It’s a typically idyllic day at the Santa Margarita vineyard. Grapes are plumping up in the sun, and a bear is munching venison amid the pinot noir.
Yes you read right.
“Evidently, our pinot noir goes very nicely with venison,” joked co-owner Karl Wittstrom, recalling the day a vineyard worker came upon a huge black bear eating a deer that it had killed in the pinot noir section.
The bear’s comfort level among the grape trees of the Santa Margarita Ranch, Margarita Vineyard and Ancient Peaks Winery could be attributed to the relationship that the owners—three local families: the Wittstroms, Rossis and Filipponis, who bought the vineyard holdings in 1999—maintain with both the wildlife and the original inhabitants of this land in San Luis Obispo County, California, the Salinan and Chumash tribes.
Perhaps the ranch attracts so much wildlife because the juicy grapes growing on succulent vines are an irresistible temptation to many resident animals. It’s a tricky proposition for any environmentally conscious business owner, like Wittstrom, to balance wine cultivation with the stewardship of the land and its natural inhabitants.
“We probably have between eight to ten bears on the property,” Wittstrom said. “And a large bear can eat up to 100 pounds of fruit a night.”
That can add up very quickly to about $3,500 of damage inside of 20 days, he said, but added that it’s a relatively small price to pay.
“We really only have issues with them for two or three weeks,” Wittstrom said. “We figure they get their share, and there are only a few of them, so we are happy to share.”
The ranch sits on 14,000 acres of prime agricultural land. For thousands of years, the Salinan and Chumash tribes called this region home.
“I call the land tipu; it is one of the largest villages in northern Chumash territory,” said Carmen Sandoval, who is a direct descendant of the Chumash band that once lived there. “I think of the land as a village. I don’t think of it as a ranch or as a property.”
Tour guides will tell you that the property is big enough to comfortably accommodate 168 Disneylands, if you can imagine that. Not only is it one of the “oldest, continuously operated cattle ranches in California,” having been farmed for more than 170 years, but it is also home to Margarita Vineyard, a 900-acre habitat where wine grapes and wildlife coexist peacefully.
Well, sort of.
Unlike most vineyards, which are typically planted on flatlands next to a farm, Margarita Vineyard is surrounded by nature—thick forests, grasslands and multiple ecosystems—making it the perfect home for a menagerie of nature’s most beautiful creatures, large and small, fearsome and harmless, who roam the lands freely.
“We have black bears, mountain lions, wild pigs, black-tailed deer, quail, dove, fantail pigeons, badgers, coyotes, squirrels, raccoons, possum,” said Wittstrom. “And we have two pairs of bald eagles, three pairs of golden eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, wild turkeys, owls, bats, turtles, all kinds of frogs, thirty to forty different species of birds, and of course, snakes.”
In the midst of all this nature, the ranch has visitors of the two-legged variety too, as the three families also run Margarita Adventures, which offers guests an opportunity to Zip-line and kayak.
“Because we have so much land and so much area, it gives people the opportunity to see things that they normally don’t get to see in their natural environment,” the 62-year-old Wittstrom explained as one of the owners’ reasons for opening up the property.
However, the vintner is not happy to share with wild pigs, which wreak havoc on the vineyard.
“The pigs are prolific breeders and have sharp noses and tusks that root underneath fences. They dig up roots on young vines and eat the whole plant,” Wittstrom said, describing the scene of the wine crime. “They can root up ten or fifteen acres at night, and in the morning it looks as though someone came in there with a bulldozer.”
However, squirrels and starlings do the most damage, according to the grape grower.
“The squirrels eat everything—the vines, grapes and grass,” Wittstrom said. “I don’t know how many squirrels it takes to eat the same amount of grass as a cow, but there are areas where there is not a blade of grass in a 10-acre area because the squirrels have decimated it.”
The ranch’s size makes it impossible to keep their population in check. Likewise, starlings, an invasive species, gather on the vineyard in huge numbers and have voracious appetites.
“If you don’t do anything, they will completely destroy your vineyards and eat every grape off of it,” said Wittstrom. To keep the starlings at bay, netting is placed around the vines as the main deterrent.
Nature has been unkind to Wittstrom’s business, too, as he has not been immune from the catastrophic drought in California.
“We had virtually no rain until the first week in March, and were forced to feed hay to our cattle for four months. In a normal year, the cattle would be eating native grass,” he said.
The drought has also forced him to reduce his herd by 35 percent and sell calves three months early. Luckily, well water has been plentiful enough to supplement the supply,” he said.
Not only do the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch honor the wildlife, but they also have a great respect for the American Indians who once inhabited that land.
“When the vineyards were planted, we brought in archaeologists to make sure that any Native American sites remained undisturbed,” said Wittstrom. “Every effort is made to avoid sensitive areas, and we try to treat any artifact we find respectfully.”
Wittstrom and the other ranch owners have befriended Chumash native Sandoval and her family, who have been given special privileges to roam the land. The 43-year-old Sandoval, who lives on the Santa Ynez Reservation, likes to visit frequently to perform ceremonies, pray, plant medicinal herbs such as sage and mugwort, and study the sun and moon at an observation stone that she and her family placed there.
“I’m very grateful to be able to offer my prayer to this sacred land, to be able to drive by or walk into the land and know that my ancestors did the same centuries ago, long before I was able to do it,” Sandoval told Indian Country Today Media Network. “It’s incredible knowing that when I look up at the night sky, it is also in the same pattern that my ancestors were able to observe their night sky so long ago.”
Sandoval said that strangely enough, she has always been drawn to the land that the ranch sits on, even before she discovered she was a descendant of the Chumash village there.
“There were times when I would drive up two to three times a week to become more familiar with the land because it kept pulling me up, drawing me back,” she said. “Oftentimes, when I go and visit, it’s really hard for me to leave because I feel that there is more that I need to do there.”
Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and wine drinker who lives in the suburbs of Northern California, far, far away from lions and tigers and bears.