Carl Kanowsky | Meet James Hall, pinot master craftsman

Carl Kanowsky

Ah, before the days and ravages of COVID-19. Back when you could gather hundreds or even thousands of folks (WITHOUT MASKS!! — can you believe it?), standing than 6 feet apart and actually pushing and shoving, all without a worry about contracting a potentially fatal disease. That’s what wine tastings were like. A sea of like-minded folks, all devoted to sampling as much wine as possible in the allotted time.

Will we ever return to that? What will such events look like in six months or a year? What follows are three columns from my last venture into the masses, the 2020 Santa Barbara World of Pinot Noir. To my knowledge, there’s not been anything similar since early March.

I had the delight to interview three acclaimed masters of pinot noir, James Hall of Patz & Hall; Dan Schroeder of Sea Smoke; and, Mark Pisoni of the eponymous Pisoni.

Let’s begin with James Hall. James has been in wine for more than 30 years. His interest in what would become his livelihood began when he was a waiter in college at a fancy restaurant specializing in “nouvelle cuisine.” He discovered that his tip amount directly correlated to how much he could impress his customers with his knowledge of wine.

This led to him transferring from UC Santa Cruz to UC Davis to study something called “fermentation science.”

After graduating, he fledged at Napa’s Flora Springs in the early ’80s, where he learned the intricacies of all things chardonnay. For instance, he mastered barrel-fermented chardonnay, which would become a hallmark of his future winery, Patz & Hall. 

Flora Springs is also where he met Flora’s Sales Manager Donald Patz. Then, in 1988, founders James Hall, Anne Moses, Heather Patz and Donald Patz each ponied up $5,000 to kick off Patz & Hall.

Founding Patz & Hall

While starting Patz & Hall, he moved to Honig to develop skills in sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. Honig had a large facility but only needed a portion of it, so the remainder became a custom crush facility, where James made Patz & Hall. The website provides, “A custom crush is a bonded winery that allows other wine brands to make wine at their facility, oftentimes even making the wine for you. You’ll still have to get your own winery license in order to market and sell your wine, but you can completely avoid the cost of maintaining your own facility, allowing you to instead concentrate on actually selling your wine.”

Patz & Hall stayed there 18 years until opening their own winery in Sonoma. The other major transition was to add pinot noir to chardonnay in 1995.

Patz & Hall doesn’t own its own vines now, nor did they when they started. James actually thinks that’s a good thing — they were able to be selective about what grapes they used and could benefit from the various vineyards’ individual terroir. 

Robert Parker would agree with that assessment. In 2013, he wrote, “Patz & Hall has a long and enviable track record, making chardonnay and pinot noir from some of the very finest single vineyards in Northern California. They rarely miss a beat, and the wines are ‘sure bets’ regardless of vintage conditions.”

As a result of the acclaim of critics and devotion of Patz & Hall fans, the winery’s production grew to 50,000 cases (about 8,000 of those cases are direct-to-consumer sales). This attracted attention, including the attention of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s oldest winery, which bought Patz & Hall in 2016.

James acknowledges that consolidation of wineries is a trend, but it has worked out well for him. He is still the winemaker. In some ways, however, he remains the kid pulling himself up by his bootstraps, hoping to produce ever more delectable pinot noir and chardonnay.

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