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2006 Hall "Exzellenz" Sacrashe Vineyard Proprietary Red Wine, Rutherford, Napa

hall_exzellenz_06.jpgThe pleasures of childhood call to us as adults. The tug of nostalgia is so great that we so often find ourselves indulging in little things that remind us of our early years, and in some cases we throw ourselves passionately into the pursuit of the things we have lost.

Kathryn Hall lost the vineyard that was her childhood playground. Despite having managed the vineyard for nearly a decade, letting it go after her father's death was the right thing to do. But her memories of growing up among the grape vines in Redwood Valley, coupled with her enduring love of wine, meant that was not the end of her career in the wine industry, it was merely the tantalizing beginning.

Hall grew up in Albany, California. Her pharmacist father had dreams of a more agrarian sort, and purchased a vineyard and weekend home in Redwood Valley, north of Ukiah in Mendocino County. Hall grew up loving the time she spent in the vineyards and redwoods, and would return often, even as she went away to college and then law school.

Hall went on to have a very successful career as a corporate lawyer, and while she was working for Safeway, she transferred to Dallas in 1991 -- a fateful move that would launch her into a career of politics and into the love of her life.

Craig Hall grew up in Michigan, and might be the textbook example of a compulsive serial entrepreneur. He quickly moved from lemonade stands and newspaper routes to owning his first apartment complex at the age of 18, and dropping out of college as a sophomore to buy more. After that, there was no stopping him. By the age of 35 he was the second largest owner of apartment complexes in the world, the veteran CEO of several companies, and on the way to becoming a billionaire.

Shortly after meeting Craig, Kathryn Hall made her first foray into politics around that time, and quickly became part of the political scene in Dallas. In 1992 she both made an unsuccessful bid to become Mayor of Dallas, and worked on the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign. Hall continued to be active in politics, maintained ties to the Clintons, and together with her new husband, she became a major donor in the 1996 re-election campaign, setting her up for an appointment as ambassador to Austria the same year.

Before leaving for her 5 year stint in Austria, the Halls purchased a parcel of land and vineyards on the Eastern hills of the Napa valley in the Rutherford appellation, and began construction of a home and a winery. When they returned from Austria in 2002, Kathryn dove headfirst into the winery, launching first the Kathryn Hall brand, and then a few years later the Hall brand.

In 2002 real estate values slumped a little in wine country, providing the opportunity for the Hall's to snap up some additional vineyard land in both Napa and Sonoma, including the site at which they are currently building their estate winery, with the help of world-famous architect Frank Gehry.

The Hall portfolio has continued to grow, and is resolving into two tiers of wines, their Napa Valley Collection, which makes up the bulk of their 25,000 case production, and the Artisan Series of wines, made up of smaller, mostly vineyard designated wines.

The newest addition to the Artisan Series is a flagship wine that they have named Exzellenz, which is the Austrian term, or title, for "ambassador." Made from select blocks of the Sacrashe vineyard, which rolls down from the crest of the hill away from the Hall's residence, this wine represents the finest efforts of the winery, and their most precious fruit from their most important vineyard source.

The Sacrashe vineyard, like most of the Hall's vineyard properties is organically farmed, and has been ever since they've owned it. It is planted mostly to Cabernet, but also contains some Cabernet Franc and Merlot, all of which struggle in an incredibly thin layer of pulverized volcanic topsoil that very quickly gives way to solid bedrock.

Winemaker Steve Leveque (formerly of Mondavi and Chalk Hill) makes this wine and the other single vineyard wines in the custom designed Rutherford winery. Set up for complete gravity flow winemaking with precise temperature control, the winery allows Leveque to practice the kind of hands-off winemaking he prefers, including using native yeasts for fermentation and leaving the wines unfiltered.

This wine was made first in 2005, but in very minute quantities, and did not see much commercial distribution. For all intents and purposes, this 2006 vintage is the first true commercial release of the roughly 220 case production. While the wine is labeled Red Wine (a hedge against the possibility of introducing some other varieties down the road), it is, in fact, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

While my tasting note below captures the qualities of this wine, it's worth saying that the wine possesses some of the most beautiful tannins I have had the pleasure of experiencing in a young wine.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherries, roasted fig, wet dirt and dark chocolate. In the mouth it is rich and juicy with a hint of sweetness and a dark core of black cherry and chocolate fruit, with notes of pipe tobacco and . Beautiful, mouth-coating, powdery tannins play footsie with the acidity and fruit, but the mouth feels like it's been left under a blanket of dark cherry fleece. What's not to love about that? This wine possesses some of the sweetest tannins I have ever tasted in my life, to the point that I would have sworn that there was a little residual sugar left in this wine, but both the tech sheet and the winery swear the wine is dry. Delicious.

Food Pairing:
I would love to drink this wine with a beef daube scented with the herbs of Provence.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $150

This wine is not yet available for purchase on the Internet. It will be released in the Fall to members of the Hall mailing list. You can sign up on the winery's web site.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud