Well-known vintner and former US Ambassador to Austria, Kathryn Walt Hall invites us to “create memories” in Napa Valley through the myriad of experiences her Hall Wineries offer. The Halls (Kathryn and Craig) set the stage for their guests to have fun and experience wine in beautiful spaces including the extravagant chandelier-dominant tasting room at the Hall Rutherford winery with its extensive art collection. This year, Kathryn Hall and her winemaker, Steve Leveque, entertained 700 guests at the winery with a Western-themed Hall Y’All Release Party featuring the country band, Twang Ditty, celebrating the new 2012 “Kathryn Hall” Cabernet Sauvignon 97+ point rated vintage. More memories created.
Kathryn has enjoyed a storied life. Her parents owned vineyards in Mendocino County, so she grew up tasting a “dropper-full of wine” with dinner. Following her law school education at University of California’s Hasting College of Law, she worked as corporate lawyer for Safeway developing and administering one of the first affirmative action programs. After Safeway moved her to Dallas, Kathryn began her foray into political life running for positions including county judge. She even ran in the 1991 Dallas Mayoral race and came in second. Kathryn met Craig Hall, CEO of Hall Financial, Dallas, where they married and combined into a blended family. Kathryn was soon appointed by Clinton Administration to serve as the US Ambassador to Austria from 1997 to 2001. Kathryn was able to successfully utilize her strong skills in public policy, her German and French language skills (acquired at a Swiss boarding school), and her gracious entertaining talents. She enjoyed the Austrian cultural and political life complete with its art, music, and wine.
In 1995, the Halls purchased the Sacrasche Vineyard and estate in Napa Valley with the goal of someday producing small lots of wine. The Halls obviously worked hard and smart since the current production level is 120,000 cases today. Part of the Hall success is the large direct-to-consumer business accounting for 65% of their sales. This sales channel is more profitable than the normal distributor/retail one, but it requires the marketing magic that Kathryn brings to her customers and guests. The Hall St. Helena winery’s whimsical Bunny Foo-Foo statue sits along Highway 29 Napa Valley and is a magnet for drawing people to stop and take a picture.
The Halls produce 16 different Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The best known is the eponymous “Kathryn Hall.” While tasting wine in their magnificent Swarovski crystal-laden chandelier tasting room at the Rutherford winery, I found this Cabernet Sauvignon to have blueberry and black raspberry notes with rich spices, smoke and a long, perfumed finish. Additionally, the Halls produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines with a Walt label (a dedication to her parents) utilizing grapes sourced from Sonoma, Santa Rita Hills, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Mendocino vineyards. The top end Hall wine, their “Exzellenz”, has even received a perfect 100 score from Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate.
Kathryn still remains active in her original profession. As a lawyer and philanthropist, she sits on the board of directors of Legal Aid of Napa Valley and is any honorary board member of Napa Emergency Women’s Services (NEWS), which assists domestic violence victims and their children. The Halls have hosted the Auction Napa Valley Barrel Auction, which raises $145 Million annually to benefit Napa County’s non-profit charities.
Kathryn and Craig Hall split their time between Dallas and Napa Valley traveling nationally for wine promotion dinners. During our Q&A interview, she detailed the success of the Hall wine program, her recommendations for everyday and special occasion wines and her big-hearted passion for charities in the Napa Valley.
Questions & Answers: Tricia Conover and Kathryn Walt Hall
You seem to do some unexpected things at Hall Wineries like the symphony flash mob “Ode to Joy” surprising attendees at the Napa Auction you hosted this past year. What has been the reaction to these activities? What’s been the reaction to the Bunny Foo Foo statue prominent along Highway 29?
A: Kathryn Hall (KWH)
We are doing some special things. We make extraordinary wines. The joy of this business is in creating fun and spontaneous events that create memories. This idea of creating beautiful spaces with art is our commitment to our guests and their continuing support. The artist for Bunny Foo Foo, Lawrence Argent, has a great sense of humor. He loves the playfulness. At Christmas the Bunny wore a Rudolph hat. On the 4th of July, he held a flag. Art is integral part of our wineries and businesses.
Q: (TC) You developed a passion for fine wines early in life. What other wines do you enjoy other than those from Northern California?
A: (KWH) I love French White Burgundy. Its attributes influence how we make our Walt Chardonnay which exhibits a similar minerality with just a little oak. I like the Malbec’s from Argentina, the Bordeaux right bank wines, and the Gruner Veltliners from Austria, too. My palate for white wine changed while I was the US Ambassador to Austria. I now enjoy wines lower in alcohol and higher in acidity.
Q: (TC) Whom do you consider some of your women-in-wine contemporaries?
A: (KWH) Well, there is a growing list: Janet Trefethan, Cathy Corison, Molly Chappellet, Beth Nickel of Nickel & Nickel Wines and queen of the valley, Margrit Mondavi among others.
Q: (TC) Since you sell 65% of your wine direct-to-consumer and have 12,000 people in your wine club – what do you consider the key to this rare DTC high percent and high member retention rate?
A: (KWH) Our secret sauce from beginning was creating experiences for people along with the enjoyment of the fine, well-made wine. You have to be able to touch your customer. It is the core of what we do. Beyond that, we work hard at it. Our team is friendly and approachable. When I was a kid in Mendocino, I thought some of the winery tasting room people were snobby. Wine is here in our tasting rooms to enjoy.
Q: (TC) You sit on the Napa Auction’s Grant Review Committee. Which beneficiary non-profits are closest to your heart?
A: (KWH) My heart is with Legal Aid. It is one of my passions; I was a legal aid attorney. Preservation of legal rights affects every aspect of people’s life. This is so critical, as so many services are impacted. I sit on that board in Napa. Women and children and the Women’s shelter in Napa are important to me.
Q: (TC) Do you have any Hall wine recommendations for us: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, and Special Occasion wines?
A: (KWH) A great daily wine, my go-to wine, is the Walt Chardonnay made with those beautiful grapes and aged in French Oak for 11 months, giving a very subtle oak influence. We feature it often at winery events. My once-a-week wine is one of the Cabernets from our different appellations. I rotate drinking the Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the AVA’s of Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, and Stags Leaps. My once-a-month wine is the “Kathryn Hall.” It is my favorite wine. It has such a silky texture and we don’t have enough of it! It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with the core grapes coming from the Sacrasche Vineyard and some from Diamond Mountain. It is immediately approachable but benefits from aging. My special occasion wine is our Excellenz, which come from the Sacrasche Vineyard too, but from a special section of the vineyard. It’s a wine you can lay down, as it ages beautifully. I recommend buying the Excellenz for your anniversary or when your child is born. You can age it, then open it for that significant birthday, graduation, or wedding.