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A California winery with deep Arkansas roots

by Richard Mason | January 8, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.
Richard Mason, columnist, El Dorado

These roots are from L.A. but this L.A. is only 17 miles from the Louisiana line.

I know you've guessed it by now: it's El Dorado.

That right, but not only is this a California winery, it's an award winning one. It was picked as one of the top ten wineries in the country for two years in a row by USA TODAY, and also was recently picked as a top ten winery by Conde' Nast.

Yes, I'm writing about the Presqu'ile Winery located in the Santa Maria Valley area of California, owned by Madison and Suzanne Murphy, El Dorado residents.

Now let's take a closer look at this award winning winery. Presqu'ile ('press-keel') is a family-owned winery dedicated to crafting exceptional, cool-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah wine.

The name of the winery, Presqu'ile, is a French/Creole word meaning peninsula, or literally "almost an Island." It was the name of the Murphy family's gathering place on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. For decades, it was a place to relax and enjoy family and friends.

In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, ending an era. The winery was named in honor of that beautiful place and a way of life.

Vertis and I spent a weekend there a number of years back with friends. The estate's gorgeous setting among the huge live oaks was truly magical. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the houses, along with many of the massive live oaks, a piece of history and beauty was lost forever, and as friends of the family, we also felt a sense of loss.

The creation of the Presqu'ile Winery by Madison and Suzanne Murphy is a natural extension of the Murphy family agriculture roots, which extend back four generations.

Of course, Madison Murphy is well known in Arkansas, having served in several leadership roles in Murphy Oil Corporation, Murphy USA and The Murphy Foundation, where he helped create the Murphy Arts District in El Dorado. He served a decade on the Arkansas Highway Commission, led several cultural and business boards and was a longtime member of the Board of Trustees of Hendrix College, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014. He was awarded the 2006 Arkansas Cultural Enrichment Award, the 2004 U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wetlands Conservation Award, and the 2018 Arkansas Tourism Person of the Year.

The family still lives in El Dorado, and although they travel back and forth to the winery, Madison's involvement in El Dorado's new entertainment district is continuing, and his hands-on input is evident in the quality of the MAD operating program.

In the mid-2000s, Madison and Suzanne decided to turn their passion for wine into the family's next chapter in agriculture. They began researching possible winery sites in California's Santa Barbara Valley, Sonoma County and Oregon's Willamette Valley. As they delved deeper into the wine world, shared this knowledge and passion with their adult children Matt, Anna and Jonathan, the whole family joined in the search for a suitable site for growing cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wine grapes, which were the Murphy house favorites.

Their son Matt Murphy was working in the Santa Maria Valley in northern Santa Barbara County alongside one of California's most celebrated winemakers, the late Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat winery, and in 2007, the Murphy family acquired their initial 200 acres in the Santa Maria Valley. They immediately began building their estate vineyard and winery.

The Presqu'ile Vineyard is 16 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and it began with 73 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Gamay, Nebbiolo and Aligoté grape vines. The resulting wines are produced using both estate fruit and high quality fruit from select vineyard sites across the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. Presqu'ile's goals are to capture the true essence of its vineyards, vintages and unique senses of place.

Although Presqu'ile's primary focus is making delicious, cool-climate wines from California, their Southern Hospitality blended with their fine wines make a visit to the winery an unforgettable experience

Recently, they added 595 acres to the original property of 73 acres, adding their total grape acres to 130. In 2022, they branched out and planted 12 acres of avocados, and have plans to add 10 to 12 acres in 2023.

In order to produce to top quality wines, they have collaborated with Jeremy Seysses, the proprietor of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. Jeremy is recognized as one of the best wine makers in the world, and his involvement is one of the reasons Presqu'ile's wines have quality in the vineyard and winemaking.

I love their Pinot Noir, and I believe it will match up with the best of its variety, and is an equal to the highly regarded Pinot Noirs from Oregon's Willamette Valley. Vertis loves their Chardonnay, and she won't pass it up if it's available.

But Madison and Suzanne have more than making great wines as their goal. They are making sure the winery is a beacon of sustainability, which is integrated into everything at Presqu'ile, from the soil to the cellar. Their conservation efforts also ensure they continue to be good neighbors by protecting the community's natural resources for generations to come.

Presqu'ile has been SIP Certified since 2014. SIP stands for Sustainability in Practice. While Presqu'ile' s vineyards have been Certified Organic for years, SIP goes beyond organic and takes a 360-degree look at a winery's entire operation, from the vineyards and winery, to energy use and benefits for employees. Earning and maintaining SIP requires third-party audits of key criteria including water and energy conservation, social equity and pest management, among many others.

Buildings are built to LEED Specs, which includes Presqu'ile's main building houses, the tasting room, barrel room, caves and winery. It was designed by President Matt Murphy, winemaker Dieter Cronje and San Francisco-based Taylor Lombardo Architects.

To match their minimalist approach in the vineyard, the cellar is a gravity-flow winery, which reduces energy use significantly. The winery is built into a hillside to keep temperatures cool and it boasts strategically placed insulated windows to allow for natural light all day long.

Presqu'ile's solar field has 774 panels and produces 493,112 kwh per year. Its annual emissions reduction is 404 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent annual electricity use of 47 average homes and nearly 100 gas cars. The Presqu'ile Winery and estate buildings are a model of energy conservation.

The original goals of 2007 remain today: A relentless pursuit of quality in growing and crafting wines that purely express the estate and region, while providing an unparalleled guest experience that reflects the Murphy's inherent warm and welcoming Southern hospitality. Madison and Suzanne spend a significant amount of time each year at the winery, and they have brought on board the expertise it takes to create superior wines.

Obviously, Madison and his staff contributed heavily to this column, and his final notation about the family involvement tells us that the Presqu'ile Winery is a family affair. "Having our three adult children (Matt, Jonathan and Anna) interested, involved and running Presqu'ile is pretty special."

Richard Mason is an author and speaker. He can be reached at [email protected]

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