Even Keel (Presqu’ile Sets Down Roots in SMV)

“The idea is to do the anti- of whatever it is tasting rooms are about right now. We want a place where people can hang out.”

Dieter Cronje in the new Presqu'ile barrel cave

Dieter Cronje in the new Presqu’ile barrel cave

That’s what I first heard when I met the affable but focused Matt Murphy, proprietor of Presqu’ile (pronounced “press-KEEL,” strong Southern drawl required) about a year ago. At the time, we (along with Presqu’ile’s young, wiry and dreadlocked winemaker, former South African native Dieter Cronje) were all wearing hardhats.

I’d entered Presqu’ile en medias res, navigating the detritus of plastic tarp, concrete, power tools and wood that are the hallmarks of large construction sites. Their new winery and tasting room was being constructed on a hillside that offered as pretty a view as one could ever hope of the picturesque expanse that is the Santa Maria Valley, and I had to use a healthy dose of imagination to picture what Murphy had in mind for the building’s end state. A tasting lounge modeled after the Murphy’s modern-but-inviting glass-and-stone home here; a blending room and small wine library there;  a bocce court over there; a barrel cave leading to an with access to a terrace and those sweeping views down there. All accoutrements meant to extend the Murphy’s Southern Hospitality into the Santa Maria wine biz. It wasn’t all clear to me then, but there was no doubting their enthusiasm about the future of the spot. Beyond the bustle of the massive construction project, vineyards had been planted by the Murphy’s (mostly to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) on seventy-two acres that were once leased to a gladiolas farmer.

And then there was the new winery, which Cronje was most excited about: entirely gravity-fed (“everything can be done without moving grapes up or down… it’s a bit slower, but who’s in a rush, we’re making wine, right?”), with state-of-the-art equipment that could monitor most of a wine’s vitals while in the tank, and software that could adjust cooling remotely if needed.

Fast-forward a year later, and the result – now open to the public, including by-appointment tours complete with food-and-wine pairings – might be the most stunning piece of wine-related construction that Santa Barbara County has yet seen. Presqu’ile is now the kind of monument to wine culture that you’d expect to find in Napa Valley or Mendoza. Except it happens to be where no one would have expected it – in the hamlet of Santa Maria Valley, instead.

A view of Santa Maria Valley from Presqu'ile

A view of Santa Maria Valley from Presqu’ile

“It’s legit,” is how Cronje sums up that result. What he means is not just that it’s an impressive place to hang out, but that it’s a symbol of his employers’ staunch desire to plant family roots along with grapevine roots in the area. “It’s just such a serious commitment to the valley and to making great wine here,” he adds. “It’s astonishing to me the time and investment that the owners spent in the valley.”

Spoken like someone who wants to keep his job (he did mention that he wanted “to retire at Presqu’ile”), right? But legit is legit, after all. “Hey,” he offers in response, waving his hand inside the impressive and now-finished Presq’ile barrel cave, “they could’ve just built a big square building.” Good point.

I couldn’t help but ask about the second thing one naturally ponders about Presqu’ile’s new digs (the first, by the way,  is “holy wow!”): how much does something like this cost? According to Cronje, the figure is “somewhere between five dollars and none of my business!”  What were we just saying about job security?

Presqu'ile tasting bar

Presqu’ile tasting bar

None of the building, hospitality or ultra-modern equipment would matter a hill of gladiolas if Presqu’ile made bad wine, of course. But tasting through their recent releases leaves little doubt as to Cronje’s ongoing employment potential. The wines are, if anything, transparent; the kind of wines that practically scream of place, and neatly bundle up the results of hard work, nature and weather into elegant and pithy packages.

Presqu'ile Pinot

Presqu’ile Pinot

The 2012 Presqu’ile Sauvignon Blanc is full of lemongrass, verve, richness and character. It will make you friends, particularly if served on a hot day. Their 2011 Chardonnay, which apparently was a problem child of sorts in the winery, turned out a capable citizen, and is almost instantly recognizable as Santa Maria Valley: spicy, mineral-driven, paradoxically both silky and electric.

As good as their white wines are, It’s the Presqu’ile Pinot Noirs that are really going to get wine geeks excited. The 2011 carries the fingerprints of SMV – peppery spices, tea, savory, expressive and smoky fruit – with nothing getting in the way, a sort of glimpse into the elements that make SMV Pinots such revealing wines.

The 2010 Presqu’ile Vineyard Pinot Noir is the one for the steak lovers, and which probably most marries what Presqu’ile is doing in the vineyard with what they’re doing in constructing that tasting room. A product of sandy soils (“it’s basically a beach!” according to Cronje), there’s sage, underbrush, earthiness, spices, and deep, dark, structured fruit, powerful in tannic grip and acidic intensity. Buy a bottle, put it somewhere safe, and don’t even look at it for another eight years (your future steak will thank you).

“We’re looking at the long term,” Cronje ponders over a glass of that 2010. “That’s when you don’t get repeat customers – when the wine spoils in the cupboard!”

Dieter Cronje

Dieter Cronje

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