Halter Ranch: Ronald Reagan Hangout Becomes Sustainably-Certified Winery

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Planted just ten miles from Paso Robles' famed Highway 46 wine route, Halter Ranch is a sustainable vineyard deeply rooted within California's history. The property made its Hollywood debut back in 1990 when its rumored-to-be-haunted Victorian farmhouse appeared in the creature-feature Arachnophobia. The house was built in 1885 by the property's first owner and has since been fully restored. That's not its only claim to fame, though -- Ronald Reagan announced his second-term run for governorship at the ranch in 1967 near the property's 3,400-foot airstrip. But of course, we visited Halter Ranch to check out the incredible wine it makes through sustainable practices. The vineyard and winery is located on Paso Robles' somewhat-controversial Westside. In 2007, a proposal was made to split the Paso Robles AVA into east and west sub-appellations at the Salinas River and its parallel, Highway 101. An AVA is a wine grape-growing region in the U.S. distinguishable by geographic features and the Paso Roble's one, established in 1983, is California's largest. The proposal polarized Paso's wine community and with good reason. The Paso Robles Westside AVA would have become home to the area's more extreme weather conditions, making it neither homogeneous nor ideal. The proposal was withdrawn in 2009 for new proposal suggesting 11 separate and much smaller AVAs.

Renovated ranch house from the 1800s. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

The original ranch that Halter Ranch now sits on was a 3,600-acre holding owned by San Francisco wholesale butcher, Edwin Smith. He moved to Paso Robles in 1874 (known then as Las Tablas). During the 1900s the property was broken up after the demise of Smith's business. In 1943, 1,200-acres were purchased by the MacGillivray family who introduced the property's first grapevines in 1996.

Just Say No to Certified-Organic

It was June of 2000 when Swiss-born Hansjörg Wyss (Hans for short) purchased 900 acres of what was to become Halter Ranch. The name Halter is Wyss's mother's maiden name. In 2008, Hans ranked number 164 on Forbes list of billionaires, and he is the second richest person in Switzerland. He established the Wyss Foundation back in 1989 which helps place large swathes of land under government protection. The foundation's efforts have led to over 4 million acres of land being declared as national parks!

So it comes as no surprise that Hans approached Mitch Wyss (no relation), a conventional kiwi farmer at the time, with one specific mission: "To see our vines stay in the ground for over 100 years."

Mitch confesses, "Farming conventionally, I knew this wasn't possible at all. If you give these vines water, fertilizer, water, fertilizer; its like giving your kids a coke and a candy bar everyday for lunch! You end up with sterilized vines that collapse in about 15 to 20 years."

Mitch Wyss talks about being sustainable. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

While the vineyard was SIP-certified for sustainability back in 2008, Mitch admits that he has no interest in being certified organic.

"SIP took into consideration other things that we do on halter ranch. Organic is black and white -- you can use the product or you cannot use the product. That is how it is. SIP takes into account the gray areas like wildlife corridors or worker benefits," he says.

The ranch is now over 1000-acres, yet less than a quarter of it is dedicated to viticulture. About 20 different grape varieties occupy the property's steep south-facing slopes, spread over 48 vineyard blocks. Most are Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. Initially the grapes were only to be sold but in 2002 Halter Ranch started their own label. By 2003, two of the historic airplane hangers were converted into wineries and they now produce about 8,000 cases a year.

World's Largest Oak Tree

The MacGillivray family had installed wildlife corridors on the property that Halter has now expanded out to a total of 3/4 of a mile. Local mountain lions, badgers, bobcats, and coyotes all make use of the thoroughfares. The remaining 700-acres are coastal hills covered by oak trees that are currently being restored to their native woodland. In fact, the ranch houses the world's largest Coastal Oak. Measuring 324-inches in circumference, the giant is 55-feet high with a 104-foot crown. With a beautiful view of the property's rolling landscape, it is the quintessential picnic spot.

Home to the world's largest Coastal Oak. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Insectaries, owl boxes and raptor perches also pepper the landscape. If a block becomes plagued with pests, they call in the mobile chicken coop. Towed by a biodiesel-powered ATV, the coop is solar powered such that the doors opens automatically at sunrise. The 40-some chickens not only supply the land with much needed nitrogen but the employees also get a couple of dozen eggs every day.

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Mitch explains of his work that, "What you are looking at is not a photograph but, in essence, a 100-year [work in progress] movie."

Trickle Down Effect

With about 25 inches of rainfall every year, Halter is lucky (and smart) enough to dry-farm the vineyard, a luxury not all wineries in this area can afford. Irrigation is a last resort and something the vineyard hasn't done in eight years. A new solar-powered gravity-flow winery is being built on the property, and they are seeking LEED Certification for it. The facility will recycle waste water into the landscape and vineyard when needed.

Mitch admits he was surprised by how well dry-farming works, "Coming from a conventional farming background, it amazes me that you only need 10 gallons of water the first year and then it is 99 years of tough love!"

It's tough love you can taste! With the property's well-drained soils, the vines are forced to compete for water and nutrients which results in low yields of intensely flavored fruit. And fourteen miles from the Pacific Ocean, the ranch enjoys a cooler climate than Paso is known for.

The result is wines that are well balanced and fruitful without being overly jammy. One of my favorites is their 2009 Viognier, it is quite big for a white and filled with honey and peach. It's the perfect companion for a Spring day under the Coastal Oak. After sunset, I suggest you move into their 2007 Côtes de Paso. This Southern Rhone Valley-style blend is swirling with currant, blackberry and earth, and feels ripe straight to the finish. Halter Ranch makes some of Paso's best wine which is surprising considering its under-$30 price tag. The wines are available at the vineyard's tasting room and also available online.

Vineyard kitty Buddy is ready for some petting. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

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