A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II

This blog continues to follow Mike Sinor’s transformation from Assistant winemaker to Byron and Domaine Alfred wineries in California’s Central Coast, to the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery. Please look for the first post in the series: Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor

Sinor LaValle owner directs Ancient Peak Winery

“It was the lowest point in my life,” winemaker Mike Sinor said, after dealing with the deaths of family members in January 2006. “My head was all messed up. Yet even before my loss, I had already begun contemplating a change in work for both me and my family. I knew six months before [family deaths] a new challenge was needed. I believed my time with Terry Speizer [Domaine Alfred] was coming to an end, I just didn’t know it would happen so soon after my parents died. But despite what we were going through, I now knew it was time for me to explore another level of winemaking.”

Bernie Sinor on one of his hunting trips to Wyoming where he hunted big game (bison) in 2004.

Little did Sinor know at the time, but the 2012 Central Coast winemaker of the year, would have a 2006 spring to remember, even while mourning the loss of his father, Bernie Sinor and stepmother, Betty Ann.

“I needed to change positions because I could see Domaine Alfred was growing as we became successful, much the same way Byron Wines grew,” Sinor said. “Even before the 96-point score Wine Spectator gave the 2004 Domaine Alfred Pinot Noir [Califa Chamisal Vineyard], I needed a business opportunity. I was saying ‘no’ to a lot of jobs and wanted to do something right for my family. Yeah, it was crushing when my parents were killed and we endured a high level of personal pain. So Wine Spectator’s honor came at the lowest point in my life but I already had decided to leave. I knew there would never be a perfect time to change. And I know growth often comes through uncomfortableness. Terry understood I needed to leave. He’s a good friend and an entrepreneur himself.”

During the spring of 2006, when local proprietors and long-time wine growing families of Rob Rossi, Doug Filipponi and Karl Wittstrom approached Mike with a opportunity to be the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery, Sinor jumped at the chance to join them in May.

“I had never met these guys from the Santa Margarita Ranch, but from the start, it was a convergence of energies and focus,” Sinor said. “They had been reorganizing the operation at Santa Margarita starting in 2005 and it seemed a good fit. We became business partners rather than an employer/employee relationship. I wanted to have control over the winemaking process and they were comfortable with that. So, I said, ‘let’s start dating’ and we’ve been together ever since.”

Santa Margarita Ranch July 2012

Mike Sinor and I spent the day together at the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, just minutes north of San Luis Obispo, July 26. I wanted to find out why he had left promising positions at Domaine Alfred and Byron Wineries. The man who thrived on creating lasting relationships through his infectious attitude and positive, passionate energy, left sure-fire success for a restart winery. I wanted to find out why he had stayed on at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

Mike Sinor left Domaine Alfred Winery after receiving an offer to be the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita. The Oyster Ridge Vineyard is in the foreground with the Santa Lucia Mountains providing the backdrop.

While we met briefly at the Ancient Peaks’ tasting room, Mike pulled out a large coffee table book, offering a pictorial and historical background of the ranch and Santa Margarita. I was moved by his attention to names, places, land formations and background of the region. His perspective was so impassioned, it was as if he had been born there. Mike then offered to take me up to the working winery and vineyards. I agreed and looked forward to the 17-mile drive up into the heart of the Santa Margarita Ranch, through pastures of Slender Wheatgrass, Purple Needlegrass and Danthonia Oatgrass.

Mike’s 20-minute version of Ancient Peaks Winery and its history included how Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery leased a section of the ranch in 1999 for six years. They developed and planted what has become known as Margarita Vineyard. Remarkably, it was the Mondavi family who saw immense potential in the land, and accurately predicted that its diverse soils and marine-influenced climate would deliver remarkable wines.

While the vineyards and winery are 17 miles away near the Margarita Vineyard, the Ancient Peaks tasting room is in Santa Margarita, one mile east of Highway 101.

Our conversation digressed to include how the Franciscan missionaries planted grapes on the ranch as early as 1780. In fact the ranch became part of Father Junipero Serra’s famed Mission Trail, culminating with the establishment of Santa Margarita de Cortona, a sub-mission of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, in 1787. This historic structure, known as the Asistencia, was converted to a barn but remains a centerpiece of the ranch.

Santa Margarita Ranch has survived since the 1840s; however, in 1889, then owner Patrick Murphy sold much of the town’s land to Southern Pacific Railroad in hopes of getting a rail stop. He hoped to move cattle from this sprawling ranch that surrounded Santa Margarita.

Mike Sinor: Super charged, relational winemaker

Mike started humming the tune to Smokey and the Bandit as we neared the winery, located near Creston. When I asked why, he smiled and said this project is just like the song indicated. “We are just old-time entrepreneurs working on a project by the seat of our pants.” I didn’t ask him if he fit the Burt Reynolds persona or Jerry Reed’s truck driver character. But I did get the gist of the metaphor: Sinor delivers–no, Sinor over delivers wine quality for the price point. I can still see the gleam in his eyes as he gripped the steering wheel and sang, “We gonna do what they say can’t be done.”

However, while we walked around the Ancient Peaks Winery, I remembered what Ken “Byron” Brown told me about Sinor: Mike was a good-humored, energetic, young winemaker while he worked at Byron Winery years earlier.

“Mike Sinor stands out as a super-charged, friend of all; every one likes him,” Brown said. “He takes time for relationships but not at the expense of his work. Mike is extra double energy. He brought excitement to the team and ignited everyone at Byron each day.”

During his winemaking career, Mike Sinor, right, worked with Tim Mondavi, left, and Ken “Byron” Brown while creating wines with Byron Winery.

As we walked by the 2011-filled barrels safely tucked away in the aging room, we got to talking about wine, Mike’s preferences and who he enjoys working with besides his partners at Ancients Peaks.

“Actually, I don’t drink a lot of Ancient Peaks wine at home,” Sinor said. “It’s a little like only eating your mom’s spaghetti. If I drink the wines I help create everyday, I won’t get better. Like Burgundy’s winemakers, I want to make wines as good as their grandparents. We don’t have a rich, long history and culture of winemaking like they do in France. So if I’m not improving my pallet, I’m losing.”

Sinor went on to say he chooses to enjoy friend’s wines and finds it refreshing to try different wines from around the world.

Since 2007, Mike Sinor has been the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

“For instance, I really like Broadside Wines Cabernet. It is made by winemakers Chris Brockway [Broc Cellars] and Brian Terrizzi [Giornata wines] who are very passionate about wine that is done well; their wines transmit place. In other words, their wines exhibit my mantra: ‘The message is the place; the messenger is the wine.'”

As we continued to walk the grounds of the winery, Mike showed me how Ancient Peaks has added buildings and updated the old Creston Manor and Vineyards that Jeopardy! game show host Alex Trebek used to farm. The latest addition was in spring of this year when extensions were added to the Margarita Vineyards.

Story is unfolding, evolving in vineyards

Our trip across the ranch ended when we stood on a rise overlooking the Oyster Ridge Vineyards. I marveled at Mike’s zeal as he spoke of the land, rich in fossils from an ancient sea bed, adjacent to vineyards planted in shale, sedimentary, volcanic and granite. Mike was spirited and had a fanaticism or fixation on soil that many in this country have for baseball or football. And when we stopped to walk the Oyster Ridge Vineyard, he held a football-sized, petrified crustacean like it was a trophy.

“These (oysters) are high in calcium and, when they are crushed or broken down, create a soil profile similar to those found in the world’s most prestigious grape growing regions.” Sinor beamed as he spoke and the pace of his voice quickened, rising in intensity while we moved from row to row.

The Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge Vineyard soils include crushed and larger pieces of ancient, petrified crustaceans. The vineyard was a part of a large seabed millions of years ago.

He spoke about the legacy of environmental stewardship at Margarita Vineyard as if it was his own child. The vineyard advanced to “Sustainability in Practice (SIP),” and was certified by the Central Coast Vineyard Team in 2010.

“There still are places that are compelling to plant but I am still trying to figure out who we are and how to stay on target,” Sinor said. “We have five wines at Ancient Peaks and three White Label wines. And with the longest running ranching operations in California and new zip line business always demanding attention, I am determined to stay in constant watch to focus the winery’s goals to offer high wine quality for the price point.”

Wine Spectator agreed with Mike’s assertion and promoted Ancient Peaks as “Best of the West for $25 or less… 2009 Zinfandel, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Merlot” in their April 2012 issue.

The 300-400 cases of Sinor-LaVallee [Mike Sinor’s personal label] wines are created from about 14 rows of fruit from the Talley-Rincon Vineyard in the Edna Valley.
I asked Mike how he ensured there was not a conflict of interest between his Sinor-LaVallee label and the Ancient Peaks wines he consulted on.

“I am working with about an acre of fruit from the Talley-Rincon Vineyard and the Sinor-LaVallee wines I make are not meant to compete with Ancient Peaks,” Sinor said. “I am working with 2-4 barrels of wine from 14 rows. Actually, the diversity of exposure is what makes my consulting for Ancient Peaks exciting. The time spent with both brands requires and puts into practice a balance of reading/studying, keeping me fresh. This is fun! I’m honored to do this. Do the math: I get to live at the beach.”

Mike Sinor is married to Cheri and they live in the Edna Valley with their two children: Tomas (12) and Esmee (10). All four of their thumb prints appear on every bottle of the family wine label. “By definition, I am an alcoholic,’ Sinor said, “but I mimic a healthy lifestyle to my children, showing them how to live responsibly.

“I look to enjoy and share my life wife my family and community in good and bad,” Sinor said. “We are born to suffer, grow to overcome suffering. I have my dad’s and previous winemaker’s work ethic. They inspired me and now I work with many of my heroes.”

Mike currently is the President of the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association and says he likes to volunteer his time in community events and organizations because “The wine business has given me everything I own. I owe it to wine.”

The Sinor-LaVallee wine label is named after Mike’s Spanish heritage and Cheri’s French last name. The Sinors appear here during their 2004 Burgundy trip and winery visits.

For more information on Ancient Peaks Winery and wines, visit Ancient Peaks Winery or Mike’s personal web site: Sinor-LaVallee Wines.

2 thoughts on “A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II

  1. Randy Fuller

    Greg, thanks for giving coverage to Mike Sinor. His wines at Ancient Peaks are among my favorites. He has some great terroir to work with at Margarita Vineyard, and he makes the most of it.

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