Halter Ranch was originally part of a 3,000-acre ranch established in the 1880s by Edwin Smith, a San Francisco butcher turned Central Coast farmer and livestock dealer.
Though prosperous, Smith fell on hard times, and his property was sold and split up in the early 1900s. Though the land was always farmed, the first vines weren’t planted until 1996. But estate’s wine business didn’t really get going until Hansjörg Wyss, the current owner, fell in love with Paso Robles and purchased 900 of the ranch’s original acres.
Today, the circa-1885 home built by Smith is a notable landmark and the gateway to Halter Ranch’s 275 acres of wine grapes.
In contrast to the stately Victorian house, however, the ranch last year opened a state-of-the-art winery and welcomed a new winemaker.
When Kevin Sass joined the estate, he was new to the job but not to the property. He began his wine career as an intern at Justin, working up to winemaker over the course of 10 years. “At the time,” he says, “Halter Ranch was the largest supplier of grapes to Justin. [We were] their biggest buyer and [so] I was familiar with the property.”
Thus, when Justin was sold and with a winemaker slot open at Halter Ranch, Sass says “it was basically a no-brainer” to join the team.
“The first year was an interesting one,” Sass says. On marketing trips to promote the wines, “I have been showing wine I didn’t make, and it was interesting to hear what consumers had to say about it.”
The first wines Sass crafted – the Côtes de Paso Blanc and the rosé – have just been bottled and will be released in the next three to four weeks, he says. While he obviously doesn’t want to radically change the profile of the estate’s wines, he does have some ideas about how to make them his own.
“I want to broaden the mid-palate while maintaining the structure. I want to bring more fruit and mouthfeel to the wines,” he says.
Their current lineup of wines includes a rose, Côtes de Paso Blanc and Rouge, and a Syrah, all blends of Rhône varietals; and Ancestor, an estate reserve that is an homage to Bordeaux.
For a relatively small estate (current production is about 8,000 cases), there are a surprising number of varietals grown here: twenty grape types planted in 57 separate vineyard blocks, each with its own terroir. Isn’t that daunting?
“It’s a dream come true,” replies Sass. “There are no excuses. We have different blocks with various soils, exposures and clones to give us options. It gives me more flexibility and allows us to make the best wine we can.”
In addition to the Rhône and Bordeaux varietals, some unexpected grapes also grow on the property, specifically Tempranillo. This varietal is an outlier in another way: Sass is planning to bottle a 100% Tempranillo wine this year.
“We’ll always want to blend as much as we can,” he says. However, “when we drained [the Tempranillo] from the tank, it could be bottled on the spot. It was a unique, complete wine on its own.”
This wine is from the first grapes harvested from the Tempranillo vines, which were planted in 2009, and Sass jokes, “It’s a sign of the ranch’s capability to grow anything except Pinot Noir and Chardonnay!”
Indeed, he notes that the soils are primarily limestone, clay and alkaline, which give an earthy, minerally character to the wines. This combination “allows us to keep acidity in the Rhônes and avoid creating a flabby Bordeaux style wine.”
Halter Ranch isn’t well known on the wine scene, and their wines are only available in seven states at this time. (Including New York – yay!) However, additional vines are being planted so the estate can meet demand on a year-round basis while growing their markets. “We are looking to make a gradual increase,” says Sass, suggesting that production will peak around 30,000 cases sometime by 2020 or 2025.
But what’s most exciting for the winemaker is “seeing what goes on from January through the end product. There’s so much work that goes into making the wine, and to ultimately see an end product that puts a smile on people’s faces…”
That’s true satisfaction.