In the year 2000, Swiss businessman and ardent environmentalist Hansjörg Wyss purchased 960 acres of the historic MacGillivray located on Adelaida Road, about 11 miles west of Paso Robles and just 14 miles from the Pacific. He renamed it Halter Ranch and began replanting and expanding the vineyard to 280 acres, the largest contiguous vineyard in Paso Robles west of Highway 101, and later built a new, state of the art winery. All of this was done consistent with his environmental principles. We visited Halter Ranch during our trip to Paso Robles this summer and toured the vineyard and winery with winemaker Kevin Sass. Our reviews of the Halter Ranch wines can be found in Report # 33 The Wines of Paso Robles and also at the end of this article.
Halter Ranch is an environmental gem. Aside from the 280 acre vineyard, about 700 acres are covered by oak trees that are being restored to natural woodland. This includes the world’s largest coastal oak, which measures 28 feet in circumference. The ranch includes a year-round spring, located near the old Victorian residence, that was used by native Americans prior to the arrival of settlers. It’s located not far from Adelaida, which was a thriving town in the late 19th century.
Building an Environmentally Sustainable Vineyard and Winery
In building his vineyard of 19 different grape varieties (mostly Bordeaux and Rhone) planted in 79 different blocks of steep slopes from 1200’ to 1700’ in altitude, Hansjörg Wys sought to minimize any negative environmental impacts. He expanded and protected the wildlife corridors already on the property for use by the mountain lions, badgers, bobcats, coyotes and other wildlife in the area. Owl boxes and raptor perches were constructed to encourage natural predators of vineyard pests. He strictly followed the sustainable viticulture guidelines set out by the Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT) and was SIP Certified (Sustainability in Practice ) by them in 2008. Consistent with this certification, chemical insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are replaced with natural ones, and legumes are planted between the vine rows to enrich the soil and to host natural predators to harmful insects.
The same environmental principles were followed in constructing the state-of-art winery with the capacity to produce up to 50 thousand cases of wine annually. It opened in 2011. In the winery, gravity flow is used to not only treat fruit gently but also to reduce the energy required to move wine. It’s also energy efficient in other ways—natural cooling is used to the extent possible. Recently, construction was completed on 20 thousand square feet of naturally cooled underground caves. In addition, rain water is harvested, with the excess used to fill the vineyard’s irrigation pond, although the annual average 25 inches of rainfall means the vineyards can be largely dry farmed. All waste water from the winery is recycled.
The Wines of Halter Ranch
All the elements now appear to be in place for Halter Ranch to become one of Paso Robles’ premier quality wineries, in addition to its environmental qualities. With its high altitude, limestone and clay soils, and south facing vineyards, it has the terroir to produce great fruit, and sustainable viticulture practices combined with low yields will help ensure its quality. The state- of- the-art winery permits the gentlest possible handling of fruit and juice, and underground caves permit wines to age naturally. And, finally, the introduction in 2011 of a new winemaker, Kevin Sass. A graduate of Fresno State, Kevin had previously made the wines at Justin.
During our visit to Halter Ranch, we tasted through some new releases, barrel samples, and some older vintages with Kevin. While Kevin’s wines are still a work in progress, we liked his 2011 Cotes de Paso Blanc, a crisp and flavorful white Rhone blend fermented in neutral oak. We also liked the 2010 Cotes de Paso Red, a Rhone blend based on Grenache which has a lovely touch of Tannat, a variety which Kevin will be using in future blends. Our initial impression is that Rhone and Bordeaux blends may be more successful than single varietal wines in the long term, but with all the changes under way at Halter, anything is possible. Our tasting notes and ratings of some of the wines we tasted appear below:
Halter Ranch 2011 Côtes de Paso Blanc Paso Robles ($24) 90 This is an attractive white Rhone blend showing a nose of ripe pear, white pepper, and sweet white melon. It’s soft with a creamy-lanolin like palate of light pear and peach complemented by tangy acidity, chalky minerals, and tangerine notes. Shows excellent balance. A blend of 33% Grenache, 26% Roussanne, and 20% Picpoul Blanc, with lesser amounts of Marsanne, and Viognier fermented in French oak and aged sur lie 4 months in neutral French oak barrels. Halter Ranch 2011 Rosé Paso Robles ($16) 88 This is a refreshing and pleasant Southern Rhone style rosé made of 44% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre, and 8% Picpoul Blanc. Fresh with a soft palate of red berry fruit, it shows good acidity. It’s especially pleasant to drink over lunch on the veranda of Edwin Smith’s Victorian house on Halter Ranch. Halter Ranch 2010 Cotes de Paso Red Paso Robles ($30) 89 A Rhone red blend, the wine shows a sweet perfume of spicy dark red fruit. It’s soft on the attack and mouth filling with layers of red and black fruit, good acidity, and firm tannins on the finish. A blend of 49% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre, 17% Syrah, with lesser amounts of Tannat and Counoise aged 14 months in 20% new French oak. Halter Ranch 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles ($32) 88+ A dark ruby Bordeaux blend revealing aromas of cassis, tobacco and mocha with a lush, velvet like palate that finishes with firm tannins. A blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, and 11% Merlot aged 18 months in 35% new French oak. Halter Ranch 2009 Syrah Paso Robles ($32) 89 While quite expressive on the nose and palate, the Syrah shows dry tannins on the mid-palate and big, firm tannins on the finish. It has a pleasant bouquet of blackberry, smoke and garrigue, and violets, dark red fruit and chocolate show on the palate. A blend of 81% Syrah, 11% Grenache, and 8% Malbec. Halter Ranch 2008 The Ancestor Paso Robles ($50) 89 A Bordeaux blend made from the best barrels, this wine shows a nose of violets, chocolate and dark fruit and an opulent, expressive palate of dark red fruit, brambles, blueberry and toasted oak. Dry tannins show on both the mid-palate and the finish.
Thanks to Halter Ranch and Deussen Global Communications for providing samples and information for this article.
Mike Potashnik and Don Winkler