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Taste of Tranquility

Skylar Stuck pulled the well-used Kawasaki Mule under a massive oak tree with a magnificent view south of Halter Ranch Vineyard’s 280 acres of vines, and switched off the motor.

The general manager of Halter Ranch and I sat listening to the stunning quiet of the Santa Lucia Range of Central California. At the intersection of Adelaida Road and Vineyard Drive, Halter Ranch is at the apex of Paso Robles’ west side.

A buzzard glided lazily through the cloudless azure sky, no doubt seeking some carrion. I figured he’d have better luck elsewhere than in these immaculate vineyards.

“This is the most exciting thing happing in the California wine industry, and nobody knows about it,” Stuck said.

His comment triggered a memory from a couple-three years ago during a previous visit to Halter Ranch, when I was sitting on the patio next to the tasting room with then-winemaker Bill Sheffer, enjoying a glass of Halter Ranch’s Syrah. He told me then about the astonishing vineyard that was taking shape, and beamed only the way a winemaker can who truly understands and appreciates what is happening. He was fortunate, Sheffer said, to be working in such a special place.

Skylar Stuck G.m., Halter Ranch vineyard

The same enthusiasm is evident in Stuck’s voice. The winery has been evolving since Swiss businessman Hansjorg Wyss bought 900 acres of the old Edwin Smith Ranch, including the Smith family’s historic Victorian two-story house built in 1885, which Wyss painstakingly restored. Since then the winery has undergone five distinct development phases:

Mitch Wyss (no relation to Hansjorg) was hired first to plant the vineyard. Originally from Los Angeles, Wyss transferred to Chico State for its agriculture program, and wound up staying 20 years growing kiwi-fruit. “My baby is the vineyard,” he said. “I want it to reflect the place.” A few years back, Wyss said, a winemaker to whom Wyss had sold grapes said he could taste Halter Ranch in that fruit. “That was the highest compliment he could have paid me,” Wyss said. That winemaker was Kevin Sass, who is now the winemaker at Halter Ranch.

Leslie Wyss, Mitch’s wife, was hired as operations manager. She put the business together, handling all the details—paperwork, human resources issues, everything. She and her husband continue in those roles today.

Once the vineyard began producing, Bill Sheffer was hired as the first winemaker and to design the winery. Sheffer had previously worked at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles, and also as a consulting winemaker in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. It was his global experience that he brought to bear in designing the winery, a state-of-the-art, gravity-flow structure.

When the winery reached the stage where it needed the focus of a general manager, Stuck was hired in that role to move the winery forward. Originally from Portland, Ore., Stuck had spent 14 years at Hope Family Wines before joining Halter Ranch. “When I started, we didn’t really have a vision for the winery; it was more of a grape-grower,” he said. “Now we have a vision of where we want to be in 2016.” That included evaluating the types of grapes being grown as the winery moved from selling 70 percent of its grapes and using 30 percent to using 70 percent and selling 30 percent. Stuck’s research suggested a retooling, so some of the 20 varietals grown were changed in favor of greater emphasis on others. “So we’re in transition now,” Stuck said. “Kevin and I are really excited for 2015 and ’16,” when the vineyard returns to full production.

New winemaker Kevin Sass is key to where Halter Ranch wants to go. A Fresno State enology graduate, Sass came to Halter Ranch from west-side neighbor Justin Vineyard & Winery, where he spent 11 years in various winemaking roles. His predecessor at Halter Ranch, Sheffer was highly regarded by the owner, but Sheffer told Stuck that Halter Ranch needed someone who could take the brand to new heights. That person, by all accounts, is Sass. While Sass is working in a brand new winery, he recognizes the true source of the winery’s potential greatness. He told Stuck: “I don’t need this winery to make great wine; I need this”—he gestured to the vineyard—“to make great wine.”

Kevin Sass: Winemaker, Halter Ranch Vineyard

It doesn’t take long to understand that what will make Halter Ranch great is the harmony that envelopes the place. It’s a harmony with the past, the present, and the future; with nature, with farming, with compatibility.

Start with the employee vegetable garden. A fair-sized patch of ground is devoted to this. Employees may plant what they want, harvest their produce, trade with fellow employees. The day of my visit I saw Brussels sprouts, squash, tomatoes, and onions growing.

Not one tree has been removed to make way for vineyards. “We just work around them,” Stuck said, including the massive “Ancestor Oak,” the largest known coastal live oak, estimated to be 450-600 years old.

The vineyards are on multiple trellis systems, including head-trained Grenache. Head-training allows the vine to produce canes in all directions—360 degrees—as opposed to training canes in one direction or another, such as a bilateral cordon, where the vine is in the shape of a “T.” The vineyards are all planted to expose the fruit to the morning sun; in the afternoon, the canopy covers the fruit, protecting it from the heat of the day. Sustainable farming practices are used throughout.

The wine will eventually be stored in a cave that is currently under construction. The semi-circular cave will have 20,000 square feet of storage and “should be ample for what we want to do,” Stuck said.

All this adds up to an exciting array of wines. Stuck said neither he nor Sass are interested in high-alcohol, flabby wines. “There’s a proliferation of cocktail wines,” he said. “We’re looking to make dinner wines. We want our whites under fourteen percent (alcohol) and our reds under fifteen.”

The tasting room extends the winery’s harmonious feel. You have to be going to Halter Ranch to get there, so you don’t have the large crowds found in tasting rooms along the highway. Hence, visitors get a more personal experience from the friendly tasting room staff. n

Make the effort to visit Halter Ranch, and try these wines:

2011 Rosé —recently won “best of class” award and gold medal at the Central Coast Wine Competition. This classic dry rosé is beautifully balanced, with bright fruit flavors and a clean, crisp finish.

2011 Sauvignon Blanc —I’ve long wondered why more sauvignon blanc isn’t produced on the Central Coast, so I was delighted to find this exquisite expression. It’s citrusy and crisp, reminding me of Sancerre. The winery only made 125 cases of this, so if you’re looking for excellent sauvignon blanc, call the winery.

2011 Cotes de Paso Blanc —five white Rhone varietals are used in this citrusy-melony blend. Delicious!

2009 Cotes De Paso —six red Rhone varieties make up this deep, rich blend. As in all the wines, balance and harmony are at the forefront.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon —81 percent cabernet sauvignon with small percentages of the other four Bordeaux red varietals. Fruitful, soft tannins, and texture, with a long, satisfying finish. If you’re still on the fence about Paso Robles cabernets, try this one and you won’t be.

2009 Syrah —distinctive syrah nose, well-structured, and balanced.

Great flavor and depth.

Photos by Gaylene Ewing, Faith Echtermeyer, Halter Ranch Vineyard

Article appeared in our 29-3 Issue - August 2012