Punch Profiles: People to Know / 10 Questions with Ambassador Kathryn Walt Hall, Proprietor of HALL Wines

One our favorite quotes from this interview is “I almost never met a wine I didn’t like”. How true it is!  We at the Punch have an affinity toward the finest nectar of the grape, but even more so, brilliant business minds with entrepreneurial spirits and a bent in the direction of charity.  Here, we interview one such person who fulfills all of the above on a global level, Kathryn Walt Hall, the proprietor of HALL Wines, who has been involved in the California wine industry since her family first purchased a vineyard thirty years ago. She has had a distinguished career as a successful businesswoman, community activist, and most recently as the United States Ambassador to Austria.

Kathryn Walt Hall of HALL Wines

Kathryn Walt Hall of HALL Wines

Pamela’s Punch: You grew up in a family which made wine. Not a lot of people can claim this experience. Tell us what that lifestyle was like and perhaps a fond childhood memory.

Kathryn Hall: I grew up in a family that made wine, but just as important, enjoyed wine. I cannot recall a holiday, birthday, baptism, or in fact any event when wine was not a part of the celebration. As children the wine was only a few drops in a large wine glass of sugar water, but we enjoyed the ritual all the same. Wine is for me something wonderful to drink and enjoy, but it is most of all associated with the joyful experiences of spending time with friends and family.

PP:  You’ve been known to say that you always knew you would return to the business of winemaking, however, you’ve had a long and illustrious professional and philanthropic career before you came back to the world of wine. What did you learn in the “outside world” that is now helping your current business?

KH:  As a lawyer and as a diplomat, negotiation is a critical skill. And the most important part of negotiation is listening. I try to be a good listener, and I also consider this a critical part of good management.  Listening to what is important to your employees and to your customers is essential. When someone tells us they wish our wine was at a certain restaurant we do our best to place it there. When folks take the time to visit us in Napa Valley we do all we can to make their visit fun and memorable and responsive to the interests they have. I think many people are sensitive to environmental concerns. This is also a significant concern of ours. For this reason, we want folks to know about our organic farming practices, our natural yeast fermentation, our solar powered winery , our use of bio-diesel in farming equipment, our place as California’s first gold LEED certified winery, to name a few of the aspects of our own concerns. These practices are responsive to interests of our customers, and also, I think, good business.

PP:  Your esteemed titles and responsibilities before you started HALL Winery seem a far cry from a life of being outdoors and making beautiful wines (which is a dream come true for many!). What is your favorite part of your professional life now?

KH:  It is a very different world, much more relaxed and informal, but it still involves much interaction with colleagues and the public and that has always been my favorite part of any job. I love being able to spend time with our wine club members in our special tastings, or doing dinners where I can introduce our new releases. Recently, I have been spending an increasing amount of time in Asia and that has brought me back to an international environment, which has also been new and exciting.

PP:  You are a mom, a wife, a business owner, an Ambassador, an executive, an entrepreneur, and an activist (and you look beautiful and happy doing it). You are an inspiration for women everywhere. But, can we “really have it all?” And what advice can you provide for those who strive to have it all?

KH:  What a flattering question! Thank you. First, listen to your heart and follow your passion whatever it may be. I have always known that someday I would return full time to the business of grape growing and winemaking. Wine in all its wonderful aspects has been a part of my life as long as I can remember, so for me bringing these joys together at HALL completes the circle.

It is critical to always keep in mind that you can’t do everything 100%, 100% of the time. Life, whether it is business or professional requires balance. At times you will give most of your time and attention to one aspect of your life and less to another, and a few months later the proportions will be reversed. Demands, and your own interests, ebb and flow. I think it is also important to know your personal priorities, for example, how much of your professional career are you willing to sacrifice for your role as wife or mother. So, the short answer to your question is: I think you can have just about whatever you are willing to work for, just not all at the same time.

PP:  Share with us some of your favorite times as Ambassador to Vienna.

KH:  I have always believed, whether as a lawyer, a business person or a diplomat that the most important work was done over a glass of wine. This is where relationships are built and trust established, the critical basis for any good discussion. So, at post I tried to do a lot of entertaining. I recall the first evening we had a formal embassy dinner and I saw the standard issue wine glasses that were out on the table. They looked like glasses that were made for someone who did not want to drink wine and who intended to leave early. They were small and without shape to enhance the nose of a good wine. The next day I met with staff to find new wine glasses. Luckily in Austria we had the best in Riedel. My husband Craig and I purchased some extra Riedel glasses to be used at our events, and from that time on I felt we were not only enjoying wine as it should be enjoyed and enhancing the purpose of the evening, but also bringing my country and the country where I was posted together in a beautiful symbolic way.

PP:  What was the defining moment when you knew it was time to go back to making wine?

KH:  I always knew I would be doing what I am now doing, I just did not know when. I wouldn’t say other responsibilities got in the way, but they did have a louder voice. In 1995 Craig and I bought our first vineyard together, the beautiful and extraordinary Sacrashe vineyard in Rutherford, and I knew the right day was coming soon. We now have over 3000 acres in beautiful Napa Valley and our portfolio contains some of the valley’s finest vineyards, but Sacrashe was the start. Not long after we bought Sacrashe, the possibility of going to Vienna presented itself, so the time to make wine was delayed. But in the end the timing was right. After Vienna both children were in college and I could devote full time to the business. It was perfect.

PP:  I’ve always been fascinated with how sommeliers and wine experts can taste and smell so much more than the average bear. Their sense are so acute and their descriptions so imaginative. Would you say wine making is an art? Or a science and why?

KH:  Winemaking is both art and science. That is why this is the best business in the world. We use the latest technology to grow the best grapes and make the best wine we know how to produce. We use technology to help us decide when to harvest. but the decision of how to create the right canopy of leaves that gives the grapes the right amount of shelter from the sun- enough to develop the sweetness, but not so much that they ripen too quickly without enough flavor development- is done by human judgment. We use technology to help us decide which leaves to keep and which to prune away, but technology is only a tool; the decision how to use the tool is the art. Similarly, when we decide to pick, technology can tell us about certain qualities in the grape, but it is the decision of Steve Leveque and Don Munk, respectively our director of winemaking and vineyard director, when to harvest. They put the grapes in their mouths, taste the sweetness, feel the skin of the grape and the crunchiness of the seed, and then decide when to pick. That is the art. The winemaking process is the same. Technology enables Steve and his team to control temperature and length of fermentation, for example, but it is Steve who decides how long to leave juice in a cold soak. We want to express the essence of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. No technology can do that for you. And thank goodness!

PP:  I live in Northern Virginia and have tasted my fair share of grapes grown in the Commonwealth. What is your professional opinion of the Virginia wines industry?

KH:  I do not know Virginia wines well enough to give an opinion, but I have gone tasting at a winery there and found the experience absolutely wonderful. We sat outside overlooking a beautiful vineyard, tasted wines and had a fabulous time. From that I can say with certainty that the Virginia wine industry gets the essence of what wine is about – great experiences.

PP:  As I walk through wine shops and even selections in grocery stores here in Virginia, I see 2010 California wines everywhere. Was that a particularly good year for you all?

KH:  Many people thought the 2010 year would turn out to be a disaster due to the unusual heat and rain. The 2010 vintages from California were predicted to lack the type of consistency that is usually seen from one vintage to the next. These assumptions however, were an overgeneralization. This brings me back to the notion that winemaking is an art. I think taking extra care in the vineyards, respecting the best qualities of the vintage, and artful attention to winemaking will pay off in the quality of wines for 2010 as it does in every vintage. I think our 2010’s are terrific!

PP:  Finally, are you a red, white, rose or bubbly person? And are there certain personality traits associated to each one?

KH:  I almost never met a wine I didn’t like. It depends on the weather, the setting, who I am with, and what we are doing. On a hot summer day, if I am having a glass of wine with friends in the afternoon, I like our Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. I love sparkling wine before meals when I am out to dinner and people are enjoying cocktails. (But I also enjoy a great margarita). At the beach, I drink rose. Cabernet or merlot I love with pasta, pizza, cheese. With anything savory it is always one of our beautiful cabernets. So, personality traits? I don’t know. It is more about the setting.

About Pamela Sorensen:
Pamela Lynne Sorensen is the founder of Pamela’s Punch, a leading source of information for the “who, what, when, and where” of Washington, DC’s elite social, professional, and philanthropic scene, which she founded in November of 2006. In 2012 she launched Pacific Punch, based in Los Angeles. Pamela comes from an extensive background in sales and business development from a variety of industries, has been involved with charities and fundraising for a number of years and holds several Board and leadership positions. She currently resides in Arlington, Virginia and when she’s not out on the town, she’s reading or writing while sipping fine wine, or traveling the country and the world ISO adventures, beauty, fun, food, style, libations, music, and the good life. Follow her on Twitter at @pamelaspunch.
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