Welcome to the Red Thread™ | Stories about wine, the Red Thread™ that binds us all.
by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
The French have no word for wine maker.
Instead, they use the term vigneron.
Roughly translated, the word means “caretaker of the vines.”
More important is what the term implies.
For a vigneron does not ‘make’ wine.
A vigneron simply offers minimal intervention, to allow for maximum expression of the wine.
Simply put, a vigneron lets the terroir do the talking.
James Hall is a respected wine maker, and one of the four founding owners of Patz & Hall of Sonoma.
James crafts artisan, single-vineyard, small-lot production wines for which Patz & Hall claims their fame.
He’s done so for the past twenty-eight years. In wine years, like dog years, that’s a long time.
But typical in Burgundy, a wine region James seeks to emulate.
Here, James Hall talks with the Red Thread™ about terroir, Burgundy, and the power of a good sniffer.
r/T™: Why wine? What stoked the passion to choose wine making as your life’s work?
JH: I have always been interested in food, particularly its aromas. As a child I was fascinated by the way things smelled, sniffing my way through life. When I was about 10 my family spent a year in Europe, where I was exposed to so many amazing foods and smells. I still distinctly remember the first time I had unsalted butter on a baguette. It blew my mind.
At 14, I started working in restaurants and started to learn about wine. In college, I worked at a rather posh French restaurant and served some really nice wines, vintage Champagnes, white Burgundies, sometimes getting small tastes. It was during this time around the age of 19 that I began to study wine.
I applied to the UC Davis enology program when I was 20 and transferred from UCSC just after my 21st birthday. When I moved to Napa in 1983 and became the assistant winemaker at Flora Springs, I was completely hooked. I had (and still have) total infatuation and love for the winemaking profession.
r/T™: At any point, did you feel like giving up? If so, who or what kept/keeps you going?
JH: Never. Of course, there have been plenty of early bottling days, wet and cold nights on the crush pad, and all of that, but I can honestly say it has never occurred to me to give up. I can’t think of anything else that has even the slightest chance of being more interesting than what I get to do for a living. I make wine from some of the best grapes in California. I am really fortunate.
r/T™: Many describe your wines as ‘Burgundy inspired,’ given your focus upon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay only. You also employ traditional, Old-World wine making methods, yet incorporate innovations of your own. What about Burgundy proves a touchstone? Any wine makers you strive to emulate? Conversely, what drives you to risk innovation? Any illustrations of either/both you care to share?
JH: Relatively early in my career, I decided that it was important to learn more about Burgundy. So in 1985, my partner, Anne Moses, and I went to France for a month; Burgundy in particular, but also the Loire, Chablis, and Alsace. It was love at first site. As we tasted all of these amazing wines and met the growers, the concept of terroir, and the importance of location became clear.
I also was exposed to many of the classic winemaking techniques. Whole-cluster pressing, native yeast fermentation, ML in barrel, bottling without filtration. I was shocked at how little equipment I saw at many of the Burgundy houses. It became clear that some of the best came from the most rustic and simple of wineries. This was the beginning of a long and deliberate process at Patz & Hall, (still going today!) of how to simplify, and reduce the winemaking steps to the bare minimum. Because we are working with the very best grapes, the less we do, the more the vineyards show through in the wines.
r/T™: Talk about terroir. You source your grapes from as far north as Mendocino, and as far south as Monterey, yet your ‘sweet spot’ seems to center around the Sonoma Valley, Carneros, and Russian River Valley in particular. What about these regions lends themselves to the types of wines you strive to create? Do you have a favorite AVA?
JH: I love Sonoma. I am fascinated by the diversity, the quality and the range of its wines. Though I spent my formative winemaking years in Napa—and still believe that some of the greatest wines in California come from Napa—Sonoma has my heart. I come from a long line of Ohio farmers. From the people to the land, something about Sonoma speaks to my inner farm boy.
From a more practical point of view, Sonoma has the soils and climate to produce the grapes that makes the wines I love to drink. I am still discovering interesting parts of the county, and Patz & Hall is working with new vineyards almost every year. I don’t think this process of discovery will ever end for us. That palpable sense of excitement about a new vineyard discovery is in our DNA as a winery.
r/T™: In a region rife with ‘estate’ wineries, Patz & Hall focuses on grower-sourced fruit – enjoying enviable, long-standing business relationships with some of Sonoma’s most well-respected ones, including Larry Hyde, the Martinelli Family, and Lee Hudson. How do you choose to work with a grower? Quality of fruit? Farming methods? Similar vine and wine philosophies? Force of personality? Do you find that the fruit reflects the personality tending it, much like a wine often reflects the wine maker? Do you have any favorite story or stories about the growers and their vineyards that illustrate this?
JH: When we founded Patz & Hall in 1988, we decided not to own a vineyard because we didn’t have any money to buy one! Along with this rather obvious limitation was a bigger question of “if we did have money, where would we buy.” This was a much harder question to answer.
We had seen many wineries buy sites that expressed some sort of compromise, either because it could hold a winery, it was available, on a nice road, affordable, etc. We didn’t want any compromises, we wanted the perfect vineyard site. It became obvious that the smartest route to great wines was to try many different sites, ignoring the practical issues such as location, affordability, etc., and explore the types of wines that came from each area. This allowed us to zero in on what we liked. It became a pure pursuit of quality over all else. It didn’t matter if the site was hours away, or right next door. If the wines were great, we wanted to work with that vineyard.
Through this process of exploration we met many dedicated and highly successful vineyard owners and growers. We offered them an interesting deal. “Give us your best grapes, and if they are as good as we think they are, we will bottle them as a single-vineyard wine, put your family’s name on the label, and share it with the world. We’ll also pay you top dollar.” From the beginning, this synergistic relationship has been at the heart of Patz & Hall.
I have never met a serious vineyard owner who didn’t have a love for their site and a desire to see their grapes go to a place where they could become a great wine. Our approach also allows us to make many different wines. While some wineries have two or three wines, or maybe eight to ten, we have twenty-four, and they come from a who’s who of California’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards.
r/T™: You’ve been the wine maker at Patz & Hall since founding it in 1988. While common in the Old World, few New World wineries can claim such a consistent ‘thruline’ behind the barrel. You’re the son of an English professor, and a former English major turned viticulture and enology grad, so your voice comes through wine, rather than words. What, if any, narrative do you feel your wines tell? Do you have any vintage(s) of which you’re particularly proud? Any nightmare ones?
JH: I don’t really approach winemaking from an artistic point of view. Sure there are creative impulses, but these are largely, about my feelings toward a wine, not about making it.
I treat the winemaking process more like an engineering, logistics problem. One can have all the high-minded, creative feelings in the world, but if you can’t get the viticultural work done in a timely manner, if you can’t pick the fruit at the perfect moment, the “creative process” is a largely wasted effort.
I try to avoid issues, and mistakes, of course, but I am also very conscious that I am not in charge of how the wine will eventually taste. I can help shape it, to a certain degree, but not as much as many people would assume. My role is to give the grapes their best opportunity to shine.
It is not about my love of a particular style, or philosophy. To me, it is about working really hard to surround the best grapes with the best viticulture, and then let the wine make itself. This is a common idea in Burgundy. They don’t even have a name for winemaker. You don’t make wines, you help wines make themselves.
r/T™: Any challenges you face as a wine maker and owner that kept you awake at night?
JH: Viruses in the vineyards. Many of California’s vineyards were planted within a few decades of each other, starting in the early 1990s, often with plant material that contained viruses. The vine nurseries just didn’t know how to handle infected plants. As these vines age the leaf roll and red blotch viruses grow and begin to impact the health of the vines. This is a slow process that can take decades, but the fact that most Sonoma vineyards have been planted within 20 years of each other suggests they will progress into showing more virus effects together.
There has been some really important work regarding vine viruses in the last five years that suggests we may be able to replant with true virus free materials in the future. This could be a real game changer in the long run, but for now it is about keeping the vineyards well-tended, happy and productive.
r/T™: Anything you still hope to accomplish at Patz & Hall?
JH: We started making sparkling wine in 2012, which is really fun and challenging. Sparkling wine is so complex and time-consuming. Ultimately, our team’s goal is to make a sparkling wine that compares to the finest vintage Champagne. This is a very aspirational goal that will take many years to fully realize, but we love the challenge and we are thrilled with what our sparkling program has already achieved.
r/T™: Anything else you’d care to share with readers about Patz & Hall that differentiates it from other wineries?
JH: I think we work with one of greatest collection of vineyards of any winery in California. As a winemaker, I have to pinch myself at times, thinking about how lucky I am to work with such wonderful people and their amazing vineyards.
r/T™: Finally, if your experience as a winemaker has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
JH: Don’t ever settle for mediocre. If you are not ready to rip your wines to shreds, and by this I mean deconstruct and objectively critique them, then stay home. We refuse to settle. Not giving our all would be an insult to the growers and the grapes we are so fortunate to work with.
Thoughts? Feel free to leave your comments below.
Copyrighted 2015. All Rights Reserved.
Tiffany Kenny | Director – Consumer Sales & Marketing | Patz & Hall
Team Patz & Hall