Matt Murphy, president of Presqu'ile Winery, is perfectly at ease in the business world. As a member of the prominent South Arkansas family behind Murphy Oil, he is gracious and eloquent because he understands those traits pair well with success.
But, like a child cut loose in a candy store, Murphy radiates excitement when detailing his passion for wine — specifically that from grapes thriving in the Santa Maria Valley.
The back story
Presqu'ile (Press-KEEL) is French Creole for "almost an island." Generations of the Murphy family enjoyed their own such idyllic site, located off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, until the land was decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
During the years that followed, when Murphy worked in wine production in both the Napa region and on the Central Coast, he carried a vision in his head of what his family's first efforts at California viticulture might create, and he literally put his palate to work searching for the end result.
Along the way, he met South African native Dieter Cronje, and as their friendship grew and they compared notes on wines discovered during their travels, all roads pointed back to the Santa Maria Valley.
In 2007 the Murphy family purchased a 200-acre site along East Clark Avenue, just northeast of the esteemed Solomon Hills Vineyard. Cronje and Matt Murphy got right to work, and by 2008 they had produced the first Presqu'ile vintage, a sauvignon blanc sourced from other vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley AVA. However, they released it only to friends and family, Murphy recounted.
Cronje, Murphy and his wife, Amanda, as well as his siblings, Jonathan and Anna, now work with vineyard manager Jim Stollberg of Maverick Farming Company supervising the care and feeding of the estate, currently planted with 72 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah.
With several years of brand marketing via national winemaker dinners, symposiums and wine festivals, the Murphy siblings and Cronje have spun their passion for family, land and enterprise into a winery synonymous with Santa Maria Valley quality.
Presqu'ile's current releases are a 2009 chardonnay, 50-50 Solomon Hills and Bien Nacido vineyards; a 2010 rosé of pinot noir produced from 50-50 Solomon Hills and Presqu'ile; the 2010 sauvignon blanc, Riverbench and White Hills vineyards (Santa Maria Valley); and three 2009 pinot noirs: the Rim Rock Vineyard (South San Luis Obispo County); the Santa Maria Valley, a 50-50 blend of Presqu'ile and Solomon Hills vineyards; and the third, the 100-percent Presqu'ile estate pinot noir.
The latter is Presqu'ile's debut all-estate wine, and when Murphy poured it for me in early February, it sang with fresh strawberries, plum and deep spice. This wine is fermented in stainless steel and concrete tanks with 40 percent whole cluster fruit, and aged in 50 percent new French oak.
Production of this estate pinot noir is limited to 310 cases, and will not grow; in contrast, the Santa Maria Valley (estate and Solomon Hills) blend represents a larger percentage of total production at 850 cases, he said.
The winery's total case production has reached 2,200, where it will remain until the harvest of 2013, when the new estate production facility is finished and ready for use. Currently the wines are produced in a converted barn with temperature-controlled barrel storage, Murphy noted.
Production numbers aside, he calls the Santa Maria Valley blend a "friendly" pinot noir, made with 25 percent new French oak, which imparts "body, spice and fine, young tannins," Murphy explained.
All three 2010 pinot noir vintages include 100 percent whole cluster fruit, which creates a "smokin' finish. Stem inclusion rocks," he smiled.
"The Santa Maria Valley pinot noir is all inclusive of our style: accessible, fruit forward — more so than the 2009 estate pinot noir."
However, the Presqu'ile estate, which Murphy fondly calls "our baby," is ground zero for the family's mantra: "varietal, vintage, place."
In June 2008, the family purchased 13 acres of the adjacent Addamo Estate vineyard, which included 10 acres already planted to pinot noir clones 667 and 777, he said. In 2008 the family sold the fruit, but the following year, included it in the first Presqu'ile estate vintage.
The 2010 rosé, a 100-percent pinot noir from Solomon Hills and Presqu'ile, displays both elegance and cream with a strong finish. It's definitely a crowd pleaser, as witnessed at Prequ'ile's industry open house Feb. 29 at the new tasting room in Los Olivos: A good rosé brings people together. Guests greeted Cronje and Murphy family members while nibbling appetizers from Brothers Restaurant, soon to relocate from Mattei's Tavern to the building next door to the one housing Byron and now Presqu'ile.
Available in very limited supply is the remainder of the 2010 Presqu'ile sauvignon blanc, a 200-case production. The 2011 vintage, a 50-50 split between Riverbench Vineyard and the first estate sauvignon blanc, doubled in size to approximately 400 cases, Murphy said, and is scheduled for release in May.
"The 2010 sauvignon blanc blew all of our minds. Santa Maria has a great potential" for the varietal, with the natural minerality that stems from the chalk in local soils.
The winemaking team ages its sauvignon blanc in one-third stainless steel, one-third neutral oak barrels and one-third concrete tank, Murphy said. "We get really nice aromatics that way."
The 2009 chardonnay is one he describes as moderately oaky despite being crafted with only 10 percent new French oak barrels; most of the wood used for the chardonnay comes from one- and two-year old barrels, he noted.
The use of new-versus-neutral oak, or oak versus stainless steel, is a process Murphy compared to the addition of salt and pepper to cooking. It sounds basic, but every step utilized along the way molds a different character actor.
In their effort to "both build wines that age but are also accessible right away," Amanda and Matt Murphy, his siblings and Cronje prefer the "hands-off" style of winemaking that lets their preference for all-native fermentations shine through from the aging process to the bottle.
But above all, Presqu'ile means "place." For the Murphy family and Cronje, it speaks of Southern hospitality and grace paired with Santa Maria Valley's finest grapes. It's home.
Information: www.presquilewine.com, or 688-2022. The Los Olivos tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.