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Q & A: James Hall
By Tina Caputo
Aug 2, 2011
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For followers of California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Patz & Hall is one of the greats. 

While some vintners say that the key to winemaking success is owning and farming one’s own vineyards, Patz & Hall winemaker and co-owner James Hall has been proving otherwise for 20 years.  The winery owns no vineyards, opting instead to showcase the distinctive fruit of growers from the Sonoma Coast to the Santa Lucia Highlands through a portfolio of excellent single-vineyard wines. 

Although they vary in character from region to region and vineyard to vineyard, the wines share common traits of fruit purity, structure and sophistication. 

This doesn’t happen by accident.  Known in the industry as a perfectionist, James applies his meticulous nature to all aspects of the winemaking process -- from vineyard and fruit selection to designing custom equipment for the winery. 

This may seem like a pretty big leap for a UC Santa Cruz liberal arts major, but for James, it was a natural progression. 

With a wine-enthusiast English professor for a father, James learned to appreciate wine during family trips to Europe in the late ‘60s.  When he landed at UC Santa Cruz, he met Anne Moses, and together the couple began exploring their mutual interest in wine.  Soon, James was doing the unthinkable in the eyes of most liberal arts majors: reading winemaking textbooks for fun. 

This led James to transfer to UC Davis to study viticulture and enology.  He took his first winery job at Felton-Empire in 1981, where he was mentored by renowned winemakers Leo McCloskey (who took a science-oriented approach) and Patrick Mahaney (the ultimate craftsman).

In 1983, James joined Napa Valley’s Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards as assistant winemaker, where he honed his skills making barrel fermented,
small-lot Chardonnays.  It was there that he befriended Flora Springs sales manager Donald Patz. 

Five years later, while he was working as the winemaker and estate manager for Honig Winery, James and Anne Moses teamed up with Donald and Heather Patz to create Patz & Hall’s first Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Over the years, James has cultivated relationships with such respected grape growers as the Dutton family of Dutton Ranch in Sonoma County; the Pisoni family in the Santa Lucia Highlands; and Lee Hudson of Hudson Vineyard in Carneros. 

Wine Review Online (WRO):  How much of winemaking is art vs. science?

James Hall (JH):  Obviously, there are some aspects of winemaking that are definitively scientific.  The chemistry and microbiology of the wine is complex and hard to master, and if not handled correctly, can lead to winemaking mistakes.  That said, if one only looked at wine using scientific methods you would miss a large part of the process – the intuition and experiential aspect.  The science is the launching pad for the leap to the artistic.  Wine is a unique and complex arrangement of flavors, textures and, most importantly, aromas that give it its personality.  I try to focus on the aesthetic nature of the experience.  How does this wine make me think and feel? To me this combination of the hard and scientific with the elusive and experiential is the most intriguing and satisfying aspect of being a winemaker. 

WRO:  How many single-vineyard chards and pinots do you make in a typical vintage?

JH:  In 2009, we made five vineyard-designate Chardonnays and seven vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs.  That’s fairly typical of our production, and I think it reflects what we are all about at Patz & Hall.  When we first started building our portfolio, we were just looking for the best sites to work with – places with the ideal locations, soils, clones, and of course, great growers.  After establishing relationships with a few fantastic growers, we started focusing more on diversity.  Any new vineyard had to be really interesting – it had to offer something unique to our portfolio.  We want each of our single-vineyard wines to have something distinctive to say, and we want to let them say it.

WRO:  Do you always work with the same growers?

JH:  We’ve been fortunate to work with many of our growers for years.  We started working with Larry Hyde in 1990.  We made our first vineyard-designate Pisoni Pinot in 1997 and our first Dutton Ranch Chardonnay in 1998.  We’ve been working with the Martinellis for a decade, first at Burnside Vineyard, and a little later at Zio Tony.  These are amazing relationships that form the backbone of our portfolio, but at the same time, we are always looking for great new vineyards.  When you get a tip about some fantastic, undiscovered vineyard, or you hear that a block of coveted fruit from a site you’ve always wanted to work with has become available, you get in your car and go.  It’s a treasure hunt, and it’s exciting!

WRO:  Many people are familiar with names like Dutton and Pisoni.  Who are some of the lesser-known growers you work with that deserve more recognition?

JH:  One of my favorite viticulturists that you might not be as familiar with is Steve Hill.  Steve was the manager and viticulturist for Durell Vineyards for years before he semi-retired, and he always grew his own fruit on the side at his family vineyard, Parmelee-Hill.  Steve grows both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for us from his vineyard just south of Durell in Sonoma Valley.  He and his vineyard manager son, Ned, are two of my most important sources of information on advances in viticultural practices.  When I have a question about grapes, no matter how esoteric, I give Steve a call. 

WRO:  In working with your "family" of growers, how do the farming decisions get made? 

JH:  There’s a reason we use words like “family” and “relationships” to describe how we work with our growers.  We’ve been fortunate to partner with a lot of these people for many years, and they are master viticulturists.  Some of our growers have quite literally helped to shape modern California viticulture.  There’s a lot of respect that goes into the way we work together.  We talk through everything.  We taste wines in barrel together – and not just a given grower’s wines.  Each grower generally tastes all the other growers’ wines as well, which is interesting, because it puts me in a unique position to act as a conduit of information between the different growers.  The goal is the same for all of us -- their name or their vineyard name is on the bottle, and so is ours -- so everyone wants to make the best possible wine.

WRO:  What are the benefits of working with growers vs. owning and farming your own vineyards?

JH:  The benefits of working with growers really comes through when you establish long-term relationships -- when they know that you are in it for the long haul, and that you’re committed to them.  At that point it becomes very much like having your own vineyard, with an amazing vineyard manager, except that you didn’t have to spend millions of dollars to buy and develop the land.  Working with growers has also allowed us to cast a wider net, and work with incredible vineyards in a number of appellations, which estate-focused wineries rarely do.

WRO:  Any up-and-coming regions you're exploring for your wines?

JH:  We have always followed the grapes at Patz & Hall.  I recently signed a planting contract for a great site owned by Mark Sanchietti, a fourth-generation farmer of the famous Sonoma County Sanchietti family.  Mark approached me two years ago with the opportunity to work with him to develop a new site 5 miles west of Sebastopol called Two Driers Vineyard.  In all my years of looking at potential vineyard sites I have never seen a more perfect and natural location for growing Pinot Noir -- I feel this has all the elements in place to become one of the finest vineyards in Sonoma County.  So really, the good news is that one of the most exciting new areas for Patz & Hall is right outside of Sebastopol. 

WRO:  You’ve said in the past that you and Donald Patz share a common philosophy and approach when it comes to winemaking.  Tell me about that. 

JH:  We both share a really vineyard-inspired approach to making wine.  I know that’s become almost a cliché to say these days, but as a winery that has been focusing on vineyard-designates for most of our 20-plus year history, I think we have the track record to back it up.  We essentially use exactly the same winemaking practices on all of our vineyard designates, so the differences that people see in the wines, are authentic differences based on terroir, site, clone, vine age, etc.  They’re not differences that reflect something I did as a winemaker.

WRO:  How do you view technology's role in producing artisan wines?  What are some special features of the winery you designed and built for Patz & Hall?

JH:  As a winemaker, it was a dream come true to be able to design a winery to meet my exact needs.  Small-lot, artisan winemaking, especially Pinot Noir, is very space intensive.  One of the main things the winery we unveiled in 2007 gave us was space, and lots of open-top fermenters.  We also got a press from Switzerland, tanks specifically selected for individual lots, and a world-class cooling system.  Ultimately, technology gives you tools – and every artisan needs their tools.  As a winemaker, these tools give me more control, and allow me to apply a very precise response to the needs of each wine. 

WRO:  How much wine are you producing right now?

JH:  Our current production is about 25,000 cases.  However, it's important to bear in mind that approximately 80% of this production comes from three wines: our Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and our Dutton Ranch Chardonnay.  These are the wines that let us share our winemaking style with a somewhat larger audience, but even so, they are fermented and aged in very small lots.  The rest of our portfolio is made in very limited quantities, with almost all of our vineyard designates coming in between 100 and 500 cases.  We make our wines barrel by barrel.