I’m wandering around the grand tasting tent at the World of Pinot Noir conference, focusing, as I often do, on a combination of wines that I know well, and those that I’ve never heard of. I walk up to a table with an unfamiliar label, get a little something poured into my glass, lift it up to my nose, and WHAM! It’s like I’ve been slapped upside the head and my senses have just kicked into overdrive. All of a sudden I’m hyper-aware and focused on this delicious experience: a wine that grabs me by the lapels, shakes me about, and says, “pay attention!” and then proceeds to give my taste buds a Rolfing that they haven’t had in some time.
There are a lot of experiences I cherish as an explorer of the wine world, but this is the one I live for. It’s like discovering buried treasure or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or, dare I say, the first touch of a new lover. Choose a metaphor that conveys the electric thrill of your senses being dazzled and delighted, and you get the picture.
This is how I discovered Presqu’ile Winery. It wasn’t so much that the wines tasted like nothing I had ever put in my mouth before, but that they had an energy and a personality that was quite distinct. Couple that with a tough-to-pronounce name and a handsome, gregarious, and dreadlocked South African winemaker, and you’ve got a lot to keep your interest.
Presqu’ile (pronounced ‘press-keel,’ and meaning ‘almost an island’) is a small family winery in the Santa Maria Valley that is just releasing its second vintage of wines to the market. It represents the budding dream and ambitions of twenty-eight-year-old owner Matt Murphy and his twenty-seven-year-old sidekick, best friend, and winemaker, Dieter Cronje (the one with the dreads).
These two met one summer in the relatively recent past at Ambullneo Vineyards, Dieter as assistant winemaker, Matt as bottom-rung cellar rat, and immediately hit it off. That summer’s work for Ambullneo was a critical juncture for both young men, who had independently begun journeys that would collide in their joint ownership of a winery just a couple of years later.
Matt Murphy grew up in the South, the scion of a family whose history was inextricably linked to the land, and what was underneath it. The Murphys started as farmers and timber men, and continued to be for a long while (indeed, they continue to be today), but the family’s name became well known when it added the world’s most valuable three letter suffix to the end of it: oil. Matt’s great grandfather started Murphy Oil Corporation, ensuring the longevity of his family’s name, and securing their fortunes for many generations.
The Murphys own a lot of land, but perhaps the most important piece of land for this story is a sprawling 18 acres of green on the Gulf Coast of Southern Mississippi. This classically moss-draped plantation bottom-land was the geographical heart of the family for the past two generations. Eventually including several part-time and one full-time residence for various members of the family, the place that Matt spent every summer he can remember was idyllic and perfect. They called it Presqu’ile. Until it was utterly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leaving the family with nothing but memories.
Matt can’t quite recall when he got interested in wine — sometime during high school he thinks — but it wasn’t an interest that really moved him, except as a casual thought that perhaps it was an interesting industry to explore. Part of this interest was no doubt due to his parents’ ever-growing love of wine, thanks to some time the family had spent in London when Matt was about five. Their obsession first with Bordeaux, and then later with Burgundy, colored Matt’s adolescence and likely planted the seeds that sprouted when on a whim, Matt spent a summer working at Signorello Vineyards in Napa the summer between his Sophomore and Junior year of college.
“I spent the summer suckering, pruning, leafing, and just working out in the fields with the guys, and by the end of the Summer, I was hooked,” he says. For the next 18 months he tried to stay focused on his studies in Molecular and Cellular Biology, but he had the wine itch. It didn’t help that his parents had just become partial investors in a winery project named Ambullneo, and he now had the opportunity to work the harvest and help with bottling anytime he wanted.
Six credits shy of a degree, he couldn’t take it anymore, and convinced his girlfriend Amanda to move to Arroyo Grande with him so he could get into the wine business. “I was the guy clearing pips out of the screens, shoveling out the tanks, and spraying down the concrete. I was a cellar rat, and I loved it,” says Murphy. His third day on the job he met a dread-locked guy with a funny accent carrying a surfboard.
Dieter Cronje was born in South Africa, and knew he wanted to be a winemaker at a relatively young age. He studied oenology in Stellenbosch, and then after college went on to work at Kanu Vineyards making Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chenin Blanc.
But then one fateful evening, at the owner’s birthday party, someone handed him a glass of 1997 Domaine Dujac Clos de la Roche Grand Cru Burgundy, and he knew that his future as a winemaker was tied to the mind-blowing experience that was in that glass. By the time he was finished with it, he was a winemaker on a singular mission: to find somewhere, anywhere, he could make Pinot Noir.
A year later, he had landed the job as assistant winemaker at Ambullneo, and was spending his weekends surfing with Matt, and his evenings talking passionately about the possibility of making wines that were balanced and finessed and cut against the grain of what they felt like was a trend towards heavy-handed Pinot Noir.
Four years later, Dieter, Matt, and Matt’s parents had become partners in a then un-named venture, and began looking for land up and down the coast of California where they could make cool-climate Pinot Noir. They looked as far north as Mendocino, and as far south as Santa Barbara, but when they all but stumbled on a gladiola farm for sale off of Clark Road in the Santa Maria Valley, they realized they weren’t going to have to go far.
The four now own a 72-acre parcel of land (their original purchase, plus ten acres of vines they convinced a neighbor to sell them between their parcel and the road), which they planted to classic Burgundy clones and specifications in 2008 and 2009, sinking a combination of rootstock and own-rooted vines into the very sandy soil. Thanks to their neighbor’s vines, they are able to release an estate vineyard designate wine even while their certified sustainably-grown vines are still getting ready for their first harvest.
Meanwhile, Matt and Dieter are using the relationships they’ve established in the area to source some excellent fruit from places like Solomon Hills, Bien Nacido, and Rim Rock vineyards.
Dieter’s winemaking philosophy lends itself towards the characterization of “non-interventionalist.” Lots of care is taken in the vineyards, grapes are hand harvested, carefully sorted several times and in the case of the Pinot Noir, the whole bunches are thrown into the tank, first to cold soak, and then to warm up and go through spontaneous fermentation with ambient yeasts. After fermentation, the wines are pressed and then put into barrels and not touched again until they are blended before bottling. The white wines get some filtering, but the red wines are never fined or filtered.
Mechanics aside, Presqu’ile wines demonstrate a combination of philosophy and passion that are unusual for a winery of any age, let alone one that has not yet released its third vintage. Matt and Dieter pick their Pinot Noir at no higher than 23 Brix, and use no more than 15% new oak on it, and about 10% new oak on their whites. The resultant raw materials, with excellent acidity and bright fruit untrammeled by wood, are then coaxed into a remarkable state of vibrancy and finesse by the time the juice hits the bottle.
It’s hard to overstate just how remarkable these wines are and the statement they make. Their Sauvignon Blanc tastes more Marlborough than it does California, just as their Chardonnay tastes more like Rully than it does Central Coast. In fact, I bet I’d be hard pressed to peg the Chardonnay as New World in a blind tasting. And the Pinot Noir? It has a freshness of fruit that hints at California, but possesses a brilliance and a tension that few California Pinot Noirs can match.
Presqu’ile is quite simply the most exciting new winery I’ve come across in several years. If Matt, and Dieter, and the other Murphy family members that have now been roped into the operation can maintain the current level of quality, and persist in their vision for the kinds of wines they are making now, I have no doubt they will become one of the best wineries in the region.
A winery and tasting room are currently under construction (to be completed in 2013). The winery produced about 2300 cases of wine last year.
Full disclosure: some of the wines tasted below were provided as press samples.
2009 Presqu’ile Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley
Pale gold in color with a hint of green, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and white flowers, and a hint of roasted nuts. In the mouth the wine is very NOT-California Chardonnay, with wet slate, white flowers, a hint of warm bread, and a fruit core that suggests unripe apple and pear. Gorgeous acidity and a very nice texture linger along with grapefruit zest flavors in the finish. No trace of oak on this puppy at all to the great credit of the winemaker. Excellent. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. Click to Buy
2010 Presqu’ile Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Maria Valley
Palest gold in color, this wine smells of the classic combination of gooseberries and cat pee, with a good measure of cut green grass thrown in. In the mouth, the wine has a cracked glass tinkly acidity and flavors of tart green apples, gooseberries, and green herbs. A nice minerality underlies everything and lingers with flavors of green apple skin into a finish. This would be hard to peg as a California Sauvignon blanc in all its racy greenness. Delicious. 13.7% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $23 Click to Buy
2009 Presqu’ile Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley
A cloudy light garnet color in the glass, this wine has a remarkable nose of raspberry and exotic floral scents mixed with deeper notes of wood. In the mouth, the wine offers much the same – great raspberry fruit and that delicate floral perfume that wafted out of the glass. Filigreed flavors mix with the faintest of tannins amidst a perfectly balanced wine. Quite delicious. 13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $42. Click to Buy
2009 Presqu’ile “Presqu’ile Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley
Light ruby in color, this wine smells of raspberries and white flowers. In the mouth it is bright with juicy raspberry flavors and a hint of redcurrant. Faint tannins and perfect acidity hold the wine suspended in a taut levitation above the palate where it seems to linger for a very long finish. Delicate and poised. Fantastic.13.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. Click to Buy.