October 2014 Issue of Wines & Vines

Choosing Santa Maria for Pinot

Presqu'ile Winery uses low-intervention winemaking with high-concept design

by Andrew Adams
Presqu'ile Winery
Grape processing and fermentation take place at higher levels of the gravity-flow winery. The roofline of these levels can be seen to the left of the winery's main entrance and tasting room, pictured in the center.

  • This article looks at the construction and equipping of the new Presqu'ile Winery, which features a gravity system to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
  • Winemaker Dieter Cronje is focused on expressing Santa Maria terroir with whole-cluster fermentation and a low-intervention style.
  • Contractors had to employ a unique process to drill a cave in the area's sandy soils.

Finished in June 2013, the new Presqu’ile Winery is several things at once. It’s an impressive piece of architecture and design as well as a showcase of top-of-the-line winemaking equipment and the manifestation of the owners’ vision of an estate winery.

Yet it’s also emblematic of the confidence the company’s president, Matt Murphy, and his family have in the Santa Maria Valley as the best place to make Pinot Noir in the United States. “I prefer the style of wines that we get from Santa Maria Valley over anywhere else, and for my money I think it’s the best place on the West Coast for Pinot,” Murphy says. “I’m constantly being vigorously debated on that, but this is all about what we like and what we think we can make work, and this is where we think we can do that.”

Presqu’ile (press-KEEL) is located near the small town of Orcutt, Calif., a few miles south of the city of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County on California’s Central Coast. The name is Creole for “almost an island,” or peninsula, and was also the name of a Murphy family retreat on the Gulf Coast that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Murphys’ roots are in the South, where the family founded an oil company that grew into the extraction and exploration giant Murphy Oil Corp., which is based in El Dorado, Ark., but has operations in oil and gas across the globe. The Murphys also have investments in forestry and agriculture.

Matt Murphy’s father, R. Madison Murphy, is a director and former chairman of the corporation’s board. Matt Murphy, however, took a slightly different path after graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in cellular biology.

Murphy says his parents always enjoyed wine at home, and he thinks that sparked his initial interest in wine that led to taking an internship working in the vineyards at Signorello Estate in Napa Valley in 2004. “That really kind of increased my interest in wine,” he said.

His parents also were investors in the small producer Ambullneo Vineyards in Lompoc, Calif., so in 2006 Murphy and his girlfriend (now wife) moved west from Colorado to dive into the wine industry. While doing the dirty and unglamorous work in the cellar at Ambullneo, Murphy met winemaker Dieter Cronje from South Africa.

Spending more time in winemaking further convinced Murphy he wanted to make his career in wine, and it also helped him define a vision of a family-owned winery. “I worked three harvests with (Dieter), and I liked it enough to talk my parents into leaving that project and starting our own, which was always the goal, I think,” he said. “The natural progression of this was always going to be to build our own place.”

Modern gravity flow
Like many new, modern wineries, the sophisticated design of Presqu’ile belies a relatively simple approach to winemaking. Architects with the San Francisco, Calif.-based Taylor Lombardo firm designed the winery, which is built into a hill to provide a gradient to facilitate the gravity-flow approach. Visitors walk into a spacious tasting area separated from the entrance of the barrel cave by two heavy glass doors. At the back of the cave, a large central shaft houses an elevator and flight of stairs leading to the next level, where the fermentation tanks and wine lab is located. The crush pad and more storage areas are one floor higher, at the top of the hill. From the main parking lot, the tasting room appears separate from a building of similar design at the top of a hill, when in fact they are connected by the cave and elevator shaft.

Cronje said gravity protects the wine from picking up heat during pumping as well as exposure to oxygen. He said using gravity is also a key principle of low-intervention winemaking. “I think a lot of people believe in the philosophy of being sort of more natural when it comes to making the product itself,” he said. “I like to select the people’s products that I enjoy—including the philosophy that they use behind it, which I think is very important to us.”

Presqu’ile is located on the site of a former gladiola farm, and the characteristics of the property further convinced Murphy that gravity was the way to go. “Gravity-flow was always something we were interested in trying to do, and once we found the land we knew right away—even before the architect came out—that this was where the winery should go and this is where the cave and tasting room should go,” Murphy said. “It just seemed like it was the right site for these things.”

Whole-cluster free fall to tanks
Grapes arrive at the winery in half-ton MacroBins and can be stored in a cool room right next to the crush pad, giving the winemaking team more flexibility with pick dates and processing grapes. The crush pad and cold room are located at the top of the winery.

Cronje can walk directly from the crush pad to a large area that’s level with the top of the red fermentation tanks. It’s here that the sorting and destemming equipment is placed. Workers dump the bins onto a sorting table and clean; whole clusters are dumped directly into tanks.

“I’m a whole-cluster guy personally. That’s how I fell in love with Pinot Noir was drinking Pinot Noirs that had a lot of whole cluster,” Cronje said. He adds that the sandy soils in Santa Maria produce grapes that don’t have much tannin, and rather than use new oak, he prefers to improve the tannin profile by using whole-cluster fermentation. “The aromatics are more true to the terroir than new oak. Anyone can buy new oak. That’s not special to me in any way, shape or form.” Cronje said the best grapes undergo 100% whole-cluster fermentation, while the rest of the wines are comprised of 80% to 90% whole clusters. “And it ages better in my mind, too. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, I know that.”

The grapes that do get destemmed are run through an Armbruster Rotovib destemmer and then further sorted with a Vaucher Beguet Mistral 60, both from Scott Laboratories. Aside from a minimal dose of 20 to 30 ppm of sulfur dioxide at the crush pad, Cronje said he avoids any other sulfur additions to help ensure a healthy biomass that he said leads to a successful wild fermentation.

For red fermentations, Presqu’ile is set up with 20 red fermentation tanks, which are a mix of stainless steel open tops from Criveller and concrete open tops made by Sonoma Cast Stone.

Cronje said one of the challenges of whole-cluster fermentation is the thick mass of material in the tank. To break that material up, workers use a heavy-duty pneumatic punch-down device designed by R.S. Randall & Co. and connected to a festoon system above the tanks. The plunger offers a free range of movement for the operator, ensuring that the cap is totally pressed and broken up from all angles during a punch down.

The concrete tanks are equipped with glycol coils in their base and sides that make it easy to warm up the must and get fermentation started. Each lot of red wine goes through a few days of cold soak, and Cronje said the ability to heat a concrete tank is a real benefit as the material is an excellent insulator. Tank temperatures are monitored and controlled by a TankNet system.

A small wine lab is located near the bay of white fermentation tanks. Murphy’s sister Anna helps run basic analysis. Jonathan Murphy, Matt’s younger brother, is the assistant winemaker. Some of the key lab equipment includes a Thermo Scientific 105 UV-VIS spectrophotometer, Raven centrifuge and a Thermo Scientific Orion 2-Star benchtop pH meter.

Once fermentation is complete, the tanks are drained out to barrels via gravity. All the tanks are situated so their bottom doors are about chest high, making it easier to dig out pomace. Red grapes are pressed with two Diemme basket presses.

White grapes are loaded directly into a Europress, and the juice flows through hoses to tanks below the crush pad. Cronje pointed to small access hatches located at key points on the crush pad floor that allow him and the rest of the cellar team to run hoses from one level to another. The winery has 22 tanks for white wines including more stainless steel tanks by Criveller and four concrete eggs from Sonoma Cast Stone and one by Nomblot.

The winery’s first harvest took place last year, and Cronje admits he was a bit worried about processing grapes and making wine in a brand new facility. “Obviously I was expecting a heap of crap, just everything breaking down, but nothing went wrong,” he says. “Every single grape hit the spot.”

Murphy said the winery processed about 160 tons of grapes but could easily handle more. “Capacity is so relative to the style of wine. I mean, we could make a lot more wine if we did a riper style, which we don’t. So obviously, capturing the wines within the numbers we like, we’ll pretty much run about 200 tons this year, and this place could obviously handle a lot more.”

Tank-to-barrel transfers are facilitated with fixed stainless steel lines that run down through the central shaft to the barrel cave. The wine lines are paired with compressed air and nitrogen lines that also run through the barrel room to facilitate wine movements there. “We fill a barrel in about two minutes,” Cronje said of the gravity system. “You know, a lot of people say gravity is gentle, but I couldn’t buy a pump that could pump the wine that quick.”

Barrels are stacked on custom racks, emptied with Rack-it-Teer racking wands and cleaned with Gamajet’s all-in-one system that enables workers to clean and rinse the barrels without moving them. Cronje is still deciding what barrels are best suited for the estate grapes, but he knows he plans to use all French oak and mainly neutral barrels. “This year we kind of experimented more than before just because we had to buy a lot more oak,” he said.

Challenging cave project
The 135-foot-long barrel cave was one of the more complex elements of the winery project. “Initially we looked at cut and cover—and it was a more economical way to do it—but the county had some issues with what they considered sensitive habitat,” Murphy said. “So originally the plan was to drill, then we went to cut and cover, then the county said well you need to probably drill it because of the impact it would have.”

In addition to the back and forth with the county, Murphy said the property presented a bit of a challenge because of the loose, sandy soils. When the final decision came to go forward with drilling the cave, contractor Magorian Mine Services had to use a unique method of stabilizing the cave walls as they drilled into the base of the hill. Before cutting into the hill, workers would inject a mixture of grout and concrete into the area around the cave to reinforce the walls. “The cave complex initially was probably twice as large as it is now,” Murphy says. “The initial design and programming phase of (the cave) was kind of pie in the sky, just do whatever you think would be the coolest, and then you get a reality check when you get the budget.”

Murphy declined to disclose exactly how much his family has spent on the winery, but he did say it came close to their initial budget forecasts. “All in all, I think we were pretty happy with where we estimated to be and where we ended up,” he said.

The winery went through multiple design iterations as Murphy and Cronje worked with the architect and then Summit Engineering on workflow, layout and where to place necessary infrastructure. Cello Maudru Construction was the general contractor for the project.

After barrel aging the wine is sterile filtered (the only time it’s touched with a pump) and bottled with a mobile service. Presqu’ile is distributed nationally through Wilson Daniels. Murphy said case production in 2013 was around 8,000, and the plan is to eventually expand that to 12,000 to 15,000 cases.

The tour at Presqu’ile includes a different wine at each level of the winery and ends with a taste on an observation deck from the roof of the hilltop structure. At the far edge of the horizon, one can make out white sand dunes on the coast. The ocean is at the western end of the Santa Maria Valley funnel that carries cool ocean winds inland up the valley that runs west to east. The topography and climate of the area makes it one of the longest ripening areas in California, and that’s what Murphy and Cronje say makes Santa Maria so perfect for Pinot Noir.

The estate vineyard is comprised of 73 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and a small plot of Nebbiolo. Jim Sollberg, owner of Maverick Farming Co., currently manages the vineyard and helped lay out the vineyard.

The strategy in the vineyard is similar to that expressed in the cellar. A philosophy of low-intervention coupled with a vigilant attention to every detail. Cronje likened it to a Burgundian approach, for which the wines are not overly manipulated in the cellar and the grapes are not pushed too hard in the vineyard. “They have a very good understanding of showing terroir and not overwhelming the wines with too much winemaking or too much farming,” Cronje said.

He added that he finds it ridiculous to set arbitrary limits on wine alcohol levels, but also says he doesn’t have much confidence in a wild fermentation finishing successfully with too much alcohol present. With that in mind, grapes are usually picked at 21.5° to 23° Brix. “The longer growing season you have, the cooler growing season you have, the more phenolic ripeness you get at lower Brix,” Murphy said.

For Murphy, Presqu’ile is the destination he reached after choosing to take a journey into winemaking. It’s also where he and his family ultimately decided to stay after researching great Pinot regions of Oregon and California in a search for land for their winery. “We weren’t limiting ourselves on where to go initially, when the idea was first conceptualized,” Murphy says. “But because of our experience here in Santa Maria, and just the connections we’ve made and the quality we saw and the potential we saw, we decided to stay here.”

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