Wine is an expression of terroir. Or is it?

In a recent issue of the Wine Spectator Jim Laube wrote a column titled “Dim Somms”. This article touched in part on a group of American sommeliers who are expressing an antipathy for wines with elevated alcohol levels. Our winemaking team here at Halter Ranch does a lot of comparative tastings, and the level of alcohol in a wine is always salient to the discussion of a wine’s character. A wine’s alcohol level is one of its most important attributes. Over the past few years there has been a seemingly global rising of the level of alcohol in wine. Many of the most highly rated wines now approach alcohol levels that have traditionally been reserved for dessert wines like Port. Often, when I query winemakers about these changes in winemaking styles I am provided an explanation of the term terroir, generally accompanied by the sentence “I am just working with my terroir”.

This, in turn, has caused me to ponder the concept of terroir. To my mind, terroir refers to influences on a wine that are ecto-anthropic (my word), meaning outside of human influence. Examples of terroir influences would be topography, soil type, rainfall, and temperatures. These influences are either immutable (topography and soil type), or otherwise out of man’s control on an annual basis (temperature and rainfall). In the world of wine, what other influences is terroir up against? The following is my attempt to conceptualize and organize the various influences on a finished wine.

I have divided up the anthropic influences into three groups: planting, cultivating and viniculture. These groups roughly correlate to activities that happen once when a vineyard is first being planted, activities that happen in the vineyard on an annual basis, and activities that happen once the fruit has been harvested.

Planting: Initially someone must select a site for a vineyard. In doing so, they implicitly select a certain terroir as mentioned above, topography, soil type, rainfall and temperatures. Upon this terroir are layered decisions about root stock, clones, row orientation, plant density, trellising system and whether the vineyard will be set up to be dry-farmed or irrigated.

Cultivating: Following installation, the vineyard crew has their protocols, each of which is meant to illicit from the vineyard specific influences on the crop’s quality and qualities. These include pruning, spur positioning, trellising, canopy management, whether or not the vines are irrigated, cluster thinning and finally, yield.

Viniculture: Ultimately the winemaker will call for the pick and the fruit will be brought in—at a certain brix level. (Brix is a measure of solids dissolved in a liquid, in this case sugar dissolved in the grape juice.) If left undiluted and fermented dry, the brix level determines the eventual alcohol level. Once the fruit is brought in to the winery there are a whole host of new decisions and activities: do we de-stem the fruit or ferment whole cluster, do we crush the grape or leave it intact, what pre-fermentation protocols might we employ (cold soaking, pump overs), once the juice is fermenting do we punch down the cap or pump over it, what type of vessel do we ferment in, at what temperature do we ferment, and then when do we drain the tank and call it a day? Now that we have finished fermenting the wine, it is time to age it. This requires a new set of decisions; what kind of vessel do we age the wine in — stainless steel tank, barrel (new, used, French or American), or concrete — do we undergo malolactic fermentation, do we stir the lees, how often if at all do we rack the wine (and if so, how do we rack the wine), length of aging, filtering or fining and finally, what type of container do we put the wine in (bottle with cork, screw top or keg)?

Our winemaker, Kevin Sass, and his winemaking team do a lot of experimenting, both in the vineyard and in the winery. We know from experience that all of these decisions and activities greatly influence the ultimate product. (Why else would we have selected practices?) Which brings me back to the concept of terroir and alcohol levels. There is no doubt that a vineyard’s terroir greatly influences the resulting wine. My supposition is that the lighter the hand (the more neutral the protocols) in the winemaking, the greater will be the vineyard’s terroir’s resultant influence. At Halter Ranch winemaking begins with our vineyard’s terroir, and our vineyard and winery protocols are selected by us in order to craft a final wine in the style we are seeking.   We determine yields, brix levels at harvest and the subsequent winery protocols very conscientiously, with specific desired outcomes for each wine that we make. Certainly, vintage conditions and terroir set the stage on a macro level, but we humans exert an enormous amount of influence at the micro level. Alcohol levels are part of this decision making. process.

Few wine lovers want to drink the same wine every day. What I select to open depends on my mood, my company and my meal. Some occasions call for light wines, others demand richer, heavier wines. Tant mieux. Let’s all celebrate the diversity of our winemaking community and the myriad options they offer us.

Can everyone say cheers!

Paso Robles Wines in Context

I love wine. I love tasting wine in all of its myriad expressions. My personal introduction to wine drinking happened while I was living in France and Italy in the early 1980’s. Oh, the many wine trips my friends and I took! Albarino and Cornas. Condrieu and Super Tuscans, Chablis and Barolo. Sancerre and Rioja. Some wines were lighter and some bolder and some seemingly impenetrable. As my friends and family introduced me to their respective favorite regions, the intro came with at least a modicum of education. One learned that Cornas was not a Beaujolais and should never be consumed before at least 5, but better 10-15 years. Ditto Barolo. Rose was the wine of choice when warm Mediterranean climes dictated cold wines, but when many of these regions were still producing mostly insipid white wines. Chablis and Sancerre accompanied oysters. It was all so much fun……and from my perspective, logical. I think that I was lucky to be introduced to wine by French and Italians who were so very passionate about their countries’ viticultural treasures. I am not sure that it is even common for young French and Italians to learn about wine the same way now.

When I moved to Paso Robles 18 years ago I found myself working with a new group of wine lovers. This group was unencumbered by my former wine education and often by any formal wine education of their own. There was no need for context for their wine enjoyment. You can grow anything anywhere, and blend however you want as long as it has the requisite level of deliciosity. Standards were passé. You needn’t worry about ‘thinking outside the box’, because there was no longer even a box.

Now I am observing a new trend. My colleagues here at Halter Ranch are eager for more wine education and are clamoring for more wine tastings. They especially love comparative tastings where we taste wines with similar varietal make ups from different regions of the world. We are discussing wines in terms of ‘traditional’ and “international” styles. They are raising questions about weight and texture and alcohol levels. They are more and more interested in tasting wines from outside of Paso Robles and California. I am sensing a growing interest in context. And as the General Manager here at Halter Ranch, this trend excites me. In the next couple of blog posts I am going to share with you some of these discussions we are having here at Halter Ranch.

Paso Robles AVA

A huge shift in how the Paso Robles wine region will be viewed is about to take place. When the original Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1983 there were only 10 wineries in the area and 5,000 acres under vine.  By 2005 the number of wineries had grown to exceed 280 and the area under vine had surpassed 32,000 acres.  Astonishingly, these 32,000 acres of vines were spread out amongst an AVA whose area comprised 600,000 acres measuring 42 miles east to west and 32 miles north to south.  With an area covering over 600,000 acres, the original AVA really only defined a vast location, but nothing inherently descriptive.  In 2005 there was a dialogue amongst Paso’s wineries centered on a proposal to create 11 AVAs within Paso Robles.  Topography, rainfall, soil types, and temperatures — distinctions we generally refer to as “terroir” — vary significantly within the original Paso Robles AVA. Wineries in favor of creating these new AVAs felt that there would be value to them in codifying these differences and creating smaller, more meaningful AVAs. Well, reason prevailed and those 11 AVAs are about to be unveiled.


Knowing that this move would be in some ways divisive, when the documents for the AVAs were drawn up, there were two very important provisions included.  One, no winery would be required to use its AVA on its labels, and two, for those who choose to include their  new AVA on the label, the words ‘Paso Robles’ must be included at least as prominently as the AVA, ensuring that we will all remain Paso Roblans foremost.


Halter Ranch is located in the center of the new Adelaida District AVA. Other wineries in the Adelaida District include Thacher, Tablas Creek, Adelaida Cellars, DAOU Vineyards and JUSTIN Winery—-pretty swell company.   My guess is that, initially, the new AVAs will ruffle a few feathers, but that ultimately they will serve a worthy purpose, helping consumers navigate their way through the Paso Robles wine growing region.

Work and Play in the Summer Heat

Working in the Vineyard


Many know that great wine is made in the vineyard. Our production personnel and vineyard crew have been busy implementing this idiom at Halter Ranch. A block of Grenache in its third leaf was trimmed to one cluster per shoot. Elsewhere on the ranch, a block of Tannat had laterals removed on the morning side; it was also trained, and had wings removed from clusters. These practices produce the highest quality fruit possible, while simultaneously increasing the longevity of the plantings. Removing extraneous growth also takes fewer resources from the soil. Many staff members are raising these young vines while they raise their own children, each with tender loving care.




Halter hosted its annual Solstice Dinner under the olive and fruit orchard adjoining the large historic barn. The barn was built in 1851 to house pioneer Edwin Smith’s teams of horses, and the orchard planted almost a decade later. Some of the olive trees exceed seventy-five years of age. The weather was ideally temperate, staying sixty-one degrees Fahrenheit until the dinner ended around 10:30. We began the evening enjoying amuse-bouches with our 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and 2013 Rose, which Sunset magazine recently awarded Best in Show of its rose panel. Sitting down to a beautifully set table, which included lights submerged in mason jar centerpieces abounding with olive branches, guests found a fresh loaf of bread inhabiting each bread plate. The appetizer featured exquisite burrata, couched with heirloom tomatoes and topped with micro greens, paired with Cotes de Paso Blanc. Second came halibut cheeks paired with our red Cotes de Paso. For the main course, Chef Chris Manning presented a perfectly prepared lamb sirloin that was exceptionally tender and flavorful, paired with 2011 Block 22 Syrah. Appropriate to the setting, the meal concluded with olive oil cake, paired with 2010 Vin de Paille. In spectacular fashion, Kevin and Skylar poured 2010 Ancestor from an Imperial six liter bottle. Thank you to Kendall, Jordan, and Tony for coordinating a luscious event. And thank you to Thomas Hill Organics for providing the menu, executed by Chef Manning. Happy summer!


Circumnavigaton in the Defender

Defender - Halter Ranch Vineyard


The latest addition to the Halter Ranch vehicle pool is a revamped 1980’s Land Rover Defender which allows us to tour parties of up to 8 people around the entirety of the vineyard and winery.  Tours will take place at 10am Saturday and Sunday mornings initially with the addition of more days and times based upon demand.  The two hour journey begins on the historic half of the Halter Ranch property and circumnavigates the planted acreage before arriving at the winery. It offers an in depth look at our operation from bottom to top along with choice tastings at both the Ancestor Oak and the pinnacle of our planting in block 52.

This tour will be available by appointment ( or 805.226.9455 ext. 36) to club members for $35 per person and the general public for $40 per person.

As the HRV train keeps moving we will continue offering additional tour and tasting options.  Keep an eye here on the blog and on our facebook, twitter, and google+ feeds for photos, updates, and a plethora of exciting new developments.  Check back here next Wednesday for some words from Kevin on what makes our vineyard so special.  Cheers until then!

A Bridge to Delicacy



The 2014 Bridge Dinner sold out before we even officially announced it.  In the past it has been popular among all the dinners we hold onsite, but this is the first time I can recall things moving so fast.  Beyond the beautiful setting and Kevin’s delicious wines I we must credit the reputation and absolutely delectible culinary creations of Suzanne Tracht and her crew from Jar Restaurant in Los Angeles for the rabid and rapid response from our patrons.  On that note, this meal was unforgettably stellar.  (more…)

A Taste of 2012 Tempranillo

Tempranillo - Halter Ranch Vineyard


This past Saturday we began a soft release of our first 2012 red.  Also a member of our new Silver Label Reserve line up, this fresh red is ripe for knocking off socks. (more…)

Fresh Greenery and Fresh Plans




There are weeks when it becomes clearly evident just how fast the conceptual Halter Ranch train is moving. This is one such week.  The happenings are as follows.  (more…)

Seeing Pink – Paso and Provence


Pink - Halter Ranch Vineyard

The Last Tasting


Last Friday the Halter Ranch Winery team sat down to taste a series of pink wines (also known as Rosé) from Provence against our own 2013 HRV Rosé.  The goal was to see how our Rosé stood up to the old world cousins who are credited with stylistic influence in its creation and color.  What we found may shock you.   (more…)

The Collective



As we have been alluding to on the blog over the past few months, the Paso Robles Cab Collective will be holding a series of events focused on Cabernet Sauvignon this coming weekend (April 24, 25, and 26).  You may recall a previous post featuring our 2011 Cabernet and a discussion as to why Paso Robles is uniquely suited to producing Cabernet Sauvignons of distinction.

2011 Cabernet Sauvignon is in a particularly delicious phase at the moment so we’ve decided to included some tasting notes and pairing recommendations here. (more…)

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