When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Murphy family compound, Presqu’ile, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, it destroyed a way of life, says Madison Murphy, chairman of Murphy USA Inc. of El Dorado.
So when in 2008 the family started their 200-acre winery in the Santa Maria Valley in California’s Santa Barbara County, they named it Presqu’ile (pronounced “pres-KEEL”) as a “tip of the hat” to what was lost.
Now that winery is drawing increasing attention, both for its wines and as a destination. The Wine Enthusiast awarded the Presqu’ile 2015 Rosé of Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley) 91 points and made it as an “Editor’s Choice.” Conde Nast Traveler in September listed it as among the 10 most beautiful wineries in California, calling it “stunning” with “jaw-dropping views.”
And Madison Murphy, son of Charles Murphy Jr., who developed Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado into a global energy powerhouse, is proud of what he, his wife, Suzanne, and their three children — Matt, Anna and Jonathan — have created.
Murphy, Matt and Matt’s then-girlfriend now wife, Amanda, started Presqu’ile (from the French for “almost island”) on property that had been a gladiola farm.
From 2008 through 2012, they made wine in a converted barn. They then built a tasting room and a winery, which they opened in June 2013.
Of their 200 acres, 73 are planted. They grow pinot noir grapes, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, syrah and a little nebbiolo.
Presqu’ile’s wines are noted for their elegance. “We are probably a lower alcohol, a little less fruit-forward than maybe a typical California pinot noir,” Murphy said. “Pinot is a really difficult grape to grow, but it’s also the grape that has the capacity to be most expressive of its site, from whence it came. We chose to be in the Santa Maria Valley for a reason” and that was for the “terroir,” the microclimate and soil of the region. “We quite enjoy producing wines that are expressive of the Santa Maria Valley,” he said.
Although it’s not as well known — at least in Arkansas — as the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the Santa Maria Valley is one of the oldest American Viticultural Areas — wine-producing areas — in California. It features a cool climate and a long growing season that allow the grapes to develop their full flavors. (Movie lovers may be familiar with Santa Maria Valley from the film “Sideways.”) The wines are distributed in Arkansas by Moon Distributors.
All three of Murphy’s children are involved in Presqu’ile. His middle child, Jonathan, went out to California to help convert the old barn into a winery and stayed, eventually marrying and buying a house. And his daughter, Anna, “who had a really nice job at Hendrix,” the Conway college where Madison earned his bachelor’s degree, came six or so years ago to work at harvest with plans to then go on to graduate school. Instead, she, too, stayed. “She runs our lab now” and is the winery’s enologist, an expert in the science of winemaking.
“It’s like any business and any endeavor — it’s hard work,” Murphy said. But “it’s a lot of fun. We enjoy the challenge and we enjoy the product.”
The original Presqu’ile, at Henderson Point, Mississippi, “represented sort of a haven, a place that kind of engendered a warmth of human spirit, a conviviality among friends and family,” Murphy said. “We had five homes. It was literally a family compound. My grandmother’s house was there, my parents’, my sister’s.”
After his parents died, he and Suzanne owned his parents’ home with his sister. “Our whole extended clan would rotate through our grandmother’s house through the course of a summer, and we spent every summer there and a lot of the year and holidays,” he said.
“It was a place that in our minds and hearts was kind of magical and special. And when we started Presqu’ile, started the winery, well, we had to name it something,” Murphy said. The family kept coming back to “Presqu’ile, as a tip of the hat to a way of life that we just couldn’t recreate at the original Presqu’ile.”
“We wanted the wines and the winery to be evocative of that sort of warmth of human spirit,” he said.
The California Presqu’ile has now become the Murphy family’s gathering spot.
And though his children now live in California and he and Suzanne spend a lot of time there, Murphy remains committed to Arkansas. “El Dorado is home.”