Santa Maria Wines: The Legacy of Ranchos de Ontiveros

Written by Cori Solomon

November 24, 2023
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The history of Santa Maria includes the Ontiveros family story, Ranchos de Ontiveros, and the Santa Maria wines of Native9 and Rancho Viñedo.

The history of Santa Maria is entwined with the story of the Ontiveros family and Ranchos de Ontiveros. Today, Ranchos de Ontiveros includes the Santa Maria wines of Native9 and Rancho Viñedo, representing nine generations of a family legacy. It began with Josef Ontiveros and continues to the present day with James Ontiveros. The family legacy shows a passion for the land, whether cattle ranching or growing grapes.

Ontiveros Family History

It started in 1781 when Josef Ontiveros rode into Alta, California, with the Rivera Expedition. By 1837, Juan Pacifico Ontiveros acquired the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana Land Grant, amounting to 35,971 acres stretching through what is now Orange County and encompassing today’s Disneyland.

Around this time, Juan Pacifico’s future father-in-law received 8,901 acres, known as the Rancho Tepusquet Land Grant, which is part of the current-day Santa Maria Valley. Juan Pacifico Ontiveros and his wife, Doña Martina, built their adobe home in 1855. That adobe still sits on the property that is now Bien Naciedo Estate, which was sold to the Miller family in 1969. They called the property Santa Maria, and 25 years later, the city of Santa Maria was named after the property.

Juan Pacifico named the stream that ran through his property Santa Maria Creek. Floods ran through the valley in 1862, and they began calling the creek a river, which has remained the Santa Maria River since then.

Although the family sold off portions of the Rancho Tepusquet property, some remained. One property, Rancho Viñedo, was planted by the Woods family with chardonnay and pinot noir in 1973. Many of those original vines still exist. The Woods farmed this vineyard until 2012.

By 1975, James’ parents, Mark and Louise, built their home on Rancho Ontiveros overlooking the original Rancho Tepusquet property, now owned by others. Although James went to Cal Poly to study animal science and compete on the Rodeo team, he changed his major to fruit science. In 1997, he planted five acres with five pinot noir clones on what would become the Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard.

Ranchos de Ontiveros Property with old barn.

Wine Tasting area of Ranchos de Ontiveros with an old barn. Photo by Cori Solomon

Ontiveros Legacy Beyond 2000

James eventually moved to Healdsburg to manage vineyards in Sonoma County and the Russian River Valley. During that time, he traveled back to the Santa Maria Valley to tend his vineyard and planted three additional acres with three more pinot noir clones.

A meeting between James and Mounir Saoma, a consultant from Lucien Le Moine in Beaune, Burgundy, instilled the idea that the terroir of the Santa Maria Valley was ideal for pinot noir. It also inspired James to make his first trip to Burgundy. His love of Burgundy emerged immediately. After that visit, James teamed up with winemaker Paul Wilkins to produce the first vintage of Native9.

James leased the Rancho Viñedo Vineyard from Robin Woods in 2012 to access old vine and self-rooted chardonnay and pinot noir. This attribute added complexity to the Native9 and Rancho Viñedo wines. The first release of the Rancho Viñedo Chardonnay occurred in 2016 with Ranchos De Ontiveros’ new winemaker, Justin Willet.

Ranchos de Ontiveros owner James Ontiveros

James Ontiveros. Photo Courtesy of Ranchos de Ontiveros

The Vineyards of Ranchos De Ontiveros

Two vineyards make up the wines from Ranchos De Ontiveros, but each is distinct. The climate is similar: mild and cool Mediterranean climate with ocean breezes and fog, depending on the time of year.

Ranchos Ontiveros Vineyard is located on the southernmost side of the Santa Maria Valley. Although not a part of the Rancho Tepusquet Land Grant, it overlooks it. Today, the vineyard covers 153 acres. Walking the property, you see the remains of an abandoned oil operation. As it turns out, the windswept Garey Series sandy silty loam is ideal for growing pinot noir. Chardonnay grows on 50 acres, while 103 acres feature pinot noir vines. Native9 is sourced from two blocks that equal 8 acres of the vineyard.

Rancho Viñedo Vineyard lies approximately 2.5 miles northeast of the Ranchos Ontiveros Vineyard. The soils of this 12.75-acre Pleasanton Series over river-washed cobble are very different and millions of years older.

For James, the Rancho Viñedo Vineyard represents the generations of his family long gone since this vineyard lies on the land his family first purchased.

Ranchos Ontiveros Vineyard planted with pinot noir

Ranchos de Ontiveros Vineyard planted with pinot noir. Photo by Cori Solomon

Winemaker Justin Willet

Winemaker Justin Willet follows in the footsteps of Paul Wilkins, the winemaker from 2004 to 2016. Justin loves Burgundy wine and is interested in restrained chardonnay and pinot noir. He was one of the first to make a 100-point chardonnay. Justin shares that love of Burgundy wine with Ranchos de Ontiveros owner James. It was a trip the two took to Burgundy in 2015 that cemented their friendship and partnership.

Justin’s winemaking style speaks to the land of Santa Maria wines and what he calls “Chisel” to describe his winemaking style because it pulls back from the focus on whole cluster fermentation and stem inclusion, which initially defined earlier vintages. At the same time, he still focuses on terroir, perfume, and restraint.

Santa Maria Wines - James Ontiveros and Justin Willet

Owner James Ontiveros Owner and winemaker Justin Willet. Photo Courtesy of Ranchos de Ontiveros

Wes Hagen, Wine Ambassador

Discovering Native9 and Rancho Viñedo wines came about because of the prowess of Wes Hagan. A winemaker in his own right, he is now the brand ambassador for Native9. Meeting Wes offers more than learning about the wines under James Ontiveros’s umbrella; it is about Wes’s vast knowledge of the region. His passion for the Central Coast and Santa Barbara Wine Country comes through. It is like turning on a light. Wes is an educator with knowledge that helps you understand the terroir. For Wes, that sense of place comes through in the perfumes of the wine rather than its concentration.

Wes and I met at Wine & Fire, a Sta. Rita Hills event, when he saw my Salukis in the back of my car. He is a lover of sighthounds; he had greyhounds at the time, and my Salukis are members of the sighthound family. Since that chance meeting, we have met three times to explore the wines of Native9 and Rancho Viñedo, twice at the vineyards, and once at a luncheon for LA Wine Writers at A.O.C. in Brentwood.

Wes Hagen Brand Ambassador Native9

Wes Hagen, brand ambassador Native9. Photo by Cori Solomon

Visiting Native9

Native9 is not the typical tasting in a tasting room. The only way to preview the wines is through a special wine tasting at the vineyard. You start in the vineyards and move to a picnic area on the property where Wes Hagen gives you a vertical selection of chardonnays, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. The experience is 90 minutes and includes a charcuterie and a spice tasting. You have a chance to experience the family’s heritage in the vineyard.

The Santa Maria Wines of Rancho De Ontiveros Brand

Three varieties comprise the wine and portfolio of Rancho De Ontiveros Native9 and Rancho Viñedo. They are chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. The latter is sourced from grapes grown at Riata Oaks Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley.

All wines age 18 months in one-third new French oak. The chardonnay is barrel fermented. In the case of pinot noir, I was privileged to taste the wines of both Paul Wilkins and Justin Willet.

The Santa Maria wines I sampled occurred on three occasions. I visited the vineyards twice, and a group I lead, LA Wine Writers, had a tasting luncheon at A.O.C. Brentwood. From these three experiences, I sampled several chardonnay and pinot noir vintages, as each tasting consisted of a vertical.

Santa Maria Wines of Rancho de Ontiveros

The Santa Maria Wines of Rancho de Ontiveros. Photo by Cori Solomon

Native9 Wines

The grapes for Native9 wines come strictly from eight acres on the Rancho Ontiveros Vineyard. This label consists of only pinot noir. The pinots are characterized by floral perfumes that follow into the mouth with ripe red fruits accented by subtle spices.

Tasting 2013 through 2018 pinot noirs, my favorites were 2014, 2016, and 2018.

The 2016 Pinot Noir represents Justin Willett’s first pinot noir for Native9 and utilized 85% whole cluster fermentation, whereas the 2018 consists of 55%.

Native9 Pinot Noir

Native9 Pinot Noir. Photo by Cori Solomon

Rancho Viñedo Wines

The Doña Martina Chardonnays are citrusy yet savory, with hints of stone fruits, apples, and lemon zest. I sampled the 2018 and 2019 Chardonnay and was won over by the 2018.

Three bottles of Rancho Vinedo Chardonnay

Vertical of three years Rancho Viñedo Doña Martina Chardonnay. Photo by Cori Solomon

The 2018 cabernet sauvignon delivers a nice balance and smooth demeanor, displaying black and blue fruits with hints of savory spices.

Canada de Los Pinos Cabernet Sauvignon

Cañada de Los Pinos Cabernet Sauvignon. Photo by Cori Solomon

Articles Related to Sampling Santa Maria Wines

Sampling the Santa Maria Wines

Native9 and the Rancho De Ontiveros brand aim to produce Santa Maria wines with elegance and restraint. These wines are deliberate, historic, and sublime. They speak to the nine generations of the Ontiveros family who farmed the land and helped establish Santa Maria and the Santa Maria Valley to what it is today. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more of our favorite California wines.

The history of Santa Maria involves the Ontiveros family story, Ranchos de Ontiveros, and the Santa Maria wines of Native9 and Rancho Viñedo. Read the Wander With Wonder article about the best wines to taste when you visit Ranchos de Ontiveros and the Santa Maria Valley in California. | Santa Maria Valley Wines | Best wines in Santa Maria Valley | Native9 Wines | Rancho Viñedo Wines | Ranchos de Ontiveros | California Wines

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Santa Maria Wines: The Legacy of Ranchos de Ontiveros Legacy

Written by Cori Solomon

Cori Solomon, an award-winning freelance writer/photographer, based in Los Angeles, California, who focuses on travel, art, food, wine, and pets. She often highlights the story behind the restaurant, chef, winery, winemaker, or artist. Her background in real estate and art both play a role in her writing, whether it is the architectural splendor of a building, a historical-artistic rendering, or the artistry of a winemaker or chef. Since Cori often travels with her dogs, Salukis, she has a keen eye for pet-friendly stories. Wine is central to Cori, who founded the 50-member LA Wine Writers. Cori has earned her WSET Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits, received the NASA American Wine Specialist Certification and a NASA Spanish Wine Specialist Certification. Cori is a member of the IFWTWA, NATJA, SATW, TWC, TravMedia, CWA and DWAA. You can see Cori's website at www.writtenpalette.com.

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