cowgirl in the vineyard amanda higgins cowgirl magazine

Story and photos by Ken Amorosano

OPENING SPREAD: Amanda Wittstrom Higgins and her husband, Sam, on their Cambria, California, cattle ranch.

California’s Central Coast is an amalgamation of stunning coastline, dramatic mountain peaks, vast cattle ranches, and some of the best wines in America.

The Paso Robles AVA sits halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, just a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.  The region is home to more than 200 wineries and some of the most dynamic and highly rated wines and vineyard sites in all of California.

Nestled at the southern end of the growing region is the Santa Margarita Ranch.  A location breathtaking in views, cattle ranching, and winemaking, that dates back to the 1700s when Franciscan Missionaries settled in the region.  

In modern day winemaking, it takes way more than a prowess for grape growing, harvesting, and bottling to make a successful wine.  It takes a business acumen that involves much beyond the farming and harvesting of fruit.  In order to be successful, it requires innovation, marketing, national distribution, unparalleled hospitality, teamwork, beautiful wines, and a deep knowledge of the land, regions, and all its possibilities.

It helps when your roots run deep in the region.  It helps when you know the terrain firsthand, and in the case of Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, it helps to be a cowgirl.

The fourth generation Central Coast native’s family has been involved in agriculture and ranching since her grandfather, Waldo Carminati’s, parents immigrated from Italy.  Waldo was raised on his family’s dairy farm and ran cattle nearly his entire life throughout the hardened and rough terrain of the Paso Robles region. 

Amanda’s grandmother, Betty June Cass Carminati, is a direct descendent of Captain James Cass, a New Englander who established the coastal beach town of Cayucos in the 1870s. 

Her parents, Karl, and Cindy Carminati Wittstrom, were also raised in the region and continue in the family tradition of and making a living from the land with a deep tie to horses and cattle.  Karl says, “All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy, cowboys always stood up for what was right.”

It was only natural that Amanda’s love affair with agriculture and horses was nurtured at an early age.

“I think the minute I could get on a horse is when I was riding,” Amanda remembers.  “I can remember being put to bed at a late-night team roping in the back of my dad’s pickup truck.  We always roped and had horses.  Looking back, so much of what shaped me as a person and a business professional has really been horses and cattle, especially when dealing with the colts.”

“Each day, you just want a little bit of progress.  Depending on the animal, you can ask for more or go slower.  When you first start, you may want to pick up its feet, then perhaps load into the trailer.  The first few times of something new is always a challenge, it’s slow and steady that wins the race.  The secret is not giving up and to go at the pace the animal is comfortable with.  Too much pressure can be disastrous and too little won’t yield results, it’s that perfect balance.”

Cattle branding was Amanda’s favorite activity growing up, in part because she got to hone her riding and roping skills. On the other hand, it gave her the opportunity to meet her neighbors and savor the close bonds and personal relationships so prevalent in the ranching and agricultural community.

Members of Dream Big Darling: Macey Cox, Christine Wilson, Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, Abigail Lopez, and Lacie Johns.

Team Roping was a natural offshoot of the cattle work, and Amanda developed her skills as a competitive header, becoming more and more addicted to the sport as she matured as a horsewoman.  She recalls how this fun family and community event shaped her as a businessperson. 

“As a header, you are the first step in the success of your team.  How you break out of the box, how you handle the cattle and set up your partner is what determines whether you win or lose.  It’s very similar in life and in business relationships and leadership.”

With her entire life so far dedicated to ranching, it wasn’t until she graduated from California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo that Amanda’s true passion and future agricultural career came into clear view. Her timing could not have been more precise, and her life-long love for the region, its terrain, and people, could not have made her more prepared.

Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, Cowgirl in the Vineyard.

In 2005,  Amanda’s family joined forces with the Rossi and Filipponi families to create wines from their estate vineyard located on the group’s historic Santa Margarita Ranch.  The historic cattle ranch spans nearly 14,000 acres with nearly 1,000 acres planted to grapes and 17 different varietals grown.  Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, this breathtaking site is known for diverse soils and a cool climate.

As part of this venture, the partnership created Ancient Peaks Winery which specializes in wines from the Estate Margarita Vineyard, the prominent varietal being Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was a dream come true for Amanda, who dove deep into the agricultural and viticultural business aspects of running a winery, eventually becoming the enterprise’s Executive Vice President, taking on the tasks as if she was born to do it.  And she was.

Clockwise From Top: The family photo: Amanda with her husband, Sam, and children Cecilia and Cooper; Amanda and team roping partner, Courtney Burton; Black Angus on the family cattle ranch.

Working with her partners in the areas of marketing, national distribution, distributor alliances, as well as direct to consumer programs, Amanda and her teammates successfully brought the brand to national recognition while Amanda became well versed and recognized in the world of wine production. 

The Ancient Peaks Winery, and its tasting room and café, is a shining gem of the operation and is a true reflection of the passion that Amanda and her partners have for their products.  Exuding character and a confidence in the wines they offer, the tasting room and café is nestled amongst the quaint shops along California’s historic El Camino Real at the center of Santa Margarita, the charismatic small town adjacent to the southern border of the ranch.

 Left to Right: Santa Margarita Estate Vineyards; A bottle of Ancient Peaks Cabernet Sauvignon.

“My passion for agriculture and love for people and developing businesses and individuals in the workplace has really centered me on what I’m doing now,” says Amanda.  “It’s been a dream to be part of this region and to be a voice to promote all of its possibilities.”

Through her tenure in the industry, Amanda has become a nationally recognized leader in the wine and viticulture industry, receiving recognition as a female executive succeeding in a business predominantly run by men. 

In 2019, she was recognized as a Wine Enthusiast Top 40 Under 40 award honoree and a Social Visionary of the Year nominee at the Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Awards. In 2020, she was selected Central Coast Wine Industry Person of the Year and was included in the SLO Tribune’s Top 20 Under 40 list.

Her passion for and deep knowledge of all aspects of the wine and spirits business, as well as a commitment to promoting the California Central Coast wine region worldwide, have established her as a key voice in the evolution of the American wine and spirits market.

In 2022, Amanda began a new chapter when she launched Full Cup Solutions, a full-service consulting firm for the agriculture and beverage industries whose businesses are seeking innovative strategy and long-term success. 

“So often, in order to be successful, you have to master so many skills,” says Amanda.  “You must be adept in social media, direct to consumer, events, HR, and creative thinking.  It’s difficult for many businesses to have all those skillsets wrapped up in one small company.

“My idea was to come forward and bring a different level of skills and experiences to companies so that they could succeed in the world of agriculture and wine at any size.”

In addition, Amanda continues to develop and nurture a project close to her heart, Dream Big Darling.  In 2018, she founded the nonprofit dedicated to cultivating the next generation of women in the wine and spirit’s sector.  Driven by Amanda and a team of successful women and men in the industry, the program is aimed at cultivating success within and lifting others to reach their full potential. The program includes leadership retreats, personalized coaching, education, tasting events, professional workshops, and networking.

“Dream Big Darling is an incredibly important part of who I am and something I’m very proud of,” Amanda reflects. “Its simple mission is to teach this next generation to dream bigger, truly believe anything is possible, connect them with a support system that helps them achieve those goals, and always lead with kindness. 

“Darling is what my grandmother Betty called me.  She was a huge inspiration in my life.  When she passed away at 83, there were 600 people at her funeral.  She was not a wealthy person, and she was not famous. But what I realized that day was that she touched so many people with kindness.  That’s the legacy I want to leave for my children and my community.  If we can succeed, we are going to make this world better for the generations that follow us.”

When not behind her desk, Amanda is in the saddle on her family’s cattle ranch and spending time with her cattle rancher husband Sam Higgins, and children Cooper and Cecilia.

“One of the things that’s most important to me is the preservation of agriculture and the Western lifestyle. My husband and I both raise our children in this environment and make sure that they understand and care for animals and embrace this Western way of life. 

“I think that most people are dying for authenticity. Whether it’s Western lifestyle or perhaps something else, I think showing the next generation a peek behind the curtain of who you really are and not being manufactured is really important.”

A Family Affair

What started as an invitation from Kawasaki marketing turned into a cultural adventure for an enthusiastic team from COWGIRL. The assignment was to travel to California’s majestic Central Coast wine region to meet, photograph, and interview Amanda Wittstrom Higgins, one of the wine industry’s most important viticulturists and executives who also happens to be a cowgirl.  Telling her story was pretty straightforward as you can see in the preceding pages, but the story of the overall adventure is a bit more complex.  The team consisted of my wife, Lucinda, and I driving in from Arizona, COWGIRL Brand Rep Geena Marcuzzo driving down from Monterey, Brand Rep Alexandra Morcom and Features Editor Carly Billington flying in from Oklahoma and Arizona respectively, and COWGIRL makeup artist extraordinaire Julie Koeth, who drove up from her Southern California base.

Also joining the team were Kawasaki marketing staff Jon Rall and Joslyn Petty, who drove up from Southern California with two truck and trailer loads of spanking new Kawasaki Mules and ATVs.  

Amanda chases a Smarty Steer pulled by a Kawasaki Mule Pro-MX SE.

For many years Amanda and her family have used Kawasaki side by sides for nearly all their ranch and vineyard needs. From roping practice, cattle work to vineyard operations.  Amanda says, “Kawasaki has a great product, the units are reliable and meet all of our needs on the ranch and in the vineyard.  It’s great for taking groups or family drives and the generous cargo space is ideal for hauling.”  

Left to Right: Fred, the family pig entertains Cecilia during the family photo shoot; Amanda and husband Sam, with children Cecilia and Cooper in the arena.

The plan was to arrive on the afternoon of day one to interview Amanda and begin our photography essay on her and her husband Sam’s cattle ranch in Cambria, just a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The drive up for Lucinda and I was truly spectacular.  Spending the night before in Santa Barbara, the scenery of lush rolling California hills and spectacular ocean vistas was literally a breath of fresh air. Upon arrival, the team assembled as we set out to achieve our tasks.  Amanda’s husband Sam helped prepare the family’s roping arena for a photo session with Amanda and her roping partner Courtney Burton.  We got to meet Amanda’s mom and dad, Karl and Cindy Wittstrom, and Amanda’s two children, Cooper, and Cecilia.  Also on hand was a family pet called Fred, a determined and truly inquisitive pig who made it a point to be part of whatever the family was doing.  After the interview with Amanda and the roping arena and family photo sessions, the team gathered for an exquisite sunset BBQ dinner of surf and turf, catered by family friends Nancy & Dan Dorn and son Chris, owners of Dorn’s Breakers Café in Morro Bay. Winding down after an incredibly active day, the families and teams sat down over an Italian-themed table setting, getting to know each other as the sun slowly set over the lush green mountains.

Clockwise From Top Left: A hearty spread of beef, lamb, and salmon; chef Chris Dorn mans the grill; Amanda with good friend and chef, Nancy Dorn; authentic Italian dinnerware laid out for the big feast; Wild game sausage prepared to tempt guests’ palates; Amanda and father, Karl Wittstrom enjoying a sunset.

Day two had the teams meeting up at Santa Margarita Ranch, where we were to continue photography and filming among the freshly sprouting vines of the family’s Margarita Vineyards. We were joined by a powerful group of female executives that make up part of Amanda’s Dream Big Darling community which included Macey Cox, Quinn Company Product Support Rep, Lacie Johns, Marketing Strategist at Solterra Strategies, Abigail Lopez, Logistics professional G3 Enterprises, and Christine Wilson, Owner & Senior Designer at West Creative Studios.  The two crews merged seamlessly as we captured video interviews and still photography among the vineyards.

A Dream Big Darling dream team toasting at the vineyard.

Special thanks from the COWGIRL team to Amanda and her wonderful family, and to Jon and Joslyn at Kawasaki, for inviting us into the wonderful world of this California Central Coast community.

Amanda Wittstrom Higgins – @amandawittstromhiggins
Kawasaki – @kawasakiusa
Ancient Peaks Winery – @ancientpeaks 
Full Cup Solutions – @fullcupsolutions 
Dream Big Darling – @dreambigdarling_org
Courtney Burton – @courtneyhartzell6743
One Stone Cellars – @onestonecellars 
Oyster Ridge – @oysterridge 
Santa Margarita – @discoversantamargarita
Abigail Lopez – @loloabby 
Lacie Johns – @lacie_johns
Macey Cox – @maceyjayne 
Christine Wilson – @christine.wilson_
Paso Wine – @pasowine