Craig & Kathryn Hall

Jul 19, 2017 - 1:30 PM

As you turn into the driveway at the Hall winery in St. Helena at the northern end of California’s verdant Napa Valley, an extraordinary sight pops into view: an exuberantly leaping, 35-foot-tall rabbit sculpted in shiny stainless steel. The rabbit, by artist Lawrence Argent, not only highlights the personalities of vintners Craig and Kathryn Hall but is the opening salvo in a cornucopia of interesting art that graces the public and private spaces of their properties. (The rabbit is also a subtle dig at wine-making conventions. Kathryn, who grew up loving Little Bunny Foo Foo stories, loathes the practice of killing grapevine-grubbing rabbits and put a halt to that.)

Both Craig and Kathryn are active in the business, which now includes Hall wineries in St. Helena and Rutherford, California, and Walt wineries, with vineyards throughout much of the West Coast. Kathryn, an attorney who spent four years as the U.S. ambassador to Austria, grew up in a winemaking family. Craig, who owns an investment firm and admits to having known little about the vintner’s trade before meeting his wife, has since studied the subject deeply and now specializes in the property angle.

The couple’s wines consistently earn high marks from publications like Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. And three of their vintages have received a rare perfect 100 rating from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The Halls credit much of their success in the field to taking risks and not being afraid to experiment. As they put it in their New York Times bestseller, A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st-Century Winery, “If you keep trying new things and keep high standards, you put yourself in a position to get lucky.”

We met with the couple at their Hall winery in St. Helena, just before the gates opened for one of their signature charity events, the 8th Annual Cabernet Cookoff, which raised money for 14 local charities, with employees volunteering their time and food provided by 14 area restaurants and bakeries. Of course, Hall wines complemented the delicacies.

You’ve said that not knowing things can be an advantage.

Craig: It’s the story of my life. We start out as children being inquisitive, and as we learn we become constrained by our fears and experiences. In an entrepreneurial sense, I’m serious when I say that it’s good to jump off a cliff and go into the great unknown and experiment, because a lot of times the conventional wisdom is not the best wisdom.

Kathryn: I think we both love the idea of trying something new, and if it doesn’t work, pivoting, and then trying something new again. Because neither of us knew this business, we were able to do something that has held us in good stead, and that is we oriented our business to direct-to-consumer. Our focus is how do we connect with the customer, so we could not only sell the wines directly to them, but we can tell our story. I think that the public enjoys knowing the story behind a wine and the people that make it just as much as they do drinking the wine.

And you clearly enjoy running the winery.

Kathryn: Life is too short not to be doing something you love. Throughout this valley there are people who probably could be making more money someplace else, but we’re joined by this gratitude and enjoyment of the lifestyle that comes with being in the wine country. What we can offer our employees is an ability to be playful about the wine. It sparks creativity within the team.

Speaking of creativity, artwork is a big part of your lives.

Craig: My mother was an artist and an art teacher, and I started collecting art when I was a teenager. Kathryn and I do it together now. This turned out to be good for business, but that was happenstance; it wasn’t by design. We own hotels and office buildings, and we build and develop properties [in Hall Financial Group], and we have art throughout all of them. It’s a trademark of everything we do.

Kathryn: Every great wine is a piece of art, and you want people to be expressive. We work in an environment that’s full of art, that encourages that creative spirit. A lot of the art that we have here, the public will never see. We have art in the tank room, in our offices, all around. There’s something about art that is inspiring and uplifts the soul. It makes you think and see in different ways, so at a subliminal level art affects how we operate as a business.

Did other Napa vintners come to appreciate your creative approach?

Craig: There are always people who appreciate newcomers and mavericks, and people who don’t. When we got started, [the late] Bob and Margrit Mondavi were just terrific to us.

Kathryn: They were the king and queen of Napa Valley.

Craig: We’ve had issues with projects, and there’s a group in Napa that resents the wineries and wishes Napa had never developed beyond what they believe it was when their great-grandparents were here. That group has been impacted by traffic congestion, and so there’s sort of a love-hate relationship with the success of Napa. It’s understandable, and we don’t want to see the pristine nature of Napa hurt, and we don’t believe that Napa should be developed without a lot of thought and reason.

Kathryn: Resistance to change is part of human nature, but collectively it could be destructive to a community.

How much of your wines are made with your own grapes?

Kathryn: We started with the idea that we would make wine only from our own grapes. The advantage is you have total control over the vineyards. But we learned if you want to make wine from the best vineyards in the world, some of those are owned by people who have just as much pride in how they grow the grapes as you do. Those great grape vineyards are never going to come on the market, and the only way to access those grapes is if you partner with the owners. So we have expanded our program to bring in these owners of fabulous vineyards, not just here but from Santa Barbara to Oregon. We have 130 vineyards that we buy from just domestically, and that accounts for about 50 percent of our production.

Craig: We’d buy three vineyards tomorrow if the right three came up. On the other hand, we’re always in the market to enter into relationships with the right vineyards.

Kathryn: Wine is so about the vineyard.

Craig: You can take great grapes and mess them up and not make great wine. But you have to start with great grapes.

Do you see advantages to being a family business rather than a big conglomerate?

Kathryn: We can think about a return over a 10- or even 20-year period because this is a long-term business.

Craig: We don’t have to justify any decision. The big companies will buy successful family businesses and try to take what that family has developed and more or less keep it going. To build from the ground up with nothing as your starting point is a different deal than most public or bigger companies are really suited for.

Kathryn: It’s hard for me to understand in the long term how even a great wine from family vineyards, [when they] are bought by the big companies, will be able to sustain the quality.

How long have you flown privately?

Craig: Our first plane was a Lear 35 in the late ’70s. For years, Kathy and I had a Falcon 50, which we loved.

How has your business aviation flying changed over the years?

Craig: Our experience with private aviation is reflective of our ups and downs in business. In the mid-’80s, we got out of the Learjet and were struggling for a number of years to get back to zero from financial setbacks. Then in 2008–’09, it was not as bad, but we sold our Falcon 50 and then we went with NetJets, and now we’re with Jet Linx out of Dallas. We’re about to try Sentient Jet, and we’re considering buying a plane.

Kathryn: We love private aviation!

Craig: We’ve been in and out of it. The benefit to the shared system is that we both can be on a [different] plane…although I really like owning a plane too, so we’re not sure.

Weren’t you involved in an aviation business?

Craig: When Kathryn was the ambassador in Austria, I started a company with some others called Skyjet.com—it was all about the dead legs [on charter flights]. I realized that to put together a bunch of charter companies and to do what in a sense Uber does today or what now is pretty common in aviation would have been a big financial commitment. We had the software, so we sold to Bombardier and it’s used now for Flexjet.

Do you relax or work when you’re traveling on a business jet?

Craig: Mostly work.

Kathryn: It is so relaxing to be able to travel that way.

Craig: It’s worth a lot to get home to your own bed.

Kathryn: Oh, my goodness, yes.

You appreciate the way it makes time—

Craig: Time is irreplaceable.

Kathryn: Time is the most important asset that any of us have.

What do most people not know about winemaking? It seems like a complex dance of many factors.

Kathryn: It is so a dance. It’s musical. You’re like a conductor and there are so many flavors, smells, and textures that you put into this creation. What most people don’t know is that there is a reason why some wines are more expensive. You can plant your vines 10 feet apart, six feet apart, or three feet apart. You can prune so that you have four pounds or one pound of fruit coming off. And every time you take steps that reduce the quantity of grapes coming off that vineyard, you increase the cost.

But if you’re going to make it great, you’ve got to start in the vineyard. Or you can age your wine in a barrel that has been used years before or one that’s fresh. You can age it in a barrel that’s been naturally aged out in the field like we do. We buy our barrels from a place in France that we love where everything is natural. Or you can buy one where the time effect is simulated, and that’s more expensive. There are so many opportunities to cut a corner when you make wine but if you’re going to do it the best way that you possibly can, that’s going to affect the cost.

Craig: There’s a myth that winemaking in a natural old-fashioned way is the best way. It’s romantic, and I think there’s a romance to winemaking. But the truth is not nearly as romantic. Technology is changing so dramatically, and we’re not far away from having satellites or drones telling us not which row but which vine needs a bit more water right now. A machine will turn the water on just the perfect amount for that vine. What it will end up doing is improving the quality even more, and for those of us who want to be at the forefront, it’s a very exciting time.

Which of your wines, using your grapes, would you recommend?

Kathryn: If a person likes a big, flavorful cabernet, then something from our own property. Get on the list for our platinum wine collection, which is hard to get on. These are fabulous wines, wines that are tasty now but you lay them down and they’re just going to get better and better. That’s a wonderful vineyard and it also happens to be our backyard.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

FAST FACTS

 

Craig Hall

Kathryn Hall

BORN:

April 11, 1950

January 9, 1947

EDUCATION:

Attended Eastern Michigan University and University of Michigan

B.A., University of California Berkeley; J.D., Hastings College of Law

CAREER:

Proprietor, Hall Wines and Walt Wines; founder and chairman, Hall Group investment firm; former part owner, Dallas Cowboys

Proprietor, Hall Wines and Walt Wines; attorney; former ambassador to Austria

TRANSPORTATION:

Jet Linx charters. Planning to try Sentient Jet charters and considering jet purchase.

PERSONAL:

Reside primarily in Dallas; also have homes in Rutherford (Napa Valley), California; Maui, Hawaii; and Paris. Art collectors. Married since 1993. Four grown children between them.