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Santa Maria's New Wine Island

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There's no better time to visit wine country than harvest as you get to witness the magical shift of grape into wine. Right now there might be no better place to do so than Presqu'ile, which just opened its new winemaking facility and visitors' center this June and therefore is celebrating its first harvest there, making a lovely mess of its sparkling 11,000 sq-ft. winery. This multi-year, multi-story, no doubt many multi-million dollar project (the Murphy family that runs the operation won't publicize the cost) makes the typically blue collar Santa Maria downright sexy. There's no other facility in Santa Barbara like it, and it's in the least likely place in the county for something so modern and elegant.

But in addition to the fine views from the fifth floor observation deck -- and on a clear day you can see the Pacific, but often it won't be clear and that cooling fog is one of the reasons the vineyard is here -- this is prime pinot noir and chardonnay country, with the esteemed Solomon Hills right next door and the venerable Bien Nacido Vineyard in view. It's no surprise that Matt Murphy and his winemaker Dieter Cronje opted to rip out all the gladioli that used to grow on the land and instead plant grapes. If it is foggy or windy you can hang out in the 237-foot long cave that someday they hope will hold 360 barrels of wine. Presqu'ile right now is low on its own inventory, having produced only 7000 cases of its latest vintage. (Their tasting room in Los Olivos is closed, at least temporarily, because of the lack of wine to taste, plus they want to show off the new, spectacular digs up the 101.)

Those digs are the Murphy family's new gathering place after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their long-time estate in Mississippi. Presqu'ile is Creole for "almost an island," which that spot on the Gulf Coast was, but now this 200-acre mostly bluff-top Santa Maria spot seems to be even more, afloat in a sea of having seen nothing like this. There's an amphitheater for weddings and bands, and wine club members have their own secret garden/bar area with horseshoes and more.

Mostly there's a family-run business -- two generations and numerous in-laws help create Presqu'ile -- that's making very Old World Burgundian varietals, plus some rosé, sauvignon blanc, and syrah. (The Nebbiolo planted will be picked this harvest, but has a future of two years in barrel.) Their pinot noirs are models of restraint without austerity, never breaking 14% alcohol (they tend to pick early), but always supple (that sandy Santa Maria soil helps) with enough cherry and dried fruit but nothing close to some jammy bombs. Think food. They help you do that if you book a tour, giving you seasonally matched morsels like a mushroom Tellagio tart or duck confit with black tea shallot marmalade on crostini with basil microgreens and orange zest. All those flavors find their rhymes in the wines, from the mushroom to the tea to the citrus, even (it's very finely zested).

And then you can compare the final wines with a pinot grape a worker fed you off the sorting line just minutes before. Given the Presqu'ile mantra is "no interference" you'll realize how much of the goodness in the bottle comes straight from the fruit.

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