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Dieter Cronje, winemaker

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Dieter Cronje, winemaker


When Katrina Crushed, Wine Nurtured

The Mississippi Coast Roots of Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile Winery


The Santa Maria vineyards of Presqu’ile Winery are more than 2,000 miles away from a particular piece of land off the Mississippi coast. The two places could hardly be more different, with countless climates and cultures between them. But for the Murphy family, both regions conjure similar sentiments, including camaraderie, hope, and tragedy.

Presqu’ile, French for “almost an island,” was what Matt Murphy’s grandparents named this point off of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast when they purchased the land in the early 1960s. While Murphy grew up in various places from South Arkansas to London, he fondly remembers Presqu’ile as the center of convergence for his sprawling family. He also recalls an omnipresent wine appreciation among the family throughout his entire life. However, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the almost-island in August 2005, the family suffered the loss of an important symbol of their unity.

“We lost [Presqu’ile] in Katrina, along with everything else along the gulf coast of Mississippi, and it was a total tragedy,” Murphy said. “All of our favorite places on planet Earth … ”

Matt Murphy, president
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Matt Murphy, president

Luckily, Murphy still had wine. But merely drinking it would not suffice. “I’ve never really been the kind of person who wants to stand on the outside,” he explained. “I’ve always wanted to be in the middle of things.” While sitting in class as a teenager “trying to figure out a way to not end up in a cubicle for the rest of my life,” Murphy realized working in wine production would be a wonderful solution. He was right: Family connections helped him find his way into the barrels of wineries from Santa Maria up to Napa, and he found his calling.

Somewhere along the way, Murphy had the chance to work with Dieter Cronje, and together they began plotting their own wine project almost immediately. Now Murphy considers him his “brother from another mother,” as Cronje has found a rightful spot in the Murphy family.

After a few years of working together, the two sought an ideal spot in California to fulfill their long-standing winery dreams. Because it was the first place Murphy had ever worked with wine, and because of its strikingly quintessential growing conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir, they settled down in the Santa Maria Valley. (They’re also making a sauvignon blanc.) Admirers of a more Old World-style of winemaking with lower alcohol levels, minimal oak, and completely native yeast, the Presqu’ile team can’t be more pleased with the region and the wines it allows them to create.

With their first vintage in 2008, this has become the first year they have released wines. “It’s awesome,” Murphy said of finally drinking wine from a bottle with his own label on it. “That’s not very eloquent, but it’s out of this world.”

Jonathan Murphy, assistant winemaker
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Jonathan Murphy, assistant winemaker

Presqu’ile’s team has eagerly embraced their new surroundings with a passionate respect. Believing that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Murphy said, “I just hope we can contribute to the quality and standards that have already been set.” Likewise, they want their wines to reflect the location and use the simplest, least intrusive, traditional winemaking techniques as possible — or, as Cronje calls it, “very natural and transparent; we’re not doing anything unique.” Since the vineyard is special enough, Cronje said that intervention proves unnecessary for creating outstanding wines.

As the team looks forward to the new, they certainly have not forgotten about the past. They certainly have kept the name Presqu’ile alive, albeit on a bottle in lieu of the beloved place they lost. Murphy tells how the same conviviality that made the “almost-island” so enchanting encompasses the winery and all who work with them — something they could only hope for while coming up with their name.

“We want to convey the sense of camaraderie we all felt when we were all together down there, and a sense of place,” said Murphy. Although their wines haven’t been shared too much with the public yet, Murphy already proclaimed, “I think the general sense among all of us who work and spend time here is that, so far, mission accomplished.”

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Learn more about Presqu’ile Wines, call (805) 363-1966, email info@presquilewine.com, or see presquilewine.com.

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