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Winemaker Spotlight: James Hall of Patz & Hall

James Hall’s approach to winemaking has always primarily been focused on one thing: the vineyards he sources from. By sourcing from only small, cream-of-the-crop vineyards that produce high-quality fruit and then manipulating that fruit as little as possible from harvest to bottle, James’ winemaking strategy has remained tried and true. James Hall originally met Donald Patz when they worked together at Flora Springs Winery. The two teamed up to find exceptional Chardonnay vineyards and use very traditional Burgundian winemaking techniques to help bring out the best qualities of the vineyards to expose the terroir and origin of the fruit in the wine. The first vintage of Patz & Hall was made in 1988, made at Honig Winery where James was winemaker and ranch manager. For 18 years Patz & Hall didn’t have any employees or partners. In 1997, James left Honig and became the full time winemaker of Patz & Hall. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates later bought Patz & Hall in 2016. Over the years, Patz & Hall has continued to grow, but they still stick to the same original concept: optimizing vineyard quality and translating it into their wines. Now, Patz & Hall bottles 22 individual wines that are only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

What did your journey into winemaking look like?

I grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. My father was a professor at University of California Santa Cruz. Starting at 14, I had jobs in restaurant service, and I worked all through college in restaurants. I became interested in wine while watching people order, drink, and enjoy it. When I was 18, I was a waiter in a very posh Santa Cruz restaurant. Here, I was given opportunities to taste through their menu and do wine service. I soon discovered that knowing something about wine was really good for the check average, but also allowed me to provide better service and made the meal more interesting for customers. So, I started visiting wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains, tasting wines off the books at the restaurant, and reading about the history of different wines. As my interest for wine grew, I discovered that I could transfer from UC Santa Cruz to UC Davis to study fermentation science. I went from a waiter, to a student, to studying wine at UC Davis. I graduated from Davis, and I was determined to find a job in the wine business. I went back to Santa Cruz, but realized that if I wanted to be serious about getting into wine I should go to Napa. I sent out a letter looking for a harvest job, and I got one response from Flora Springs Winery. Soon after, I became the assistant winemaker at Flora Springs Winery. I worked there for 5 vintages, and then I was hired as the winemaker and ranch manager for Honig. Honig was also a custom crush facility which led me to work with many clients around Napa. Eventually, Honig allowed me to produce my own wine in their facility, and in 1988 the first vintage of Patz & Hall was released. By the time I made my own wine, I had visited Burgundy a couple of times, and I wanted to use some of their techniques when making Patz & Hall. The original concept behind the brand was to find exceptional Chardonnay vineyards and use very traditional Burgundian winemaking techniques to help bring out the best qualities of the vineyards to expose the terroir and origin of the fruit in the wine. For 18 years we didn’t have any employees or partners and made the wines at Honig. We had great purchase agreements with vineyards all over the north coast. In 1997, I left Honig and became the full time winemaker of Patz & Hall. All of the vineyards are under contract for specific rows or blocks, and we have viticultural control over the farming and have input on all of the viticultural practices and pick decisions. The fact that we didn’t own the vineyards was seen as a negative to some people because not owning the vineyards implies that we don’t have total control over the viticulture, but it was actually a huge benefit for us because it allows us to experiment with many different sites, soil types, rootstocks, and scion cultivars. We would not have been able to be so flexible if we would have purchased a vineyard. In 2016, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates bought Patz & Hall. Not much has changed since then– I am still the winemaker, we expanded our production slightly, we have much better equipment, and we have more employees. Now in 2022, we are still doing the same thing and are now making the best wines in the history of Patz & Hall. The team is incredible, our vineyards are older, the viticulture is better, the winemaking is better, and I am really excited about what is happening with our brand.

What is the hardest thing about winemaking?

Finding the best vineyards. I traveled in Burgundy extensively over the years, and I once found myself in the cellar of a vigneron expressing my admiration for how great his pinot noir wines were. I believed pinot noir was difficult to grow because it is a fickle, highly demanding grape. He looked at me and said, “You don’t understand a thing. It’s really easy to grow great Pinot Noir, you just need the right location. You really have it all wrong.” I’ve realized how true that was. You can get grapes from the right general area, but you won’t always have access to the grapes available in the perfect area. You have to find the vineyard with the right terroir, climate, rootstock, disease status, and, not to be ignored, an owner that you can build a strong relationship with. Growing world class grapes can financially be risky because in some years it may not produce a large profit, and some years it might not produce any profit at all. It takes a special type of person to take on this unpredictable return. So, when I line up all the variables from vineyards to viticulturists to climates to soil, that’s definitely the hardest aspect of being a winemaker. Deciding which vineyards to put our money into has the most variables, but also has the most opportunities for success.

Consistency is one of the hardest things. Winemaking has many variables. It’s important to be familiar with the fruit and wine as it’s progressing to ensure that certain microbiology is correct.

There is a notion that winemaking is comparable to being a chef in that you can take the ingredients and go in many different directions. In reality, there aren’t quite as many things a winemaker can do to alter the outcome of a wine.

In Burgundy, many winemakers are making wines with grapes from the same vineyard. Those vineyards have reputations that are considered to be above the level of a winery and winemaker. It is the vineyards that are famous first. Overall, I think winemakers get way too much credit for producing the wine. They are obviously critical to the process, but I feel that in this country, celebrity winemakers are right up there with celebrity chefs.

I am very fortunate to be a winemaker who is working with the best fruit while aiming to make the best wines possible.

What is the most rewarding part of your career?

Working with family growers. I have been very blessed with great relationships I have formed over the decades working with my growers, and in many cases these relationships have been built with multigenerational farming families. I am lucky to call them both my friends and partners. The opportunity to pay them vast sums of money in turn for their hard work out in the field has been very rewarding. My father grew up on a farm, and as a child, I would say I would never ever become a farmer because I thought it was one of the most difficult professions. But, here I am basically making a living off of the product of many farmers’ hard work. I have a great respect for farmers. Another rewarding part of my career is the reception of the wines.

Wine is not just a beverage, it’s a social construct. It is very satisfying to know that when people drink Patz & Hall wine, it may lead to them having a better relationship, understanding, experience, conversation, or a better time.

Most great bottles of wine are consumed with friends or family. Some of the best times I’ve had with the people I love often involve a bottle of wine. It’s pretty exciting that our wines might have something to do with someone getting married or falling in love.

What sets your winery apart from other wineries?

When I designed our winery in 2007, I made sure there was efficiency. Not just efficiency in labor, but efficiency within the way the juice or the wine moves throughout the winery. I based my design on operations I saw in Europe where I found wineries made some of the best wine in relatively primitive wine making facilities.

When I went to Davis, technology seemed to be worshiped. California bulk wine making from the Central Valley was a huge focus at Davis at this time. Designing, engineering, and building machines necessary to make high quality wines at high volumes is a triumph of California winemaking. I knew that there was a different scale of winemaking out there that was larger than home winemaking and still focused on individual lots. In my winery, I needed to have flexibility and options. So, I made sure to have the right tank size so that I didn’t have to blend grapes from different vineyards in order to fill a tank.

Patz & Hall has the equipment that you would expect to see in a winery, but what you won’t see is a lot of conveyors or large stainless pipes going across the building. We are not making the wines by hand, but we practice a stripped down, simplified version of winemaking where we do not move the wine or the juice unless it is absolutely necessary. The objective is to make transfers as efficiently, quickly, and less traumatically as possible. Simplicity and flexibility in the flow of the winemaking process were the things I wanted to build into the winery. I was fortunate enough to draw out the plans to build my own winery, so I got the winery I always wanted.

What makes your wine unique?

It’s in a bottle that says Patz & Hall on it. But, if you took it out of that bottle and put it in a glass next to other wines it would taste different. I’m a big believer in the idea that every wine is unique, every bottle is unique, and even every glass is unique.

One of my favorite things about a great bottle of wine is that no two glasses from the same bottle will taste the same. I’ve always been fascinated by how great wine changes in every instance between when you first open the bottle to when the last glass is finished. There is an aromatic and flavor journey the wine goes through, and that journey will be different the next time you open the bottle because it will be older, the cork will be tighter or looser, and the experience will be different.

Every wine is unique. I’ve met a lot of winemakers that strive for consistency. I think consistency is important, but making the exact same wine every year isn’t something I strive to do. As an artisan winemaker, I believe having differences between vintages is further reinforcement that the vineyard has a different personality, flavor, and aroma depending on the growing season. Each vintage is an expression of that year in the vineyard. So, since the weather never repeats itself, I wouldn’t expect the wine to either. A joke that I often use is, “The weather in California is so good that we bottle it!”

How has your winemaking process changed over the years?

There have been a few long term changes, many of which revolve around sourcing fruit from different vineyards. We have shifted to cooler locations along with the trend in California grape growing of planting vineyards in cooler areas near the ocean that are more impacted by fog and cold wind. These vineyards require different techniques than warmer vineyards, and our wines coming out of these cooler vineyards generally have less new oak and tannins and more acid and minerality.

Over the years, our Pinot Noirs have gained “elegance,” as the French would say. To me, this describes a wine that is interesting and sophisticated instead of just powerful and dramatic. We try to make wines that are more elegant, composed, and focused on unique flavors and less dramatically about power.

Have you incorporated modern technology into your winemaking practices? If so, what results have you seen?

A lot of our technology started with ETS laboratories. When I studied enology at Davis, I learned wet chemistry with aeration oxidation, cash stills, and titrations. Then we got into the enzymatic era, and we could use enzymatic assays to find malic content and VA and fermentable sugars and things like that. Now, modern analysis is really changing the game. When I was first using ETS, it was essentially just an outsourcing of wet chemistry. These days, they are able to test things I never had access to such as reductive compounds, sulfur compounds, and mercaptans. The PCR analysis really changed the microbiological game. Previously, it was a hassle to plate things, and now you can simply run a PCR analysis of your juice and learn what the top 10 microorganisms are in your wine. This data makes you aware of what is really going on in the wine. It is now becoming a question of what you do with all this data. How does it become actionable?

There is a brave new world of enology, and I am very fascinated by it. I know some winemakers who reject chemistry by claiming that it interferes with their connection to their wine. They rely almost completely on how the wine smells and tastes. I understand that to a certain degree, but there is power in knowing the enological facts of your wine. This allows you to connect emotionally to the product while still knowing what is really going on with your wine chemically.

A taste is a snapshot in time, but chemical data about your wine is much deeper and less time sensitive analysis. It is also a way to stockpile your wine and learn at a much faster rate because now you can associate microbiological outcomes with certain variables.

I’ve seen a lot of winemakers get obsessed with the numbers. That is not what I use data for. I use it to inform my tasting of the wines and to develop a broader understanding of my wines. We have single vineyard wines and two blended wines that come from multiple vineyards. Our Sonoma Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are 15,000 case blends made up of several different vineyards, growers, and AVAs.

I’m particularly interested in utilizing Tastry to help inform my decisions about our vineyards, blending selections and production levels. With single vineyard wines, there aren’t blending decisions. With larger blends, there’s a lot more flexibility. It’s traditionally been done with creating different blends with different percentages through trial and error. At the end of the day, you just have a snapshot of the wine that smells and tastes the best, but it’s not a particularly informed opinion.

I think Tastry is potentially one of the most valuable new tools that winemaking is going to have. Blending is no longer just an art, it’s informed by a broad range of analytical tools that help make informed blending decisions, which I think is very interesting.

I’m new to Tastry, but I think there’s also an interesting benefit of this. As a winemaker I’m tasked with a lot of communication about the wine. I have to speak to our teams in marketing, sales and finance. I have to communicate why we are making certain choices – types of barrels, limiting crop levels to 2.5 tons/acre, etc.  Rather than just making proclamations, I see Tastry as a way to educate our team about how wines differ and what attributes of wine are significant movers in people’s perception of quality.

I think that having some Tastry information that grounds chemistry into these specific aromas and flavors and the way certain people would perceive those aromas and flavors and textures is potentially a very powerful tool for a winemaker to explain to cross-functional teams why these decisions are important. It also lets them understand why we attempt to achieve certain things with the wine. That way, you can see objective standards of quality.

When you have a really good Tastry report it’s seen as a great source of independent confirmation that the winemaking is done right.

I think that’s going to be a very interesting tool, particularly for people like family owned businesses where the owner doesn’t make the wine, and also as a way to understand vineyards in a much deeper way. For example, if someone saw the data from their estate vineyard that performs a certain way, but they really wanted their wines to taste a different way, so they can use Tastry to find where they need to go buy a vineyard to complement the fruit they already have.

There’s a whole range of questions and problems that are going to be better informed and more accurately analyzed using this type of data that Tastry produces. I think it’s a very exciting idea and I want to learn more about it and use it more.

As the distribution system becomes more consolidated, getting your wine to market is a bigger challenge. My father was a writer and he watched the publishing business do kind of what the wine business is doing now. Before a publisher would release a book they would do a focus group on it to see if it was a book that was worth releasing.

This is similar to what Tastry lets you do. You can go to a wine retailer and present the data on your wine and how it can target a specific group of people precisely as well as other groups. It reinforces the message of the brand and takes it from subjective to objective and empowers people to make decisions based on other things than critic scores.

What is one the biggest lessons you’ve learned from winemaking?

Patience. It takes a year to grow the grapes. During that growing season the vineyard is still experiencing the weather from the year before. When the vine goes dormant there is a certain potential in that new bud to produce a crop which was actually formed the year before, so it’s really 2 years of grape growing. Then you have about a year of winemaking and the time of aging the wine. Then they are out to market, and selling the wine takes about another year to 18 months. If you add all that up, it comes out to about 4 years.

It is both an ominous dread and an incredible delight because 4 years later you can taste the wine and realize you screwed up the day you picked it or the wine could have been amazing. The ability to stick with something and not rush things has certainly given me the patience to tackle other aspects of life.

What advice would you give people who are just entering the field?

Travel. One of the most valuable things I did as a young winemaker was travel throughout Europe visiting winemakers and viticulturists who are generally very willing to discuss what they do, why they do it, and how they do it. Learning how to taste wines is of course extremely important and this comes along with travel. It is also important to continue your education.

I have always been a big believer in reading scientific journals and listening to people who have more experience than me. Staying open to new ideas and new thoughts. Travel, experiment, taste, stay at it.

What’s a question on your mind that you have about today’s wine consumer?

There’s been a lot of speculation about the arc of the wine drinker. There was an early study done in the 60s by the California Wine Institute that plotted out a wine consumer’s career. It started out with exposure to sweet white wines, then light fruity red wines, then full bodied dry wines, and then dry red wines. I’m not certain whether that model still holds up.

I think there is a newer consumer that views wine as a versatile option. This makes wine more accessible and less intimidating because there are so many wines and so many brands. I guess my question is: How is wine going to fit into the modern consumers’ consumption patterns, and how do we make wine a part of their life?

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