When an East Coast family of wine lovers decided to get into the business themselves, they set out to find the best place in North America to produce pinot noir, their favorite varietal.
They undertook an exhaustive, yearslong search, walking vineyards, talking to people and sampling wines from Santa Barbara up to Oregon’s Willamette Valley — pretty enjoyable research, patriarch Madison Murphy concedes.
In the end they were left with a clear answer: The Santa Maria Valley.
“It’s just a really unique place for pinot and cool-climate varietals,” Murphy said. “We appreciated that and saw potential.”
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They established Presqu’ile (“press-KEEL”), planting 30 acres of vineyards just east of Highway 101 on the south end of Santa Maria, and began making wine in a small barn in 2009. Over the next few years, they developed the striking winery and tasting room, boasting inviting grounds, impressive views and a posh guest experience.
“This place to us represents a way of life, and we wanted the property and the wines to be evocative of that,” Murphy said.
The Santa Maria Valley is by no means an undiscovered region. It’s the second-oldest designated American Viticultural Area in the state, after Napa Valley, and earned acclaim for the wines of pioneers such as Jim Clendenan of Au Bon Climat.
The region has drawn investment from big names, including Robert Mondavi, which owned Byron winery for over a decade, and Kendall-Jackson owner Jackson Family Wines, which now owns Byron as well as neighboring Cambria winery.
Iconic Paso Robles winemaker Kenneth Volk resettled his operations (Kenneth Volk Vineyards) in Santa Maria after selling his Wild Horse Winery in 2003. And the valley is home to famed vineyards like Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido, whose grapes are sought after by winemakers across the Central Coast.
But after years of being overshadowed by the neighboring Santa Ynez Valley, made famous by the movie “Sideways,” and growing acclaim for the bold wines of Paso Robles, the Santa Maria Valley is experiencing a renaissance.
Projects like Presqu’ile and the neighboring Ca’ Del Grevino are creating excitement with lavish estates and premium wines. Tasting rooms are popping up along Old Orcutt’s quaint main drag. A new wine trolley shuttling visitors among wineries over the summer has already been expanded through Oct. 1. Sommeliers are extolling the virtues of the region’s lean, elegant wines.
What’s behind this revival, many say, is a cultural shift in tastes for wine.
“For a while, it was all about big flavors,” said Cameron Porter, an advanced sommelier who left the Los Olivos Café to work as estate manager at Presqu’ile. “But now people are looking for more elegance and grace, wines that are about place and work at the table.”
And the Santa Maria Valley is uniquely positioned to produce wines of that character.
Standing high on the hill at Presqu’ile on a clear day, you can see the Pacific Ocean just a few miles away, bound on both sides by atypical east-west-running mountains that funnel ocean winds and fog straight into the vineyards and surrounding valley.
It’s that ocean influence, along with a long, cool growing season, that allow cool-climate varieties such as pinot noir and chardonnay to ripen to maturity while retaining food-friendly acidity and avoiding high sugars and alcohols.
But while there’s a sense of energy and excitement about the wines of Santa Maria Valley, the region still has an under-the-radar feel. It’s no Napa or even Los Olivos — at least not yet. And that, too, can be a draw for people tired of crowded, sometimes impersonal tasting rooms.
“For a lot of people, it’s a treat to walk in and not be 10-deep at the tasting bar,” said Becky Corey, who’s been running Core Wines in Old Orcutt with husband Dave since 2009. “And the fact that Dave and I are usually here is a draw, too.”
The Coreys have worked to create a space not just for wine aficionados but for the community, partnering with neighboring businesses on events, hosting charity art shows and poetry nights and bringing in food trucks.
“We don’t just want people to taste and send them on their way,” Corey said. “We want to have them come, stay and relax.”
Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter or Instagram @sallybuffalo.
Did you know?
What: Santa Maria AVA
Size: 98,770 acres, with 7,500 planted
Location: Stretches from Highway 101 on the west to the San Rafael Mountains and Los Padres National Forest to the east, with the well-known Foxen Canyon Wine Trail beginning in the southern portion before dipping into the Santa Ynez AVA near Zaca Mesa Winery.
Geography and Climate: A funnel-shaped, transverse (east-west) valley opening to the Pacific Ocean with sandy and clay loam soils on the valley floor, slopes and rolling hillsides. The ocean influence creates a cool climate with little rainfall, a Region 1 on the Winkler Scale.