Halter Ranch – Tradition and Innovation

Halter Ranch Winery

In 1874 when Edwin Smith moved to Paso Robes the area of Halter Ranch was still known as Las Tablas.  This is the name of the creek that runs through the property and gives it’s name to the Haas/Perrin winery just over the hill. It wasn’t until the MacGillivray family purchased part of the property in 1943 that the first vines were planted.

Halter Ranch Spring Vines

Halter Ranch Spring Vines

Halter Ranch, as we know it today came about in 2000 when Hansjorg Wyss purchased 900 acres.  Halter is his mother’s maiden name. In 2008 he was ranked number 164 of the Forbes list of billionaires and he is the 2nd richest person in Switzerland.  Here we see his money being put to good use for wine lovers.  He is known for his philanthropy.  His Wyss Foundation places large parcels of land under government protection.  He is a by nature conservationist.

The vineyards here have been growing grapes and selling them to the best of the area’s wineries. They now have to wean wineries of their grapes as they establish their own label.  The ranch itself is over 1000 acres with less than ¼ of it devoted to vines.  They focus on Rhone and Bordeaux varieties.  Mr. Wyss conservationist attitude can be seen here.  The property has wildlife corridors for local mountain lions, badgers, bobcats and coyotes.  These corridors allow the animals to roam over large portions of land as they are meant to, rather than simply running into fences.  On the ranch you will also find the Ancestor Oak.  This Coastal oak is the world’s oldest.  It is 324 inches around, 55 feet tall and has a 104-foot crown.  On the property you will find insectaries, owl boxes and raptor perches.  They have a mobile chicken coup that was used to keep pests down, until they realized that the raptors loved chicken for lunch!

Halter Ranch Gravity Flow

Halter Ranch Gravity Flow

They began their own label in 2002 and the new winery is stunning.  They wooed Kevin Sass from Justin Winery here.  How could he resist!  The winery is gravity flow, which is great for the wines and lower in energy use.  Gravity flow is noted for producing smoother wines free of astringent tannins.  The winery has 4 self contained temperature controlled rooms and naturally cooled caves in the side of the mountain for barrel storage.

With 57 separate vineyard blocks and soil types from calcareous clay to clay loam with shale and sandstone deposits and a computerized tank monitoring system with enables Kevin to monitor and regulate the fermentation tanks temps from his desktop or phone, this is a winemakers dream.

The winery is also SIP certified which means they are sustainable not only in vineyard and winery practices toward the grapes, but also toward the staff also.  The winery has concrete catwalks so that the staff can easily get to the top of the tanks.  They also have the tanks on concrete pads to raise them making it much easier to clear out the must.

Halter Ranch Covered Bridge

Halter Ranch Covered Bridge

In addition to the stunning winery the property also houses a gorgeous covered bridge that connects the older buildings of the property with the new.  Across the bridge you will find the Historic Victorian Farmhouse that was built in the 1880s and was completely restored in 2001-2003 and the Silo Barn that was restored in 2012.  This property is a photographers dream!

Halter Ranch buildings

Halter Ranch buildings

And yes, the wines are lovely.

Halter Ranch Wine Glass

Halter Ranch Wine Glass

Gravity flow wineries. Isn’t this just common sense?

Halter Ranch Gravity Flow

Gravity flow wineries.  Lately it’s a high tech term, but really it seems like common sense doesn’t it?  In Bordeaux Chateau Lynch-Bages built a tank house that employed a railed gravity flow system in 1850. The lower level held the vats and the upper level was for de-stemming and crushing so that the juice would flow (via gravity) into the vats below.

Gravity flow these days is seemingly expensive with huge complexes built to support this method.  The Palmaz Winery in Napa is the ultimate example of this. This is  the ultimate in gravity flow winery design.  This winery is built in Mount George in Napa.  The wine cave is 18 stories tall with fermentation tanks that rotate on a carousel under the crush pad.

 

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch Wine Making Facility

Halter Ranch in Paso Robles just finished a beautiful new facility that is designed for gravity flow and ease of work flow for winery workers.   On top of that the place is stunning. ( more on Halter Ranch Soon)

Of course there are simpler methods.  Take Willakenzie Winery in Yamhill Oregon.  This winery is simply built to be 3 stories down the side of a hill.  The top floor is for sorting and de-stemming, the middle floor for fermentation and tank storage and the bottom floor for barrel storage.  The juice/wine flows from one floor down to the next via gravity.

But even small wineries can make this system work.  You just have to have your tanks higher than your barrels!  A simple hose from the tank to the barrel will work!  You save the expense of the pumping equipment as well as the maintenance and energy costs.  This method is a bit more time consuming though.  You can fill a barrel in 4 to 5 hours, but…if you don’t wish the gravity to push too hard on your wine, you might adjust your hose to allow the juice to flow more slowly taking 7 to 8 hours to fill a barrel.  So if you are a big mass producing winery you probably don’t want to take the time to do this.  But…if you are in the business of making good wine…

So what kind of damage can pumping do to wine?  From the top you want to gently press the grapes and have them release their juice.  Crushing is actually a pretty harsh word.  In crushing the concern is breaking the seeds and imparting the astringent tannins into your wine. (of course there are winemakers who utilize the tannins in both seeds and stems to great result! ie Brewer/Clifton)  Pumping can force through solids and then requiring additional filtration for your wine.  Pumping also imparts oxygen into the wine and this can affect the aging of the wine.  Pumping can be especially unwanted with the more nuanced varieties of wine like pinot noir as it can disturb the subtleties in the wine.

From an environmental standpoint it is reducing the energy use.  You don’t have to pay for gravity on the electric bill!  Building a gravity flow winery in the beginning will save you energy and equipment cost in the end.

So does it make the wine better?  Well, it treats it more gently and after we torture the grapes on the vine, that seems to be the preferred method of treating them post harvest.  It is energy efficient and seems to be kinda common sense (work smarter not harder!).  In the end there are so many variables.  When you use gravity flow you are again trying to have as little outside influence on the grape as possible.   After that it is in the winemaker’s hands.  And…well before that it is in the vineyard managers hands, as well as the weather.  So many variables.  All in all, a gravity flow system is an ideal, that can be put into practice with a little forethought in building.  It is environmentally better and should in the long run be cheaper.  As to it making the wine taste better?  Maybe it’s time for a comparison test!?  (Any excuse to taste more wine!)