Feature Coverage

Presqu’ile: Born On The Wind

“Back in August of 2005 a wisp of wind blew deep in the Atlantic, forming the foundation of Hurricane Katrina. It was impossible to imagine the profound effects the storm would have on Matt Murphy’s family and a winegrowing region in California’s Santa Maria Valley. But as they say, when a butterfly flaps its wings…

“On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, more than one wine aficionado told me that I should go to a winery just off the 101 Freeway near Santa Maria with a weird name, Presqu’ile. Matt Murphy, they said, has built an amazing showcase winery with the intent of creating world-class estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I headed north where all expectations were exceeded.

“Presqu’ile’s spanking new facility is as state of the art as the art gets. Designed by San Francisco-based architects Taylor Lombardo (they designed the new Silver Oak winery in the Napa Valley), the contemporary stone, steel and glass structure sits at the top of 73 acres of freshly planted, certified sustainably farmed vineyards on a 200-acre property. With a cantilevered roofline that soars like a sail, the view from the promenade at the tasting room toward the Pacific lets one gather, full face, the winds that blow directly from the sea.

“While the art-filled tasting room is impressive, it is the winemaking facility itself that takes the breath away. Steel tanks, and concrete shaped eggs sit alongside the latest and greatest de-stemmers and presses in a pristine environment. The winery is impeccably crafted to allow for the gentlest treatment of grapes and juice. ‘We wanted it to be the best place possible to make the best wine possible,’ Matt said. ‘We built the winery to do just that. We don’t rack a lot, we use gravity fed practices to be gentle with the grapes and we are big fans of whole cluster fermentation.’

“Of course, as in all winemaking, the grapes are the key and that is why the Murphys selected the Santa Maria Valley AVA. ‘We looked up and down the coast,’ Matt said, ‘but I was interested in making cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — the wines that I love.’

“Santa Maria, like the rest of the Santa Barbara wine regions, benefits from a unique quirk of geography. The way the California Coast juts into the Pacific, combined with upward thrusts of the tectonic plates below, have formed valleys that run west to east, allowing the cooling winds in summer to funnel through them. ‘The balance between acidity and alcohol in the Santa Maria Valley was such a lure. My father was interested in some place like Napa or Sonoma initially but when he came here he saw what we did.’

“Sourcing Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc from their own vineyards, along with outstanding cool climate vineyards like Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, Rim Rock and Phelan Ranch, has given Presqu’iles grapes balance, complexity and clarity. And a defining characteristic of the region is ‘Santa Maria Spice’ — a subtle sandalwood spice component that makes the wines uniquely interesting.

“The Murphys have made Presqu’ile a family affair. Matt’s brother, sister and their spouses are all involved with the winery. The winemaker, Dieter Cronje, is a South African with a degree from the University of Stellenbosch. Ironically, Dieter was once Matt’s boss at a now defunct winery in the region. ‘I took a job as a cellar rat, at a place where Dieter was the head winemaker,’ Matt laughed. ‘I pulled up with a surfboard on my car and golf clubs in the back and Dieter said “I think you’ll fit in.”’ Today they collaborate on the Presqu’ile wines. ‘He is my best friend. My brother from a different mother.’

“And about that name. Three generations of Murphys used to gather together at a family coastal compound in Pass Christian, Mississippi. ‘It was where I spent my summers. Where we came for the holidays. It was a haven and a refuge,’ Matt explained as we talked about a name that causes most folks to ask ‘Say What?’ The word is creole for ‘almost an island.’ ‘The house was out on a Henderson Point, just a spit of a peninsula, and that was the name we gave it.’

“On the 29th of August 2005, that wisp of wind had turned into the most devastating force ever seen on the Gulf Coast and Presqu’ile, along with the rest of Pass Christian, was erased. ‘I was in Grand Lake (he was a student at CU at the time) and I watched it all on television. We knew it was all gone,’ Matt remembered. As an homage to the family’s former sanctuary on the Mississippi coast, he named the winery Presqu’ile. (Pronounced ‘press-KEEL.’)

“Murphy is bringing his wines for a special dinner at Boulder’s Frasca on March 30 in another of the fabled wine program’s Monday night wine dinner series.
Each week, Frasca, honored by the James Beard Award Foundation for Outstanding Wine Service in 2013, highlights wines from different wineries and regions and there is never a non-show dog in the mix. If Bobby Stuckey, the Master Sommelier who founded Frasca, asks you to come, you know you’ve made it.

“‘This is the second time we have poured at Frasca,’ Matt said, ‘and it is such an honor. I was in college at CU shortly after they opened and I would come by and was always amazed by the wines. To come back now with Presqu’ile…it just seems like it has all come full circle.’

“A perfect storm.”

Kelly Hayes, March 12, 2015
Presqu’ile: Born On The Wind