A couple of months ago we read an article by a writer who declared that Paso Robles had finally come into its own in regards to being a wine region of respectable pedigree and it prompted some deep thoughts and soulful consideration. That introspection elicited this article from my partner and Enobytes co-founder Pamela Heiligenthal titled Paso Robles “My Thoughts on the Region” which clearly defines Paso Robles as no Johnny Come Lately. In a fortunate twist of fate I recently experienced the pleasure of visiting Paso Robles somewhat unexpectedly but ever so timely, so as to bring us current with the explosion of food and wine hospitality happening all up and down the California Central Coast. The primary location and perhaps the epicenter of the hospitality explosion happening on the Westside of Paso Robles and more specifically the Adelaida area is Halter Ranch, a 900-acre property with 280-acres producing Sip certified wine grapes.
To better understand the long history of this unique wine region here are a few of the facts. In 1815 the Franciscan Friars planted 22 acres of grapes for their wine, clearly establishing Paso Robles as one of the earliest sites for viticulture in the state of California pre-dating Agoston Haraszthy (founder of the first Sonoma County winery) by several decades. Westside Paso Robles beginnings for the wine industry took off in 1882 when Andrew York began planting vineyards on his 240-acre homestead. York’s proficiency with growing grapes soon prompted him to establish Ascension Winery, known today as York Mountain Winery. A butcher who did well during the gold rush named Edwin Smith came down from San Francisco around the same time as York and purchased 3,600 acres in the Adelaida District that would later form Halter Ranch Winery. York’s reputation for his winemaking skills was put to task when Ignacy Paderewski (former Prime Minister to Poland and famous concert pianist) bought 2,000 acres and named it Rancho San Ignacio. Planting Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines in the early 1920’s Paderewski contracted York to make his wines. This joint venture further established the Adelaida District on the Westside while bringing more recognition to Paso Robles for its wines. But enough of this stale ass history crap and on to the current state of affairs—Paso Rocks!
Adelaida has been attracting wine lovers, winemakers and viticulturist for a while and if you are heading to the Westside of Paso Robles your destination should be Halter Ranch. So many compelling aspects of this winery make it a destination property in a sea of wine history and experiences available when visiting this wine region. The 1800’s Victorian mansion Edward Smith built still stands today as a historical landmark for the area and a respite of hospitality for the winery’s guests. This property is on a mission to provide an experience like no other, from the way they make their wines, to the way they treat the wildlife they share the space with.
One of the most notable efforts regarding stewardship is the extreme measures they have taken to accommodate all the indigenous wildlife and the organic sustainable approach to caring for all the land and especially the vineyards. On the drive from San Luis Obispo airport to the winery it was pleasurable to take in the unusual light spectrum afforded the fortunate few who call this area home. Breathing in the clean pure air that even a Pacific Northwestern resident could respect one realizes just how special the California Central Coast can be. Arriving at the winery I saunter into the tasting room like a cowboy leaving the dusty trail; parched with a thirst for some tasty libations. As I belly up to the bar I was immediately greeted by one of the best teams of hospitalitarions I’ve ever witnessed in action. Sarah tasted us through the Halter Ranch wines starting with a Rhone blend Rose with a surprising addition of a little Picpoul Blanc it was wickedly refreshing. Next up was the Cote de Paso Blanc an impressive blend of Grenache blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul blanc and Viognier. We then progressed to the bigger and bolder reds then finishing up with a surprising Tempranillo that was impressive.
The crew (Tony, T. Flores and Sarah) managed to seamlessly weave from guest to guest confidently expressing the virtues and unique characteristics of each bottling they poured in a graceful and informative manner while maintaining an educational and entertaining rapport with each group of guests.
Halter Ranch is a very special place for a whole lot of reasons. The current proprietor seeks a holistic approach toward shepherding the land in an extremely non-invasive manner. A great example is how he dealt with wildlife getting to the water they depended on before his vineyards were planted. Tablas Creek the namesake for the Perrin family’s eponymous Paso Robles winery runs through Halter Ranch. In an effort to allow all wildlife unobstructed accesses to the creek for water at any time all vehicle crossings that pass through the creek have been altered to safeguard their access and protect wildlife. Respect for the land will always help bring the best fruit to bear on whatever your efforts are and this philosophy certainly is evident at Halter Ranch. The genius behind Halter Ranch and the talented team assembled to bring this vision to life is Hansjörg Wyss a world renowned philanthropist who makes the world a better place on a daily basis. An example of those deeds can be found in the wine produced at Halter Ranch and it is some of the best wine being produced on the California Central Coast.
My hosts provided a spectacular Santa Maria style BBQ to showcase the extraordinary efforts of winemaker Kevin Sass formerly of Justin Winery who joined the team at Halter Ranch in 2011. Kevin has been putting the essence of Paso Robles purity in a bottle for quite some time and over the years has garnered a lot of awards and attention for his well-crafted wines. I’m not sure who it was that got the luckiest, Halter Ranch when they got Kevin or Kevin when he became winemaker at Halter Ranch. If the product being produced is any indicator I’d say it was a win-win for both parties. Hans seems to have a knack for picking the right person for the right job. That statement certainly applied to the positions of Winegrower and Operations Manager held respectively by Mitch and Leslie Wyss. For more than a decade, they conceptualized and created the vision Hans has for Halter Ranch. Mitch recently retired to the position of Special Projects Manager while Leslie continues to oversee the day to day operations.
Halter Ranch grows 17 varieties of grapes offering a winemaker a virtual cornucopia of flavors to blend and create wondrous creations of magnificence. The traditional Paso Robles varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah produced here are top-notch quality but most exciting to my palate were the Grenache, Mouvedre, Petite Verdot, Tannat and Tempranillo. As standalone single varieties or when they are blended they all offer a lush brightness of fruit, very juicy in contrast to the dusty, dry spice flavors usually exhibited from this area. Only the Tempranillo of the four grapes mentioned is currently being offered as a single varietal bottling. Syrah, Mouvedre and Tannat round out a blend of Grenache called Cote De Paso. The Petite Verdot flexes her muscles and shows she is more than a blending grape in their prestigious Bordeaux blend Ancestor comprised of 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Petite Verdot and 26% Malbec. Ancestor is named for a heritage site Coastal Live Oak tree that is the largest Live Oak tree in the world situated near one of the higher elevations at Halter Ranch a mere six miles from the Pacific Ocean.
The tour of the expansive property that led us up to the Ancestor tree was impressive but it was quickly eclipsed by the tour of the state of the art, gravity fed winery with some of the finest production facility technology and equipment available anywhere at any cost.
As Halter Ranch becomes fully realized (they continue to build and plant) the real winner will be its customers who will enjoy the highest quality wines available anywhere at reasonable prices.
An interesting study of the components in the red blends was presented by tasting single bottling’s of the 2011 Grenache, Mouvedre, Syrah and Tannat. The Tannat was expressive smooth and vibrant, Syrah was powerful and tasty, Mouvedre broad and welcoming with Grenache offering up a fruity lightness in flavor and in tannin structure not usually associated with that grape. When tasted separately an appreciation for the blends grows and illuminates a package that is more than the sum of its parts. That statement applies to the Rose, Ancestor, Cabernet Sauvignon, both Syrah bottling’s and Cote de Paso the broad shouldered bold but balanced Rhone Ranger.
With so much going right at this prestigious property I am going to suggest something I have never done before and that is join their wine club it has a multitude of options and you will have access to club only exclusives with a winery that actually knows what the word exclusive means. Halter Ranch wines are not distributed nationwide at this time, but buying direct online is a good option, or contact the winery to locate a distributor in your area. Some brief tasting notes for some of the Halter Ranch Wines I tasted are as follows:
2012 Rose 90pts A curious blend that screams refreshing flavors reminiscent of wicked ripe strawberries, this wine will handle culinary applications no other Rose can come close to.
2012 Cote De Paso Blanc 89pts Another magical blend from winemaker Kevin Sass that becomes something that exceeds the sum of its parts.
2010 Ancestor 93pts A Bordeaux blend that brings grace and elegance with layers of complexity
2010 Cabernet Sauvignon 91pts Intense, ripe dark berry aromas and a soft tannins not usually associated with Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon.
2011 Cote De Paso 90Pts This refined Rhone Ranger oozes Halter Ranch terroir in every drop and is versatile enough for Black Tie and bold enough for Santa Maria BBQ.
2010 Syrah 91Pts Classic Westside Paso Robles Syrah that is big and balanced just the way it should be.
2011 Block 22 Syrah (a.k.a. Silver Label Reserve) 93Pts Some vintners will always be able to produce stellar wines in not such stellar vintages, this is one of those wines.
2011 Tempranillo 89Pts Vividly fruitier than any other California Tempranillo I have tasted. Complex blue fruit that that needs no blending components, look to Halter Ranch to produce some excellent Tempranillo in vintages to come
Will I buy their wine? You bet. Will I visit again, yes? I would invent frivolous excuses to get to go there again. A night on the town in Paso Robles with Kevin Sass and Tajin T. Flores proved to be a lot more interesting than it was back in 1998. Dinner at Thomas Hill Organics was a memorable experience every single dish was a success. The black lentil tacos were an unusually pleasant surprise. Pizza with eggplant crushed tomato fior de latte mozzarella , basil and an egg set the stage for what was to come next. Lamb cooked perfectly, day boat quality seared scallops and fresh line caught tombo tuna expertly rendered a perfect medium rare. The sauté, grill and the wood fired pizza stations were hitting on all cylinders. If you visit Paso Robles Thomas Hill Organic’s is a must not miss destination meal.
Watching Kevin’s smile beam wall to wall as he introduced himself to a nearby table who ordered the Halter Ranch “Ancestor” was endearing. For those diners meeting the winemaker was a memorable moment. Scenes like that play out every night in Paso Robles.
One thing that has not changed since I lived there back in 1998 is Cris Cherry’s Villa Creek restaurant and bar. Still standing after the earthquake, they still offer an outstanding wine list and Michelin star level cuisine. The late night entertainment from the band Onetime Spaceman was an added bonus that made it something that happens only once in a Blue Moon. We were treated to that celestial phenomenon also during our stay at Halter Ranch.
Driving away from Halter Ranch dropping down off the Estrella plateau into San Luis Obispo on HWY 101 has always been breathtaking scenery and that has certainly not changed. I was sad to see this visit come to a close. Now inspired, more than ever, I plan to indulge myself with some of Paso Robles Westside wines from Halter Ranch. Enjoy! If you have a Paso Robles story please comment and if you need more information about Halter Ranch give them a call or send them an email. Of course, if you are really cool you will follow them on Twitter .