Matt Wallace
Margarita Vineyard in California welcomes wildlife and tribes.

Wildlife Eats Free, and Tribes Are Welcome at Santa Margarita Vineyard

Lynn Armitage
7/6/14

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.

Wait, what?

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.”

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