Winemaker Kathryn Hall knows a good vintage when she sees one. After all, she's become part of an exclusive club of producers that have actually scored a coveted 100 score for her wines, not once, but four times; legendary Wine Advocate critic Robert Parker awarded Hall three separate 100 scores for her 2010 HALL "Exzellenz" Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 HALL "Rainin Vineyard" Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2013 HALL "Exzellenz" Cabernet Sauvignon, and later, critic Jeb Dunnuck bestowed another 100 score for the winery's 2014 HALL "Rainin Vineyard" Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then, the former Ambassador to Austria has written a New York Times bestselling book, A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21-Century Winery, with her husband Craig, who is also a wine aficionado.
As Hall readies for a three-city tour that will take her to the Napa Valley, Columbus, and Chicago to promote the latest release of her 2015 Kathryn Hall vintage, she took some time to chat with us about her essential tips to finding the perfect bottle of wine.
What's the key to finding the perfect vintage? KATHRYN HALL: Vintage matters, however, the factor that trumps all others is the actual vineyard itself. There is simply no substitute for producing wine from a great vineyard. After that meticulous farming and brilliant winemaking are important, but the story of any wine is really about the vineyard. The climate of any given year always takes a back seat to the terroir—the slope, the soil, the wind, how water reaches the vines, the aspect to the sun, and more—all the aspects that go into making a particular vineyard great comprise far and away the most important element of a great wine. Vintages do matter, and when you have a stellar one, such as in 2015, you just sit back and let Mother Nature do her work. An ideal vintage allows for optimal vine balance—meaning low vigor vines and low yields. We were in the drought cycle in 2015, but we still had sufficient water to grow a low vigor vines. It was absolutely ideal.
Any tips on what to look for when tasting a variety of wines? KH: When I am tasting wines with friends I like to isolate variables. For example, I will bring out the same wine from different vintages. That way we can compare the effect of climate on a particular vineyard, or we will taste cabernets all from hillside vineyards and all from the same vintage. This way we can watch how the terroir of each of the hillsides affects the wines. There are so many factors to enjoy when tasting a wine, it is helpful to narrow the focus of your tasting. Another fun comparison is to take different varietals—say a pinot, a cabernet, a zinfandel, and a grenache—and compare the aromas, or the texture, or the finish. Life is long and there is so much wine to enjoy. I encourage everyone to take your time and enjoy it one or a few characteristics at a time.
What makes your latest wine, a 2015 vintage due out September 8, so special? KH: The 2015 has a unique concentration of character. Plus, its flavor is nuanced which makes for so many wonderful evenings where you discover its beauty layer by layer and over time. I love discovering a wine as it ages and develops and the 2015 Kathryn Hall allows us to do just that. It is beautiful now and will be more beautiful in different ways as the year go on. This is a wine for the ages. I expect it to be extraordinary for a good 20 to 25 years or even more.
It's impossible to taste every bottle before it reaches consumers, so how do you manage to keep the quality of the wine at its best? KH: Storing wine in ideal conditions is critical. Low temperature, little movement, dark cellar—all these conditions will affect the condition of a wine. In spite of everything we can do, however, we know some bottles will have cork issues. It is the age old condition of our business. For this, we just rely on our consumers to let us know so we can send them the wine in perfect condition. We are all about quality with everything that we do as winemakers.
How important is communicating the history of the brand and the history of the wine to the consumer for your business? KH: Critical. I think when someone buys an expensive wine they want to know its story. And we want to tell it. We are so proud of all the work that goes into making this wine. From the care in the vineyard to the harvest techniques, to the handling in the cellar, to the delicate magic of our winemakers led by the incomparable Steve Leveque, to the bottle and to your consumer—we work very hard to maintain perfect conditions and we want that story to be known. For me it is a particular pleasure as my name is on this bottle. It’s very personal to me. The wine comes from my backyard. I love all our wines, but I must say I love this one the most. I love talking about the Kathryn Hall cabernet.
What pairs well with the 2015 Kathryn Hall vintage? KH: Anything savory—steak, in particular. And chocolate anything. Oh my… I also love this with an aged Brie cheese.
What's the best wine you've had this year? KH: What can I say—the 2015 Kathryn Hall! We have three Kathryn Hall release parties taking place in September to celebrate the release of the newest vintage, 2015. We host these in St. Helena on September 8, head to Columbus on September 10, and then stop into Chicago on September 13. We are almost sold out at all of the events, so if you want to attend, get your tickets soon.