We recently had a chance to catch up with Alta Colina Wine's Maggie Tillman. She shared her thoughts on what makes Paso Robles such a special wine region, the challenges of running a boutique winery and vineyard, and which wines she loves right now.
Can you describe your winemaking style for us?
At Alta Colina, we're all about the Vineyard! We organically farm 31 acres of estate Rhones on two of Paso Roble's highest altitude hilltops ('Alta Colina' is Spanish for 'High Hill'). Our property gets lots of sun and the shallow shale soils stress the daylights out of these vines so we see wines of intensity and incredible fruit. Alta Colina Vineyard creates wines of depth, concentration, and fruit while maintaining balance and allowing for age-ability. Everything we love about great Paso wines!
What makes your wine unique?
Our property. Our fruit source has been consistent since day one and we have no plans to stray from the estate property. Visit Alta Colina and not only taste the wines but see the individual vines that you're drinking!
Do you have a wine that you are the proudest of?
Now now, we're not going to pick a favorite child! As a small producer (about 2000 cases annually) we have the luxury of only bottling wines we love. We distribute almost nothing, so we aren't beholden to the grocery shelf in the way big producers who are known for one thing can be. It's a real gift.
Can you tell us about Paso Robles? How does the local environment impact your winemaking?
Paso Robles is why we do this! Our owner/winemaker/my dad, Bob Tillman, started making wine in the garage in 1971 with far-flung thoughts of an estate property. Fast-forward to the mid-90's when he and my mom, Lynn, moved to San Luis Obispo. At that point, he started drinking Paso wines. Then making Paso garage wines. Then eventually buying and planting the 130-acre property that would become Alta Colina. It's the combination of our proximity to the Pacific, which provides Paso's signature warm days and cool nights, and our steep, exposed hillsides at Alta Colina that make our wines what they are.
What about the East/West divide in Paso? Do you think there is a noticeable difference in the wines?
Paso is geographically large so there are all kinds of microclimates across the region. Farming on Paso's farthest Eastern border versus the Western, coastal hills, of course, yields different wines. So will farming the north end of the Westside versus the south end of the Westside! That's part of what makes Paso Robles such a dynamic region. There's so much to explore and taste--no need to limit yourself to one corner.
Are you influenced by other winemakers? Can you name a few that made an impression on you?
Of course we're influenced by other winemakers! And other wines, other regions, other varietals. The world of wine is vast and we strive to be lifelong learners of viticulture, winemaking, and of just having a good time and cracking open a bottle! A couple local names that come to mind right away are John Alban and Stephan Asseo. They both really do the work on the growing and cellar sides and it shows in their incredible wines.
What are the last two wines you drank that were truly memorable?
Last week a friend brought over a beautiful bottle of Domaine de la Bastide. Between the company, the wine, and the occasion, I'll remember that one for a long time! I also recently grabbed a glass of a 2011 Chardonnay made by Vailia Esh at Desparada. Her wines are always different, interesting, and damn delicious!
What was your biggest wine making horror story?
In 2009, we made a gorgeous late-harvest Roussanne. It had a brilliant golden color and over-the-top awesome aromatics. The week before ordering the screen printed bottles we doublechecked all was good to go and discovered that it had started fermentation again and had morphed from an unbelievably beautiful dessert wine to an off-dry, off-brown, gloppy mess. Sigh. Such a bummer.
Is there any new winemaking technology you are excited about?
While we aim to be at the forefront in terms of quality, admittedly, the way we get there is generally pretty old school! We rock almost exclusively used equipment that we picked up from our neighbors although we were preeeeetty excited about the addition of a new pump this year!
How do you distribute your wine? Where can people buy it?
You can find our wines at about a dozen high-end retailers across the state of California and another handful of CA restaurants so your best bet is to become a member, visit us at the estate property, or give us a call. Or let us know about a great shop or restaurant in your neighborhood. We love working with other high-quality, privately-owned operations.
What advice can you give to winemakers who are just starting out? Is there a secret to success?
If there's a secret we'd love to hear it! We try to keep our head down and do the work. For us, it's about quality so everything we do, any new equipment we buy, anything new we try in the Vineyard, we always ask ourselves, "will this make the wine better?" If the answer's yes we'll probably go for it! So, I guess our advice would be, find what you want to be about and don't get distracted on your way there.
How do you drive people to your tasting room? (promotions, social media, advertising?) What works the best?
Word-of-mouth from our members, neighbors, and friends is a huge driver of new tasting room traffic for us so we work hard to be good neighbors. We also enjoy using Facebook and Instagram to stay connected with our members and industry friends. We're also active members of our local winery association, the PRWCA, and the Rhone Rangers.
We often hear that winemaking is a great way to lose money. How do you balance the art of making wine with the business side?
Making wine is the easy part! Selling that wine catches people off guard sometimes. Unless you can build the Taj Mahal, this is not an "if you build it they will come" situation. It takes work to spread the word and provide incredible service. Luckily balance is often built in. We make wine! Of course, we enjoy it as we go.
Do you find it hard to attract Millennials to your brand? Do you make a specific effort to reach out to them?
Alta Colina is multi-generational. Bob is a Boomer and I'm a Millenial. Between us, I think we do a reasonably good job of connecting with our members and guests. We certainly haven't cracked the Millenial nut wide open although our social media efforts and the addition of the Trailer Pond at Alta Colina (vintage trailer camping with our partner, Tinker Tin Trailer Co.) are fun ways to connect with younger generations.
What do you think the biggest business challenge is for wineries of your size?
The to-do list only gets longer! At 2000 cases we're not big enough for a huge staff even though there's lots of work. Also, wholesale at this size is tricky. As we grow beyond 2000 cases we won't be big enough to demand much from a distributor and we won't necessarily be able to sell everything direct.
If you could change one regulation related to winemaking or sales, what would it be?
Anachronistic direct shipping laws across America would evaporate and we would be allowed to ship our wines to everyone in the US over 21!
We are hearing a lot about organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines and agriculture. What do these terms mean to you? What should they mean to consumers?
At Alta Colina, we're very committed to organic farming. For us, that encompasses sustainable farming practices as well as thinking toward the long-term health of our land. We're 100% estate. It's at our core to keep this dirt happy! I hope that consumers take notice not only of an 'organic' or 'biodynamic' logo but are motivated to dive a little deeper and look for small, family-owned ag operations. There are lots of amazing farmers around here!
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