Wine & Beer

At Paso Robles’ Halter Ranch winery, nature and science meet

A look at Halter Ranch Vineyard’s earth-friendly practices

Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles was recently honored at the California Green Medal: Sustainable Winegrowing Leadership Awards. Here's a look at how Halter Ranch strives to protect the environment.
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Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles was recently honored at the California Green Medal: Sustainable Winegrowing Leadership Awards. Here's a look at how Halter Ranch strives to protect the environment.

A 3 1/2 -mile wildlife corridor protecting access to an ancient spring. A 5-acre pond filled with water captured, treated and stored for reuse. About 1,800 acres of land preserved as open space for elk, wild boars and other wildlife, never to be planted or developed.

Most everywhere you look around Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles, you find signs indicating the land is as important as the wine. It makes sense when you learn the centuries-old, 2,000-acre ranch is owned by a noted conservationist and philanthropist, Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss.

The wines are far from an afterthought, though. Wyss, who bought the ranch in 2000, has invested heavily in the vineyard, hospitality and winemaking operations.

The vineyard — featuring 281 acres planted with 13 varietals — is governed by a balance of nature and science, with bat and owl boxes, raptor stands and beneficial insect gardens to encourage natural pest control alongside high-tech sensors monitoring transpiration and sap flow that have saved an estimated million gallons of water.

When grapes arrive at the modern, 32,000-square-foot, gravity-flow winery, they are treated as gently as possible. They make their transition to wine without any pumping and wind up in 20,000-square-foot wine caves — the largest in the region — dug 30 to 60 feet underground over six years.

Take one of Halter Ranch’s complimentary daily tours and you’ll emerge from the caves onto the festive patio with plenty of seating, a stone pizza oven and Santa Maria-style barbecue grill. It leads to the winery’s new tasting room, a striking space with sweeping views of the vineyards.

Halter Ranch’s flagship wine — a Bordeaux-style blend named for the property’s 500- to 700-year-old Ancestor Tree, the largest known living coastal live oak in the world — isn’t currently available in the tasting room, but six other releases are sure to please any palate.

A refreshing grenache blanc balances floral and fruity flavors, revealing notes of honey and melon. Strawberry, watermelon and kiwi mingle with a crisp minerality in the dry, Provence-style rosé.

The luscious syrah is layered with dark berries and mocha, while the plush malbec delivers plum on an earthy backdrop. The cabernet sauvignon brings in a bit of malbec and petit verdot to round out the tannins and create a long, rich finish.

Rhone varietals come together in CDP, a fruit-forward blend that balances spice, weight and acidity.

The wines benefit from a blend of art and science. Winemaker Kevin Sass, who came to Halter Ranch from Justin Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles in 2011, has earned a reputation as a master of the craft. He also employs detailed phenolic, or chemical, analysis in Halter Ranch’s advanced lab, testing for disease, flavor, color and even aging potential.

“We go way beyond Brix,” the sugar-level measurement, Sass said. “We have 50 things we run here.”

One of the best ways to experience Halter Ranch is through the three-hour excursion tour — named best vineyard experience by Sunset magazine’s Travel Awards in 2015. Riding around in a 1984 Land Rover, with scenic stops for wine along the way, you’ll see the sustainable farming practices employed in the Sustainability in Practice (SIP)-certified vineyard.

On the older part of the property, you’ll hear about its history, spanning from its days as a seasonal Native American village to the 1970s, when aviators and celebrities including Ronald Reagan would fly in for barbecues and hunting parties. Also on the property is the historical house built by a hog farmer in 1881 that was used in the 1990 horror movie “Arachnophobia”; the film is shown each year in the barn, which has been converted to event space.

Throughout the new tasting room and winery up the hill, you’ll also experience the luxury of a billionaire-bankrolled expansion, including extensive masonry using stones quarried from the property, pieces from Wyss’ art collection — including a 1960s Alexander Calder sculpture — and an energy-efficient production facility employing natural light and cooling that brings compelling architecture to what’s often a utilitarian space.

To get between the two areas, you cross a picturesque covered bridge built to resemble those in Wyss’ native Bern, Switzerland.

Said Ray King, one of the tour guides, “Hansjörg wanted it to be a bridge from the past to the present.”

Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at sallybuffalo@gmail.com or on Twitter at @sallybuffalo.

Halter Ranch Winery

8910 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles

805-226-9455 or halterranch.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

The scene: Striking, modern yet environmentally sensitive winery and tasting room with lots of glass, wood and stonework set among the vines beyond the historical Victorian house and ranch buildings on Adelaida Road.

The offerings: Bordeaux and Rhône-style wines, including reds, whites and rosé, six of which are generally available for tasting. Free daily tours of the winery and caves.

Expect to spend: $10 tasting fee, waived with bottle purchase. Bottles $21 to $55. Weekend barrel tasting tours available for $25; excursion tour $45.

Wine harvest events

Wineries across San Luis Obispo County are in the midst of the harvest. Two upcoming events celebrate this year’s bounty.

Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend, held Oct. 14 through 16, features 140 events at Paso Robles area wineries, including dinners, live music, food pairings and barrel tastings.

The cost varies by event and winery. Find a full event listing at pasowine.com or via the PasoWine iPhone app.

Harvest on the Coast, Nov. 4 to 6 in San Luis Obispo County, boasts a SLO Wine Country grand tasting, winemaker dinner and open houses.

Admission to the Crafted on the Coast winemaker dinner, Nov. 4 at Ocean Grill Restaurant in Avila Beach, is $120, while the Nov. 5 grand tasting and auction at Avila Beach Golf Resort costs $80 to $100 for Saturday. On Nov. 6, open houses at local tasting rooms are free for grand tasting ticket-holders. For more information, visit slowine.com

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