Oh these hallowed Halls

It’s the day after the WBC, and my trusty drinking buddy Megan (@sonadora) were wandering around Napa Valley, eager to make some new discoveries.  As luck would have it, we were personally invited to a Bloggers Day at Hall Napa Valley, a fairly large production facility, in St Helena.  Little did I know, I would leave that day with a much kinder view of that “other” valley, as well as a profound respect for an established winery who opened their doors and barrel room to a posse of renegade bloggers.

Hall is most well known for it’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.  They are also the first GOLD LEED Certified winery in California (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).  They take their environmental responsibility seriously, and employ a variety of methods to ensure that they are eco balanced and green in all senses of the world.  Some of the tools they use to achieve this are bio-diesel powered farm equipment, solar power, radiant cooling & heating, and sustainable farming practices.  In fact, the solar power provides approximately 35% of Hall’s total reneger needs, and they are successfully selling back power during the strong sunny moths in the summer.  The LEED certification process is a complex multi-year undertaking, and Hall will be the first winery to achieve this.

We met up with Joe, Amy, Liz, and the team from Hall at the St. Helena tasting room at production center.  Here, we were greeted with a taste of the 2008 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which retails for a very affordable $20.  I found the Sav Blanc very fruity, and crisp without being sharp.  It is fermented in 100% stainless steel, and has delicious citrus.  The vineyard manager explained to us that thinning the canopy and dropping some of the grape clusters actually helps bring out the citrus characteristics, more so than say a grassy Sav Blanc.  That brought up a good point – is that grassy flavor profile a flaw or a style?  The intimation was the the grassiness can come from over shading the grapes, which doesn’t allow the natural sunlight through.  I personally prefer a more well rounded Sav Blanc, so whatever the technique, this was a strong buy.

After we tasted some of the juice, we headed out to the winery to learn about how Hall practices green wine making and learn more about their winery.  On the catwalk, we learned from winemaker Steve Leveque about their gravity flow winery, which they can expand in the future.  Three sections in the barrel room allow the winemakers to store wines in independent temperature controlled rooms, which allows for better aging and separation.

The St. Helena winery sits on the grounds of one of Napa’s oldest structures, where the historic distillary operated in teh 1940s, making brandy and wine.  The original structure was built in 1885, and that structure transformed in to the Coop winemaking facility in Napa, which was somewhat of a local eyesore.  Fortunately, Hall has plans to restore the original building, and make the historical structure its hospitality center.

Today, Hall has several vineyards, including the St. Helena visitors center, the Rutherford appointment only private winery and Sacrashe Vineyard, Napa River Ranch, Bergfeld which is also in St. Helena, Hardester, and Walt Ranch on Atlas Peak.  each one of these properties is chosen specifically with the intention of creating the best Bordeaux varietals possible, and represent different elevations, micro-climates and soil confabs.

After touring the winery, we headed up to the home ranch in Rutherford, on top of the eastern hills overlooking the valley.  Here, in the Sacrashe Vineyard, Don Munk the Director of Vineyard Operations explained to us about the tufa soil.  This vineyard in particular is planted with a high density 6×4 planting formation.  The smaller vines that are planted to a higher density give a more intense fruit profile, and increase the quality in the bottle.  This vineyard is organically farmed, and will be fully certified in 2010.  Here, it is more important to maintain balance of nature then it is to achieve it.  Practices such as encouraging owls as natural pest control, cover crops, and encouraging beneficial insects to use the vineyard are supported while minimal intervention occurs.  One of the important factors is controlling the vigor of the vines.  In the winter, cover crops can help penetrate the hard soil, and assist in aeration, which gives the vine roots a fighting change.

This vineyard is the basis for the flagship Cabernet blend, the Katheryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon.  Katheryn is a passport ambassador for her brand, and in fact was an actual ambassador to Austria for many years.  Raised in a Napa Valley wine family, she knows what it takes to make good wine and came back to the valley after a varied career in public service.  One thing that struck me at this beautiful winery was the inquisitive nature Katheryn has, and how she welcomed us in to her home, and really wanted to know what we, as the new wave of journalism, wanted from a winery and how we could form a symbiotic relationship and mutually advance each other.

Following our vineyard tour, we had a beautiful sit down lunch on the terrace overlooking Napa.

Starter:  Grilled bread, buratta cheese, white anchovies, nicose olives, cherry tomatoes, capers, arugula.  Paired with the 2008 HALL Sauvignon Blanc (see notes above)

Main:  Wood oven roasted long-bailey farms duroc pork tenderloin, summer squash, shelling beans, chanterelle mushrooms, thyme jus.  Paired with the 2005 HALL Napa River Ranch Merlot.

The Napa Valley Merlot is sourced from two different vineyards, the Napa River Ranch, and the Hardester.  The Hardester vineyard is planted on the rugged hillsides, with low yield vines, and is known for big chewy Merlots.  The Napa River Ranch vineyard is on the valley floor, and has rich fruit and plush mouth feel.  I truly loved this merlot.  Considering that I used to be a bit of a merlot snob, in that i didn’t touch the stuff, this is a big accomplishment.  What a treat!  Flavors of olives, cherries, plum, smoke.  Richly and blanaced with a touch of cedar.  Also tasted cranberry juice, chocolate.  This was a soft and supple Merlot   This wine was only $28, and i rate it a strong buy.

Cheese Course: Artisan cheese with fig jam, bouchon bakery herb pallidan, spanish almonds paired with the 2006 HALL “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is Hall’s flagship wine, and it is 100% Cabernet Savignon, 95% from Sacrashe and 5% Diamond Mountain fruit.  I tasted black cherry, chocolate, lots of tannins, cinnamon and nutmeg.  This was a dense, concentrated Cab, and not a fruit bomb.  It was a glass of dark fresh earth without being dirty.  The black fruit and spices really came through, and I felt like I could taste that famous Rutherford dust.  This could easily age for 15 yrs before it peaks but it is amazing NOW.  This was a special sneak peek for the bloggers, and it will be released on Release date is 9/12/09 at a retail of around $75.  Considering that it is a terrific Napa Cab, even though this is normally outside of my budget, it’s a wonderful example of a Napa Valley Cabernet and I would buy it if I tasted it again.

After lunch, we participated in a bit of blending fun, but that will have to wait for the next post!  All in all, I have found a new favorite Napa Valley winery.  The QPR on the wines is outstanding, and the graciousness of our hostess and the entire team at Hall was lovely.  A winery of this size that is interested in learning about the next generation of wine writers, wine critics, and social media gets a gold star in my book especially when they clearly don’t need to given the success that they enjoy.

Keep up the great work and I look forward to seeing you again soon!

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