Dal­las cou­ple work­ing to help Cal­i­for­nia neigh­bors

‘Right now, it’s all about peo­ple,’ own­ers of Hall winer­ies say

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By CH­ERYL HALL Staff Writer cheryl­hall@dal­las­news.com

Thurs­day morn­ing, Craig and Kathy Hall left their daugh­ter’s home in San Fran­cisco headed back to the fire-be­sieged wine coun­try, where the well-known Dal­las cou­ple own three ac­claimed winer­ies, a boutique ho­tel and 3,500 acres of rolling land and vine­yards.

Craig wiped off a fresh layer of soot from the win­dows of their white diesel SUV that had turned a grimy gray from ash that blew in overnight from Napa that lies 50 miles north.

As they ap­proached the land of dev­as­ta­tion, Craig pulled off so that they could make a few calls. So many cell tow­ers have burned down that ser­vice was still iffy at best.

Iron­i­cally, there was lit­tle traf­fic.

Few peo­ple are headed into the dan­ger zone, and those al­ready there are stay­ing in­side be­cause the air qual­ity is so haz­ardous.

So far, 31 peo­ple have died and hun­dreds are miss­ing in the wild­fires that have swept through North­ern Cal­i­for­nia since Sun­day. Fire­fight­ers are strug­gling to stop them from spread­ing.

But Kathy and Craig are among the lucky ones. Their winer­ies and tast­ing rooms in Sonoma, St. He­lena and Ruther­ford have been spared thus far.

They’ve had their first full­night’s sleep since be­ing awak­ened by a pre-dawn text from an em­ployee on Mon­day morn­ing in­struct­ing them to look out their bed­room win­dow. From their moun­tain-perch house in Ruther­ford, they could see flames cre­at­ing huge, bil­low­ing clouds of black smoke.

They’d known when they went to bed Sun­day night that there were a few fires, but hadn’t wor­ried about it.

“I got up and looked, and it was fright­en­ing,” Kathy re­called Thurs­day af­ter­noon, back in their Ruther­ford home.

It was At­las Peak burn­ing about 8 miles away.

“By Mon­day morn­ing, the air was packed with smoke,” Craig said.

For nearly four hours, all of the com­pany in­ter­net phones, in­clud­ing those at their Senza ho­tel, were in­ex­pli­ca­bly routed through a server to the phone in their kitchen.

“Ev­ery time I’d hang up, it would ring again,” he said. “I got some strange calls from peo­ple who didn’t have any idea of what was go­ing on. Peo­ple were call­ing to see if they could get a re­fund for their tours. ‘Well, yeah,’” he said with a laugh, adding, “I must be get­ting punch drunk.”

Wait­ing game

Their home and their winer­ies in Ruther­ford and St. He­lena have gen­er­a­tors and plenty of fuel.

“We’re feel­ing in­cred­i­bly lucky,” said Craig. “We’re both a lit­tle tired, but that’s un­der­stand­able.”

They’re also feel­ing anx­ious. They know the winds could shift at any mo­ment. “It comes up­hill faster than it goes down­hill and then it’s at my swim­ming pool,” he said. “There is no way that we can say any­thing is safe or that it’s over.”

“Ev­ery­body in the val­ley has a bag packed in case you have to leave quickly,” said Kathy.

The Halls are renowned art col­lec­tors. But the first things they packed up were their trea­sured fam­ily pho­tos and mem­o­ra­bilia. They’ve stored the six boxes, along with their fa­vorite art­work, in the Ruther­ford win­ery’s cave, figuring if their home burns down, there’s a chance that their most prized posses­sions might sur­vive.

“Hope­fully, the paint won’t melt,” he said.

Long road ahead

The Halls, pro­pri­etors of Hall Wines and Walt Wines, are among the re­gion’s largest prop­erty own­ers with 600 acres planted with vine. They haven’t been able to as­sess the sta­tus of much of their vine­yards be­cause of road clo­sures.

“We won’t know the con­di­tions of things for weeks or months,” he said.

In their early win­ery years, the cou­ple lost in­ven­tory in a fire that nearly ended their wine­mak­ing busi­ness be­fore it got off the ground.

“It was ter­ri­ble at the time, but noth­ing like this,” Craig said. “That was one fire, and it was out. This is just so per­va­sive. It’s not just dev­as­tat­ing from the stand­point of one [year’s] vin­tage. It’s hard to think through how this is go­ing to im­pact the whole in­dus­try over time. It’s very, very sad for some peo­ple.”

The Halls drove through Santa Rosa to get to their Walt win­ery in Sonoma. It re­minded Craig of the af­ter­math of 9/11.

This is grape har­vest­ing sea­son, which is sup­posed to be the busiest time of year.

The Halls em­ploy about 150 peo­ple dur­ing grape har­vest­ing sea­son. Only about a third can make it to work. Many have been evac­u­ated, and a num­ber of them have lost their homes. “It’s hard to know who’s where,” he said.

“One of the re­mark­able things is the work ethic of the val­ley,” said Kathy. “One of our em­ploy­ees, his car wasn’t work­ing so he rode his bi­cy­cle 10 miles to get to work yes­ter­day.”

Pulling to­gether

For the time be­ing, the Halls are fo­cused on the hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sues and aren’t talk­ing much about the fi­nan­cial losses.

“That’s true, although I’ve thought about it,” Craig said with a laugh. “I have all too good of an un­der­stand­ing about it. But it’s the last thing to worry about right now. Right now, it’s all about peo­ple.”

Be­fore head­ing to Napa on Thurs­day, the Halls stopped at a Bay Area TV sta­tion so that Kathy could en­cour­age early morn­ing view­ers to do­nate to a dis­as­ter re­lief fund for vic­tims of the wild­fires. The Halls are match­ing dol­lar-for-dol­lar up to $100,000 for do­na­tions to the Red­wood Credit Union’s North Bay Fire Re­lief Fund.

Since an­nounc­ing their part­ner­ship late Wed­nes­day night, the Halls have raised nearly half of that.

They’re hop­ing that their com­rades in Dal­las will also an­swer the call.

They are also do­nat­ing avail­able rooms at their Senza Ho­tel in Napa for those who’ve lost their homes in the dis­as­ter.

Grapes on the vine

There have been re­ports that 90 per­cent of the val­ley’s grapes have been har­vested.

“That’s sim­ply not true,” said Craig.

Most of the white grapes for sauvi­gnon blanc and chardon­nay, and the red grapes for pinot noir, have been picked. But the most ex­pen­sive grapes for pricey caber­nets are still on the vines through­out the val­ley, he said. None of the high­end vint­ners have har­vested them.

The Halls have re­searched what hap­pened to har­vestable grapes left on the vines dur­ing fires in Aus­tralia.

“The bot­tom line is no one knows a lot and none of what we do know is good,” said Craig. “It will im­pact the most ex­pen­sive, high­est-end wines of Napa Val­ley, for sure.”

The Halls have won three per­fect scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Ad­vo­cate for their caber­nets. This year won’t be win­ning an­other one, Craig said sar­don­ically.

“But it’s some­thing that you can’t be over­whelmed by. You have to sort it out, fact by fact, and deal with it. It’s what I’m wired to do in busi­ness,” he said. “To me, be­ing an en­tre­pre­neur is all about deal­ing with chal­lenges. This is just an­other ver­sion — just a re­ally big one.

“I couldn’t have writ­ten this story. It wouldn’t have seemed plau­si­ble. But it is what it is.”

Kent Porter/the As­so­ci­ated Press

The num­ber of fires scorch­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try fell from 22 to 21 Thurs­day as two large fires merged. Mean­while, au­thor­i­ties fo­cused their ef­forts on find­ing the miss­ing and the dead as the death toll rose to 31.

Kathy Hall

Thus far, Dal­las de­vel­oper Craig Hall and his wife, Kathy, say their Sonoma, St. He­lena and Ruther­ford winer­ies re­main un­dam­aged.

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