Dallas couple working to help California neighbors
‘Right now, it’s all about people,’ owners of Hall wineries say
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Thus far, Dallas developer Craig Hall and his wife, Kathy, say their Sonoma, St. Helena and Rutherford wineries remain undamaged.