker Matt Turrentine. Called Grapevine Capital Partners, the company has quickly become a top choice for designing large vineyard plantings and managing investment funds.
“Working with some of these investments puts my tiny vineyard in perspective,” he says, “but at the end of the day, it’s still home.”

Land of Quiet Opportunity

James looks across the valley, pointing to different color blocks in the tapestry of the view.
“Right there is the largest planting of avocado trees in California. And there: citrus, strawberries, cane berries, gladiolus, cattle,” he says. “Santa Maria is one of the most diverse agricultural communities on the planet, which is both a blessing and a challenge because with diversity comes the difficulty of marketing.”

“Napa is a great example,” he continues. “When you think of Napa, you think of wine. Their profitability and cohesion come, in part, from focusing on one thing and doing it
well. Santa Maria, on the other hand, does almost too many things well.”

Communicating a message of quality and diversity in Santa Maria is clearly a personal mission of James’. But that’s not to say he wants the valley flooded with new money, boutique hotels or haute couture.

“Santa Maria will never go out of style because it was never in style,” James quips. “This town is under absolutely zero pretense, which is off-putting for some. But for those of us who live here, it’s what makes the place so great.”

For those who can appreciate Santa Maria’s quirks, says Chuck Furuya, master sommelier and wine director for Hawaii’s DK Restaurant Group, a world of incredible wines awaits.

“I try not to get wrapped up in fashions and trends, which is why I absolutely believe in Santa Maria wines,” Chuck says from his office in Hawaii. “It has the greatest potential of any winegrowing region I know for making worldly, naturally balanced wines that epitomize elegance, but it’s still very mom-and-pop. Santa Maria families have been farming there for a long time, so it’s not experimental. They’re committed to their land in a way you don’t see elsewhere.”

Along Santa Maria Valley’s Foxen Wine Trail, a man best known for his political career is getting in on the wine scene. Abel Maldonado is no stranger to this region’s agriculture; his humble beginnings include working in Santa Maria’s strawberry fields alongside his immigrant parents. Today, after many years in public office, Abel is once again in the field, launching a new wine project with his daughter, Erika, called Runway Vineyards. Their goal is to release the wines and then build a tasting room—not just for their own benefit, but for that of their fellow producers, too.

“Santa Maria is different than other places,” he says. “For growing fruits, vegetables and grapes, and for involvement in the community, we get an A+. For marketing the area, we get just a passing grade. But if we help each other, we all benefit.”

Another Santa Maria winemaker, Gary Burk, is responsible for the highly regarded Costa d’Oro wine label. His family has farmed in Santa Maria for decades.

“People here are connected to the earth,” he says. “They’ve typically been here a long time, so they have a great understanding of the area. It’s nostalgic in that way. They’re not flashy; they’re just comfortable with who they are and what they do.”

Gary concurs that Santa Maria is not the darling of California’s wine regions. “I once read a wine critic’s review of California’s AVAs [American Viticulture Areas] who said Santa Maria is the least attractive of the bunch,” he laughs. “It doesn’t have the same rolling hills and oak trees you’ll find just a few minutes north or south. It’s more scrub brush with farmland at the bottom.

I guess I could have taken that review as an insult, but, in a way, I found it very comforting—maybe even promising.”

Poetic Justice

When the Ontiveros family bought Rancho Ontiveros in 1986, the land was stripped bare and well-nigh tapped. Over 100 oil rigs danced across the property’s 312 acres. The mineral rights had long since been sold, and water was sparse.

“It is the poetic weirdness of life that this place was just right for vines,” James says. “Who would ever have guessed? But now, it’s transformed.”

The land isn’t the only thing transformed. James and his family have, in a sense, been reborn through the Rancho Ontiveros story—a story that continues in the lives of James’ and his wife, Kristen’s, new twin babies, Lauren and Zane. If Santa Maria agriculture continues to inspire its advocates the way it has since Juan Pacifico Ontiveros’ day, those twins just might establish the Native 10 wine label. But, if they’re lucky, the place will remain as abundant and without pretense as it ever was.

Jaime Lewis is a sommelier whose work has been published in numerous publications including Central Coast Magazine, Edible SLO and Wine Country This Month. She lives in San Luis Obispo.
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