A Perfect Score-The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21-Century Winery by Craig and Kathryn Hall

perfectscore_3d_compAre you a wine novice and interested in knowing more about wine and wine making process? Maybe you are an aspiring winemaker who wants to up your game to produce better wine. Or maybe you are the wine geek who always wants to know more about terroir or the finer details of making quality wine. A Perfect Score is the read for you. It presents the story of Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of HALL and WALT wineries in California. Their journey into the world of wine and winemaking eventually earned them perfect 100 scores from wine critic Rob Parker.

How did they earn the perfect score? I pulled out four important ingredients that came together to produce perfection for the Halls:

1)Vision: Kathryn Hall grew up in California wine country, and her parents Bob and Dolores Walt owned a vineyard in Sonoma. She became a lawyer and in the 1990s was appointed by President Clinton to be the U.S. Ambassador to Austria; however, despite her career successes, Kathryn yearned to be back in the vineyard. Her husband, Craig, had been a successful business man and entrepreneur. Together, they agreed to combine their unique talents and areas of expertise to pursue the art of winemaking. Perfect Score takes the reader through the history of Napa as a winemaking region starting in the early 20th century and then into the groundbreaking years of the 1970s when California wines proved to be on par or better than wines from France. Of course, Napa wine trails are cluttered with well-established wineries; adding to the list in the early 2000s was probably taking a risk. However, the Halls established a goal to produce wines of high quality that expressed terroir, and this lead them to purchase the Sacrashe Vineyard in Napa Valley. They were determined that their wines would be unique and distinctive and unlike others found along the Napa trails.

2) Precision: As time would tell, the Sacrashe Vineyard proved to be the correct site for the Halls to realize their vision. They also grew varietals that were suited to their particular site in Napa, and these included Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. Their Sonoma site produces wines under the WALT label, and grapes grown here include Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A team of expert winemakers that include Steve Leveque and vineyard manager Don Munk allowed the vineyards to express themselves in the bottle while utilizing organic methods that avoided interventions with chemicals.

3) Perseverance: Vineyard managers and winemakers are basically farmers; their crop depends a lot on mother nature. The consumer adds another layer of stress——will they embrace the vision by purchasing the product? Will their pocket books allow them to do so? The Halls had established themselves as players in the winemaking field by racking up 90+ scores by wine critics, but the Great Recession of 2008 demanded that wine drinkers who appreciated fine wine make sacrifices. Those sacrifices included wine. However, despite tolls that the economic downturn played on the wine business, the Halls remained true to their vision and their commitment to quality vineyard and winemaking practices. In the end, their perseverance to paid off as demand returned while the wines continued to score 90+ points.

4) Access: The Halls learned early on that potential customers could be found beyond those who scoured traditional wine industry media. They realized the potential in social media earlier on to create a welcoming presence for a growing legion of HALL and WALT fans.

So what were the results of the Halls’ vision, precision, perseverance, and business acumen? A Perfect Score. In 2010, the HALL Exzellenz Cabernet Sauvignon earned 100 points from renowned wine critic Robert Parker. Parker then awarded 100 points to the 2013 HALL Rainin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Parker’s tasting notes noted qualities in both wines that were unique to the sites where the grapes were grown; of course, 100 points must also be a testimony to expert winemaking and vineyard management.

A Perfect Score should prove to be an insightful and inspiring read for anyone especially those readers who have any sort of interest in wine, wine making, and the wine industry. It presents an intriguing story mixed with personal stories from both Craig and Kathryn. Give it a read so that you too can aspire to your own perfect score!

Wineries That Keep Us Blogging

The tenth year of Virginia Wine Time has given us cause to celebrate, and our visits with the wonderful winemakers who inspired us to blog has been a pleasure. We will also take time to honor wineries and winemakers who inspire us to continue blogging, and these will be either newer wineries that have recently opened or wineries that have experienced a renaissance due to a new direction and renewed purpose. The two wineries featured in this post belong in the latter category, and they are Casanel Vineyards & Winery and The Vineyards and Winery at Lost Creek.

Casanel Vineyards & Winery: There is no doubt in our minds that Katie de Souza has a passion for winemaking, and the wines there have taken a profound turn for the wonderful under her leadership. We visited with Katie last fall, and we were very impressed with the line up of premiere wines. In addition, the new tasting room offers a more accessible yet elegant tasting experience. I was most impressed with the Chardonnay; Paul favored the Petit Verdot, and we both fell in love with the limited edition Carmenere. Pay attention to this winery; we plan to visit very soon to sample the latest releases.

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The Vineyards and Winery at Lost Creek: We remembered the old Lost Creek Winery as a place to go to enjoy picnic wines that tended to be on the sweeter side. We also admired the landscaping! However, the new and improved Lost Creek Winery under the direction of Aimee and Todd Henkle features more serious wines. Dry, complex, nuanced—-these are the descriptors that can now be used in association with these wines. Aimee Henkle conducted our tasting when we visited the winery in January, and I was a fan of the 2014 Reserve Chardonnay with its pear notes and buttery finish. The Genesis, a red blend, was rich and complex with a smoky nose and dark fruit flavors. Drink now or age for later; I have opted to age for a while. We were also treated to a barrel sample of the 2014 Provenance which spent 26 months in oak barrels. Bramble berry notes with a whiff of cedar were quite evident; we intend to return upon release of this one.

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We plan to visit these wineries very soon and know that they continue to strive for excellence. Plan to visit Casanel Vineyards & Winery and The Vineyards and Winery at Lost Creek too; mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

Winery Happenings

As 2015 comes to a close, I wanted to catch up on a couple of celebratory events that occurred at local wineries in the past couple of months. In early November, Old Westminster hosted a “vine” cutting event to celebrate the official opening of its new tasting room; later in the month, Gray Ghost Vineyards held a gala to toast the release of its gold-medal winning 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Paul and I try to frequent Maryland wineries when the calendar allows us to do so. One Maryland winery that is always on our must visit list is Old Westminster. We’ve written about this winery in the past and always with glowing remarks. On November 5, Old Westminster cut the vines to open a new tasting room to accommodate the growing crowds that visit the winery. Mother Nature provided a crisp fall afternoon for the ceremony that opened with remarks from Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association. Al Spoler, host of the radio program Cellarnotes, continued the accolades first offered by Kevin Atticks. Finally, Drew Baker, vineyard manager and spokesperson for the Baker family, took to the podium to extol the virtues of value added farming and its future in Carroll County, Maryland; he also thanked sister Lisa for her expert winemaking. Drew also acknowledged that the success of Old Westminster was due to a family effort to craft wines in a state that is just appearing on the radar as one that can indeed produce quality wines.
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The Baker family and other guests then cut the “vine” to officially open the tasting room. Guests were then treated to a buffet lunch paired with the winery’s Greenstone, a blend of Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, and Revelry, a red wine blend.

Gray Ghost Vineyards’ fans were excited to celebrate the gala release of the winery’s 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. A reserve cabernet was not produced in 2011 because Cheryl and Al Kellert, owners and winemakers at Gray Ghost, did not feel that the 2011 vintage met the standard for a reserve wine. However, the 2012 vintage was a different story, and the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has already taken a gold medal at a California wine competition. The gala proved to be an wonderful evening with lovely fall table settings providing an elegant atmosphere for the event. Heavy hor d’oeuvres and decadent chocolates paired well with the complex Cabernet Sauvignon and its notes of dark cherry and plum. Silk tannins presented a wine that can be enjoyed now but will be appreciated more if aged for a few years.
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Plan a visit to these local wineries and sample their award-winning wines. Purchase their wines to serve over the holidays or to give as gifts. Please mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

Black Friday Shopping

Warren’s parents came in town last weekend to enjoy the Thanksgiving weekend with us. We had a great Thanksgiving day with some wonderful wines. On Black Friday we decided to do some shopping like half of the United States. We visited Gray Ghost Vineyards and Gadino Cellars.
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Our first stop was Gray Ghost Vineyards. As long time readers know, Gray Ghost is one of our absolute favorites. We always get a warm greeting when we enter the tasting room. Every year Warren’s mother brings Al Kellert a pecan pie and this year was no different. Al was very happy to see that pie in her hands.
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After catching up with Amy and Al and Cheryl, we did a tasting of the current line up of wines. We love all the wines at Gray Ghost but of course there are always stand out wines. In my opinion the 2014 Chardonnay is one of the best. It presents tropical flavors with creamy notes and subtle oak notes. My favorite red is the 2013 Ranger Reserve. This is a true Bordeaux blend. I noted lots of dark fruit and coffee notes. The tannins were smooth and nimble. I thought of big red meats and some hard cheeses. I wanted a small chunk of dark chocolate to enjoy with this one. The Petit Verdot was not on the regular tasting but it was another stellar wine.
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After our tasting we enjoyed some lunch nibbles with a bottle of the Ranger Reserve which we thoroughly enjoyed and paired well with our lunch items. Before leaving we purchased our favorites and picked up a case for Warren’s parents. We said our goodbyes knowing we’d be returning in one week for the Holiday Open House on December 5th and 6th.
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Our second stop was Gadino Cellars. We hadn’t been there in a very long time. We began our tasting and then Stephanie entered the tasting room. We always enjoy talking wine with Stephanie. She told us how the 2015 harvest was and what upcoming wines we might want to check out. Gadino is another winery where we enjoy all the wines on the tasting menu. Of course we have our favorites as well. We all really enjoyed the 2014 Pinot Grigio. Light and crisp and reminded us of warm Spring afternoons. We were all also big fans of the 2012 Cabernet Franc Riserva. We noted lots of cherry, spice, and pepper. A classic cab franc from Virginia. After our tasting we each enjoyed a glass of the cab franc on the deck while taking in the last moments of the sunny Friday afternoon.
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What a great way to spend our Black Friday! If you haven’t been to Gray Ghost Vineyards or Gadino Cellars in awhile, plan a trip soon. And when you visit, tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!
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