You could be forgiven for feeling something of an underachiever following a trip to HALL, the ambitious state-of-the-art boutique winery on the outskirts of St Helena in California’s Napa Valley. Created in 2002 by serial entrepreneur Craig Hall and his wife Kathryn Walt Hall, the property is founded on the site of the old Napa Valley Co-Op. The centerpiece is a stunning new winery and tasting room, given an almost transparent air with floor to ceiling glass. In contrast, set beside it, is the renovated stone Bergfeld Winery established in 1885. Works of art are dotted about the gardens, including a giant silver rabbit that jumps Watership Down-like, out of the vineyard, as if making a bid for the St Helena Highway out in front.
New Napa boutique wine ventures are often, though by no means always, the passion projects of the wealthy. Costs alone dictate this. Yet even in this realm, Kathyrn Walt Hall and Craig Hall, appear to stand out as unusual individuals. If they have had a Midas touch elsewhere in business and finance, they also a have a genuine sense of social awareness, public service and philanthropy. While Kathyrn Walt Hall’s family were originally involved in the wine business owing a vineyard in the Mendicino County, [and with her brother, Kathryn managed these vineyards between 1982 to 1992], separately she began a public career as an assistant city attorney in Berkeley, before moving to Safeway Stores to set up and run one of the first affirmative action plans in the US. She then moved to Dallas where she worked as a businesswoman and lawyer with her husband but continued her commitment to social issues, and, amongst other things, she co-founded the North Texas Food Bank, served on the US Houses of Representatives Hunger Advisory Committee and was director of the Texas Mental Health Association. Following this she was appointed US Ambassador to Austria between 1997 and 2001. While California wineries have their fair share of Nobel laureates and Academy Award winners behind them, not many can claim a former US Ambassodor at the helm.
Craig Hall, who started the Hall Financial Group aged just 18, now runs a diversified business group with fingers in many pies, from real estate, to finance, oil and gas. Hall has lent his support to nurturing entrepreneurship and start-ups, authoring a number of books on business and investment, and, with is wife, funds a Fulbright Chair for teaching entrepreneurship in Eastern Europe. Hall is also a life-long art collector – something immediately evident when the giant rabbit greets you on their St Helena property.
It would be an easy shot to say that the Hall project epitomizes the adage that the way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one. Clearly the Halls have very deep pockets and no expense has been spared in creating HALL St Helena [or in their additional facility at Rutherford], but what the Halls have achieved has been done with passion and style. And, most importantly, the proof is in the pudding. For all the thousands of square feet of glass, the eclectic art and the silver rabbit, it’s the Cabernets that stick most in the mind when you leave from here. They are extremely impressive. The Bergfeld, Stag’s Leap and Diamond Valley bottlings, in the $135-$160 range, tasted at the winery earlier in the year, are as impressive to me as almost any young wine I’ve had from the Napa. Big, wines certainly, they are not in the least brawny. They display a voluptuousness and opulence that is remarkable and a texture that is enthralling.
If the Cabernet variety speaks of Bordeaux, the approach here is somewhat Burgundian, with HALL having vineyard parcels in a variety of the Napa’s top sub appellations – Stag’s Leap, Diamond Valley, Rutherford, Howell Mountain – in addition to those vineyards that surround its winemaking facilities, such as the Bergfeld vineyard in St Helena and the Sacrashe Vineyard in Rutherford. Production is small for the top lots, in the 700-1500 case range, though the less expensive Napa Valley blend turns in around 18,000 cases, depending on the year.
HALL president Mike Reynolds lined up eight wines to try from the 2012 and 2013 vintages on my visit. At the time of tasting [January 2015] the 2013s were still in barrel, so were less finished to a degree, but the comparison between the two vintages was a fascinating one. Both are clearly successful for the Napa Valley. There was more delicacy and sophistication in the 2012s, with 2013s displaying more power and volume, though that might have also reflected the less finished stage the 2013s were at. If I had to pick a darling it would be Stag’s Leap 2012, closely followed by Diamond Valley and Berfeld 2012s, but the HALL regular Napa Valley bottling looks to be ace in 2013. Notes on the eight wines tasted are set out below.
At HALL they have worked hard in the vineyard to grow grapes organically and the approach [Steve Leveque is director of winemaking] is pretty hands off, with minimal wine movements, natural yeast ferments, though a spot of batonnage [lees stirring] undoubtedly adds a degree of texture in the mid palate to the Cabernets. Judging from the wines, clearly the fruit has been harvested ripe but not excessively so, and there was no trace of jam in the fruit tones. Alcohols, around fifteen degrees, are high but were not out of balance in the wines when tasted. Doug Shafer describes the Napa as a ‘Goldilocks zone’ for Cabernet, and the Hall line up, from St Helena in the north, down to Stag’s Leap in the south and up to Diamond Valley, demonstrates just how true this is. At the same time all these HALL offerings display a sense of place. This is not Cabernet as it is in Bordeaux but as it is at its very best in the Napa – rich, velvety and enticing.
The following wines were tasted on Friday, 23rd January, 2015 at HALL St Helena. Photos courtesy of HALL and Eli Cane.
HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Mid depth; red at edge; liqourice; camphor; some vanilla; black fruits; mid depth to the palate; nice extract and material; some spices; good texture; nicely balanced and drinking well now but will be better with a year or so in bottle. Drink 2015-2022. [$55, 30,000 cases]. 90
HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Deeper; bold and saturated; tight to rim; ripe and full; very attractive seam of fruit; very pure Cabernet expression; fat and creamy; 2013 clearly a big, satisfying year for the Napa; textured palate with density but also purity; chocolate; lots of matter. 18 months in French oak. Excellent Cabernet at this level. Drink 2017-2027. 91-93+
HALL Bergfeld Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Deeply coloured; redder at edge; classy aromatics; wonderfully pure, ripe blackcurrant and blackberry flavours; cream; camphor; spices and some graphite; still has a cool and not jammy quality which I admire here; plenty of purity; this is impressive; life at the end; not at all overdone. Excellent St Helena Cabernet. Textured, full and flavoursome. Drink 2015-2025. [$135, 1400 cases] 94+
HALL Bergfeld Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Deep and saturated look; bold and muscular; full with creamy, blackcurrant cassis fruit; big and full with lots of extract and matter; some alcohol here but this is full scaled Cabernet from what looks to be a rich, ripe year. Supple tannins; glossy. Bigger than 2012 but less sophisticated at this stage [still to be bottled at time of tasting]. Drink 2018-2025. 92-94+
HALL Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Deep and saturated; pure blackcurrant aromatics; camphor; spices; textured palate with sweet ripe blackcurrant fruit; very caressing; polished; great texture and mid palate richness; lovely Cabernet tones; caressing finish. Excellent stuff and genuine length on the finish. Very polished and impressive. Classy and hold its own with the world’s best Cabs. [$150, 750 cases]. Drink 2015-2027. 96+
HALL Stag’s Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Deep and saturated look; some oak to integrate; black fruits; density; real seam of blackcurrant fruit on the nose from this impressive vintage; pent up and dense currently; some pepper and spice; sweetness to the fruit; very thick on the palate but had some texture and grit too; lots of ripe tannin; needs to meld. Will be very big. Drink 2018-2028. 95-97+
HALL Diamond Valley District Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Deep and saturated looking; very intense and inky; lots of depth; purity again on the palate; sense of weight; big and voluptuous with lots of ripe fruit and concentration; this has plenty of gloss and weight; liqourice notes; extract and density on the finish. Wonderful stuff. [$160, 700 cases made]. Drink 2017-2027. 95+
HALL Diamond Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Deep and opaque; loaded aromatically with black fruits; liqorice; gloss; has a voluptuous edge again [a characteristic of all the wines at Hall]; creamy, lush black fruit flavours; sexy and very saturated; real opulence here; full with some alcohol clearly but nevertheless impressive stuff. Should be magnificent when released. Drink 2018-2030 94-96+
Tags: Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Craig Hall, Diamond Valley, HALL Rutherford, HALL St Helena, Kathryn Walt Hall, Mike Reynolds, Napa Valley, Rutherford, St Helena, Stag’s Leap District, Steve Leveque