This past week, we had the pleasure of meeting with Kevin Sass, winemaker for Halter Ranch Vineyard out of Paso Robles, California. Sass was in town during a brief visit to Orlando, and talked with us about Halter Ranch and their wines.
Our winemaker dinner was held at K Restaurant, with critically acclaimed Chef Kevin Fonzo at the helm. We arrived early and were each handed a glass of champagne to enjoy in the vegetable garden out back. Built in the 1920’s, K Restaurant is not a large property, but has an elegant, historic charm that few restaurants in Central Florida can stake claim to.
Sass met us outside, and we talked a bit about family and heritage. As a son of German immigrants and a first generation American in California, Sass said he was always interested in wine and wine making. His career started in Paso Robles in 2000, after graduating with a double major in Enology Wine Production and Agriculture from California State University.
His familiarity with the Halter Ranch property and its grapes was one reason to come on board in 2011, but the other was more apparent – for a young winemaker, Sass appears to have something of a golden touch, and his years of working with the local soil and climate produced 90+ rated wines as winemaker at Justin Vineyards.
The chef’s team came outside to let everyone know that they were ready for us, and we went in to be seated. Our dinner guests were a lively group, ready to be educated and entertained for the evening. Small, local restaurants like this are truly a joy, as they make for an intimate experience, encourage conversation, and create memorable experiences that last long after the meal.
This didn’t take long to happen that evening, as, in the ‘intimacy’ of the table, one of our dinner guests managed to light her menu on fire, sparking a light-hearted discussion about whether or not the smoke in the room would enhance the flavors of the wines.
With approximately 231 acres of vineyards on a 1,000-acre ranch, it’s notable that Halter Ranch sits on what could be some of the best terroirs in Paso Robles, with highly diverse soils, altitudes and weather.
Less than half a mile down the road is Tablas Creek, the vineyard that brought Rhône wines to California during the 1980’s. Instead of keeping these vines to themselves, Tablas Creek started a nursery, thus sparking further production of varietals, and contributing to many great wineries across the region.
Geographically, Paso Robles offers micro-climates and soils that are ideal for cultivating a diverse array of grape varieties. Close to the Pacific Ocean, Sass described how Paso’s hot days are tempered by salty, coastal breezes at night that come over the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, cooling the vines and their fruit at night. This effective temperature shift ensures a slower ripening process, and creates an intense concentration of flavor within the grape.
The soil in this region has great drainage, and particularly high pH, due to the proliferation of limestone and clay in the area. Interestingly, this high pH affects nutrient absorption by the roots, resulting in higher acidity (low pH) in the grape, which creates better fruit for wine making. High acid is also, in part, what will assist a wine in aging well.
Halter Ranch is not simply focused, however, on making great wine. Sustainability and environmental impact matter to the brand; and in 2008, Halter Ranch was SIP (Sustainability in Practice) certified. Conservation and chemical reduction is engrained in their approach, with conscious decisions made as to how and when they utilize electricity both day and night. The winery uses gravity flow vs. pumping to reduce unnecessary handling of the grapes, and incorporates rainwater harvesting for irrigation purposes.
While at dinner, Sass also made a point to mention how the vineyards were fenced, as billionaire owner and conservation advocate Hansjörg Wyss chose to add an additional 3 mile long fence to the exterior of the property, creating a pass-through for local wildlife coming down from the hills and through the vineyards to the waters of Tablas Creek.
For our menu that evening, Chef Fonzo created six courses, all simply presented, but each more delicious than the last.
When asked what he thought of the wines, Fonzo commented, “The wines by Halter Ranch…. I just have to say wow! I love these wines! They’re very approachable and food friendly, true to the varietal. I believe the wine maker does not play with the grape too much. They are some of my favorite wines. Easily paired with food. A ‘chef’s wine’!”
Our first course was a Sautéed Cape Canaveral royal red shrimp risotto, with roast barefoot farmer heirloom carrots, and a light citrus butter. Sass paired their 2011 Cotes de Paso Blanc with this dish. This is a very unique white (see our review of Halter Ranch Cotes De Paso Blanc 2011 here), as the varietal blends chosen give it a silky texture, initially similar to a chardonnay; but with the addition of the Picpoul Planc grape, it has the brightness and acidity you’d expect to find in a white Bordeaux or sauvignon blanc.
Although the crowd favorite for wine was certainly the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, paired with cocoa dusted filet mignon, fig jam, and onion marmalade, our personal favorite was the 2010 Cotes de Paso, paired with the second course of roast New Zealand lamb chop, a beautifully crisped polenta cake, roasted cherries, and 24 hour dried local strawberries.
The Cotes de Paso is a red wine blend, created in true Southern Rhône style, with a hue and body similar to what you’d expect from a very high end pinot noir. Varietals in this wine are Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, and Counoise. Aged 14 months in neutral French barrels, this wine grows on you with each sip, and bite of food. The nose is cinnamon, earth, and spice, also similar to a pinot noir, but with bigger, bolder flavors of cherry and strawberry; and we even detected a bit of lavender, as well. This wine will age well, and we’d recommend picking up a case–some for now, and some to open in the next 3-5 years.
Our courses ended for the evening with a vanilla crème brulee custard, perfectly sugared and caramelized, with roast peach bread pudding. Sass paired this dish with a small glass of their 2009 Vin de Paille, a Sauterne style dessert wine. Aged nearly 3 years in neutral French oak, this wine is like liquid gold. Vin de Paille (which means “Straw Wine” in French) has a nose of orange blossom, honey, and sweet peaches. It is viscous and syrupy in texture, exhibiting flavor profiles of caramel and cream that were a great match for the dessert. The finish is surprisingly dry, a pleasant treat for a dessert wine. A definite ‘special occasion’ wine, I would choose this over higher priced sauternes in a heartbeat.
As our meal wound to a close, the conversation turned to local food and dining trends, as well as our thoughts regarding what was on our respective wish lists (Japanese noodle bars, anyone?). No matter what does or does not open in Central Florida, you can rest assured that with great restaurant chefs like Fonzo, and boutique wines like Halter Ranch available, a memorable evening is waiting for you.