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Halter Ranch Steps into the Spotlight

Keep your eye on Halter Ranch.

In the past couple of years, this quiet winery along Adelaida Road on the hilly west side of Paso Robles has built a new winery with hillside caves, hired Skylar Stuck from Hope Family Wines to be general manager and landed Kevin Sass – who made very highly rated wines at Justin – as its winemaker.

Not that Halter Ranch was ever as quiet and docile as it seemed.  Swiss-born billionaire and medical-devices pioneer Hansjörg Wyss, who purchased the ranch in 2000, is an ardent conservationist ($35 million to preserve land in Montana) and preservationist who doesn’t like ostentation and doesn’t seem to crave validation, all somewhat rare traits in billionaires who build large wine estates.  As a result, the original ranch buildings – a cute but modest 1885 Victorian farmhouse, a rustic horse stable and an old barn with silos, all visible from the road – have been or are being preserved and restored.

What’s on the other side of Tablas Creek, hidden by old oaks that Wyss doesn’t want touched, is another matter.  It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the 280 acres of vineyards on the 900-acre ranch occupy the best terrain in Paso Robles, an incredibly diverse landscape of hills and small valleys with varied soils, altitudes and aspects.

“When we got started, our neighbor, Tablas Creek winery, had planted Rhone varieties, and Justin, who was buying some Syrah already planted here, grew Bordeaux grapes – so that’s what we planted,” says former fruit farmer Mitch Wyss (no relation to Hansjörg), who was hired to plant the vineyards, and who now is retiring from active vineyard management.

On a tour of the property, winemaker Sass points out the previous owner’s private landing strip and the small airplane hangar which Halter Ranch – “Halter” being the maiden name of owner Wyss’ mother – had used from 2002 to 2010 as its first winery. “The previous owners – the MacGillivrays – sold the property next door to Tablas Creek winery,” Sass says, “then planted some Syrah that we used as a single-vineyard bottling at Justin.”

Today, the 280 acres of vines are planted to 20 varieties.  “We are taking about 50 per cent of the fruit, selling 25 per cent, and the other 25 per cent is out of production,” he says.  “About 25 of the 78 acres of new plantings will be dry-farmed and head-trained,” Sass continues.  “We have irrigation water now, but we need to look to the future.”  Some head-trained Grenache on 12 x 12 feet plantings in another area is already producing.

Signs of land conservation are everywhere.  New plantings are hand-hoed rather than using pre-emergence chemicals to kill weeds that siphon off precious water.  The vineyards are fenced, but owner Wyss insisted on adding fenced animal corridors to permit wildlife to pass through the vineyards down from the hills to Tablas Creek.  In 2008, Halter Ranch got SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certification.

Now GM Stuck is looking forward to the next stage, which could be called “prominence and profitability.”  Before he was hired, Stuck says, “No one in the organization had any experience with putting together a wine marketing and distribution plan.”  Four months after being brought on board, he hired Sass away from Justin.  Sass’ familiarity with the Halter Ranch property and its grapes was one reason for the hire, the other being his ability to produce wines rated in the high 90s.  His first vintage was 2011.

“We are finished with the heavy-investment stage,” Stuck says, “and although it will take at long time to recover that, my plan is to be profitable in 2015” on a cash-flow basis.  Stuck and Sass want to have five core wines – the “Ancestor” reserve, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah varietals, and two popular blends, Côtes de Paso red and white.  Additionally, Stuck has instituted a “Synthesis” brand (owner Wyss’ medical device company, recently sold to Johnson & Johnson, was called Synthes) of entry-level wine, and the Halter Ranch rosé is popular.  Tempranillo – a Spanish interloper in this French garden – may get its own label, and a sparkling wine is being tested.

“We are now selling in eight states,” Stuck says, “and I would like to be in 15-18 total.  Some states I don’t want to go into, and I don’t want to be in a position where we don’t have enough wines to supply existing markets.”

With the construction of a new winery and plans for a new tasting room in two years, both located among the vineyards on the “far side” of Tablas Creek, Wyss decided to install a wooden covered bridge that will guide visitors behind the oak trees that had served as a discreet veil hiding the riches of Halter Ranch.

The bridge is also a symbolic structure, one that Halter Ranch is now ready to cross.

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