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Halleck Blog

Ross Halleck
November 21, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Thanksgiving: Tales of a Traveling Vintner

This is a time of gratitude. Thanksgiving is my most revered holiday. Having been brought up in the Jewish tradition, harvest is also celebrated by Sukkot. Neither holiday is considered particularly religious or spiritual. The pagan roots of Judiasm, as in our more secular culture at large, have been mostly lost or subjugated. 

Living on a vineyard brings the earth "up-front-and-personal". It is reductionist to limit it to symbols of bounty: a plentiful harvest, a full meal, natural beauty, or a congregation of family and friends, though these are integral. There is something more, though less tangible. It expresses itself in subtleties, overshadowed by the glorious obvious: the scenesence and dropping of grape leaves, daily yellowing of lemons on the tree, waking up above a blanket of fog alit by blue sky, refreshing rain in a season of draught, sensing history each day in the home where my sons were born and grew up, daily work that touches my heart and originates from the soil, sharing my home and wine with others.

The intangible speaks more loudly as I advance. The nuance and tone of a moment's synchronicity guides my footsteps. This guidance comes from deep within, yet originates beyond me. This is as with the earth, sprouting life that sources from the all-encompassing. 

These past weeks have been a marathon of travel. I have friends who travel further and more frequently. I marvel at their commitment and dedication. As much as I love to travel, coming home to my vineyard brings tears to my eyes almost every time. This is the place that feeds my soul.

I absolutely HEART NY, thrill to the embrace of Sun Valley, and swoon each fall in Yosemite. San Francisco feels like my backyard, Chicago my home of origin, and the Pacific Northwest where I became a man. North, Central and East Africa provided ground for my "Walk About", while Israel introduced me to everyday Jewish culture. Honduras is my Caribbean home and Italy is my European one, with friends always waiting. I have been blessed with wanderlust and am currently visualizing trips to Cuba, Turkey, and Guatemala for our Wine Club.

I write to document this journey for myself, share it with others, and engage you to join me. It is also an expression of thanks. I sense a big responsibility that sometimes feels burdensome: until I begin. During these past weeks on the road, I kept thinking about writing, but never had a quiet moment. I was up at dawn and down at midnight, or sometimes 2:00am. My travel ended for the season on Tuesday with a short hop to San Francisco. This would normally not feel like a trip, but after 11 days of moving, it felt like another destination and return, especially the late-night drive home. I was grateful to be home.

I met many people and made new friends. Please follow three stops along the way, below. 

First stop: Pat Kuleto's home perched above Lake Hennessey and Napa Valley.

Many thanks to photographers Mark Wegner and Greg Murphy for their keen eyes and artistic talent.

Our 2014 Harvest party was a BLOW-OUT!!! We hosted 120 guests, primarly Wine Club members. It was a family affair: Jennifer, my son, Adam, his girlfriend, Audrey, and I hosted and organized the entire event.

Pat's amazing staff were there to stage and clean up, invaluable to a seamless and successful party. They also prepared the food, no small task for over 100 people. And it was delicious, as you would expect from Pat Kuleto. He butchered and prepared a fresh lamb from the farm.

Not to be understated, Gaia (or Mother Nature), blessed us. We were cradled under sunny skies in balmy temperatures of 75-80 degrees that persisted through and beyond sunset. Pat lit the torches and strung lights through the vineyard to guide our paths home. 

Matt Silva and his ensemble, The Silvatones, serenaded us with their sophisticated, yet gravelly style of blues and jazz. We danced poolside. 

The party served to benefit my dear friend, Potenza, and her "Hearts of the World" project. She has been working tirelessly for the two decades of our friendship and I was honored to host another fundraiser for her efforts. She spoke eloquently about her work to bring the hearts of the world together under the banner of art and shared values.

My friend, Rod Heisterberg, spoke about his new book, "Creating Business Agility: How Convergence of Cloud, Social, Mobile, Video, and Big Data Enables Competitive Advantage". Though this may seem like an unlikely segue, I was privileged to write almost a whole chapter on a case study regarding the return on investment from social media. This represents my first published academic work. Rod generously donated a portion of the sale price of the book to Potenza's work. 

Capping the occasion were 22 open bottles of Halleck Vineyard library Pinot Noirs dating from 2002. These included some old favorites, including all vintages of our Estate Grown, and select vintages of Three Sons, Hallberg, The Farm and Hillside. I was encouraged to taste them all and not find a bad bottle in the bunch. Though the 2002 Estate Grown is a bit beyond its peak, it still showed nicely. We just tasted the 2001 only months prior, and it was stunning with years apparently ahead. The 2003 Estate Grown was the show-stopper for me. However, many adored the 2006 Three Sons Cuvee, now in its 9th year. 

We met this week and decided to do this again for those who could not attend or desired a second go. We are grateful to have held the wines and that they have held-up through these past dozen years.

Stay tuned. It may be as soon as February for another Library Party.











































Second stop: The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park. Vintners Holidays.

This was my fourth invitation and appearance at the prestigious "Vintners Holidays", brilliantly executed by one of the most dedicated and professional staffs with whom I've ever had the privilege to work. They honor the place, remarkable as it is, with their gracious hospitality and service. 

I was joined by four Halleck Vineyard Wine Club members and two other community supporters from Sonoma County.

Bob and Carol, friends now for 40 years, were there to enjoy the experience, but also for support.

Bob and I met as young men in Nairobi, Kenya. I was teaching school at a small village on Lake Victoria and he was working for a supplier to the sugar industry. Nairobi was a frequent waypoint for us both. And a weekly volleyball game attracted a complement of global expats to an American pilot who hosted from his home at the edge of Nairobi Game Park. 

Fast forward a few years and I attended Bob and Carol's wedding 35 years ago in Tiburon. Fast forward 25 years more: Bob and I bump into each other at the bar at Nick's Cove, after having been completely out of touch for two decades. Bob and Carol joined the Wine Club and our friendship has been deeply rekindled.

Also joining us were Carol Ann and Arnon from Chicago. They had the signature moment of sharing Halleck Vineyard Pinot Noir on their first date over 5 years ago. After dating, engagement and marriage, they came to my home to visit the source. They joined our Wine Club because any special occurance in their lives is now described as a "Halleck Moment". Now how sweet is that!!?? I got choked up just hearing it. 

The five of us were white-on-rice for 2 1/2 days. From Sunday evening when we all met at the welcoming wine reception, Bob, Carol and Carol Ann and Arnon spent every meal together. My first dinner was spent with the faculty of the event, but our tables were directly next to each other in the Grand Dining Room, unlikely since the place was fully booked. It felt destined.

On Monday morning, we met at 8:15 to frigid temperatures and clear skies. We set out for Vernal Falls, walking from the Ahwahnee, about 2 miles from the trailhead. The day was gorgeous and the temperatures climbed to a comfortable range within a half hour. They anticipated a relaxed 5 mile journey, looking at the map. But I suggested this more of a climb than a stroll, having recently traversed to the top of Nevada Falls two summer ago with Quinn. 

Vernal Falls was a disturbing trickle compared to the torrent we enjoyed just over a year ago. It was really shocking to see how little water flowed anywhere in the Park. The Merced River was nothing more than a creek, easily traversed in many places on foot.

As expected, it was a good work-out, and we put on almost 10 miles by taking an alternate route back. Our timing was perfect, though. Four hours later everyone was back at the Ahwahnee ready for a quick shower and the first of four wine seminars. I had the third slot, which was at 1:00 the following day. This gave me the afternoon to further prepare, rehearse, and nap.

We all convened for drinks at the bar at 6:30. We agreed later that it was a mistake to start our evening with 4 oz martinis. I hosted our Wine Club members in the Grand Dining Room for dinner. We were accompanied by two Santa Rosa representatives drawn to the event from our family of friends, Kris and Gene. Gene is a physician I met a dozen years ago at his office.

I was armed with a selection of open Library Wines from our Harvest Party to complement the evening. I carried an equivalent of 7 bottles for 7 of us. The dinner was superb and the wine went down a bit too easily. It was fun to enjoy these older wines while dining. 

The evening slipped by. We all retired pleasantly lubricated.

The following morning, The Wine Club group of four hiked the Valley Floor. I, instead, took my bicycle up Highway 120 to the end of the Valley and up through the tunnels. It was a 20 mile trip with a 5 mile climb. I was relieved how easily I made the excursion after riding the grades of Sonoma County regularly.

My talk was at 1:00, so I returned before noon, showered and made it down in time to test all the wine prior to pouring for my seminar. The room filled with 160 people. Bob, Carol, Carol Ann and Arnon were in the front row. I spoke for a full hour, taking a few questions at the end. I felt relaxed and prepared, addressing the topic, "Building Community Through Wine". When I finished, throngs of people crowded to ask questions and fill my pockets with cards requesting to get on the mailing list and Wine Club membership.

I retired for the afternoon, napped and began packing. That evening, the entire Vintners Holidays crowd filled the Grand Dining Room for the Gala Dinner. This is a 5 course formal dining experience paired with wines from each of the participating vintners. It is amazing how a kitchen can serve this level of a dining experience to almost 200 people at the same time. The dinner ended with an introduction of the chefs, an impressive group of a dozen. 

The next morning, we again convened for a late brunch before heading home. I stayed up late the night before filling in all the data from the cards. So I slept late, then strolled for several miles along the Merced, taking in the majesty of Yosemite Valley. The following photos are from that walk.










































Still not having enough of each other, we decided to caravan out and meet at the oldest bar in California, The Iron Door Saloon, in the mining town of Groveland. This is just over an hour from the Ahwanee. But we really did not want to say goodbye. And if you haven't had a beer at the Iron Door, it is ALWAYS worth a stop.


Since we had just eaten, we lingered, figuring we were going to hit rush hour traffic anyway. The time was well spent, enjoying some local brews and parting with gratitude for our enjoyable days together.







Third Stop: Digital Foot-Print, LAX Concourse Hotel, Los Angeles

I have been working with Ken Courtright of Today's Growth Consultants for 3+ years developing an authority site, The story is too long of how, in 1993, I was asked to be the CEO of this early internet start-up. Leave it to say, it was too early :-)

Fast forward almost 20 years, I meet Ken and he convinces me to track down the owner, an old partner, and we negotiate a deal for me to take it back and develop the site with Ken.

Thus began a wonderful friendship, partnership, alliance and soul connection with Ken, another midwestern man, and his lovely wife, Kerri. They are avid Halleck Vineyard Wine Club members.

To say that Ken is on fire is understating his trajectory. Ken is a young man, in his 40s. He has a colorful tale to tell about how he became a mogul in the planet's newest real estate boom: internet properties. Ken owns about 500 income producing web sites, with his eye on hitting 1000 within a two years, and accumulating over 300 million eyeballs in the process. But he is just starting.

To bring his team of employees, "site partners", colleagues, affiliates, vendors, prospects, investors and supporters from all over the world together, he decided to create an event. He had employees that he had never met, though working for years. He is not in the event business, but that did not stop him. He realized that among the ecosystem described, he knew a lot of smart people. VERY smart, and very accomplished. So he tapped a handful to develop content for presentation. He curated. But he was pretty "hands-off". He trusted his compadres.

I was honored to be invited. I was in august company, including some of the most accomplished strategic and business minds in the US. It was humbling, in fact, a bit daunting. But his invitation was simply to host a wine tasting for the event, so it seemed easy enough. I can do that.

Then he told me that he had a slot he needed to fill on branding. He asked if I might take that. 

Two years ago, I was invited to keynote an international luxury branding conference to be held at the Conrad Hotel in Bali, Indonesia. I spent months on the presentation. I had a first class ticket and hotel reservations for a week, including stops in Singapore and Hong Kong. Two weeks before the event, it was postponed. Two weeks later, the president of the company who invited me was let go and her entire organization reconfigured. The conference was canceled.

A year ago, I was referred by a member of that organization to another conference organizer developing events around digital marketing. I dusted off my presentation, updated it, prepared, rehearsed and delivered it to a roomful of 150 people at Blomberg in SF. It went OK.

Then I was invited to another group two months ago in Napa. Again, it went OK, a bit better than the first.

So this time, it was fresh. I sent Ken my presentation in a flash. It needed nothing. He wrote back one word: Tremendous.

Then, a week later, I received another email from Ken. He asked I participate in a panel. Included were seven of the top business minds in the world. He divulged two of the questions, but withheld the rest he would ask. He simply said that they were mystery questions.

So when the conference convened in LA on November 14, I had a speaking slot in every day of three full days, from 9-5, among a roomful of entrepreneurs of all industries focused on optimizing their digital footprint. There were resources of every persuasion, from branding to business strategy to social to direct marketing to SEO to site design to content marketing to networking to video production to you-name-it. If there is something you can conceive that would contribute to business presence and transactional performance employing internet technologies, the thought leaders were there. 

And me. 

The conference was an extaordinary success for Ken. He converted this audience into sales of internet properties and services. More importantly, it was a success for everyone who attended. The content was rich, actionable, and the faculty, of which I was a part, stayed up to the wee hours every day coaching, answering questions and developing future business relationships. 

I also have earned at least 10 new Wine Club members, sold cases of holiday wine, and booked another speaking engagement in Hollywood for a group of celebrities. I guess it is hard to find anyone to entertain celebs, so this professional asked me to be the "talent" in a client appreciation night for his business, focused almost exclusively on the celebrity market. I will be hosting a wine tasting. 

My flight from LAX departed at 8:00 pm Sunday direct to Santa Rosa, thank goodness. My son picked me up and I was home by midnight. There was a lot of work in front of me, but all was time well spent.

Time Posted: Nov 21, 2014 at 4:52 PM
Ross Halleck
October 19, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Another Perfect Day In Paradise

I pinch myself every day living in Sonoma County. Then there are the days when a pinch is not enough. Those are the times I say to myself, "Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore". Coming from the midwest, this is particularly apt. 

Yesterday was one of those magical days where everything coalesced into a perfect storm of perfection. 

A group of us from the Golden Gate Wine Society, which generally convenes for food and imbibement in San Francisco, took a departure to Sebastopol for a 50 mile cycling tour.  Eleven of us headed from the Russian River Valley, in Sebastopol, north through Healdsburg. We continued up to Geyserville, back down through Anderson Valley, then circled back to Sebastopol to settle in for wine and burgers at the home of one of our esteemed members, Paul O'Neill. It was a strong group of cyclists, including Dallas, his lovely wife, Melissa, Paul, Jeff, Brett, Bruce, Mike, Brian, George, Kevin and myself.

We convened at 9:30am at Paul's house, where he generously "carbed us up" with bagles, lox, cream cheese and tomatoes. This traditional breakfast fare was complemented by stacks of Cliff Bars, Cliff Goo, and electrolyte powder for our water bottles. The consumate engineer, Paul could not resist sharing his latest gadget: a mini "pump" that can blow up a tire in seconds from a CO2 cartridge. Paul turned out to be the only one requiring it during our ride. Not sure he didn't plan it that way :-)

We anticipated a chance of showers from the forecast, but we arrived to a sky of puffy clouds with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees. They were perfect cycling conditions and by 10:15, were were geared up and raring to go. 

The initial stretch along Vine Hill Road took us from Trenton to the newly paved East Side Road, lined with vineyards bordering Russian River. Brett, not yet a GGWS member, set the pace, which was to be consistent throughout the ride. He was an Australean ringer that Paul invited to join us. We made it the first seven miles to Healdsburg almost effortlessly, in relatively flat terrain, as we were burning off the day's first calories. 

The Healdsburg Avenue Bridge, closed for construction, allowed our careful crossing, threading through a maze of cyclone fencing. Then we meandered along Healdsburg's quaint streets, a throw-back to gentler times. With little traffic, our pelaton commanded the residential neighborhoods as we headed north, then west into Dry Creek Valley. 

We headed out of Healdsburg northwest on Dry Creek Road, stopping for a quick gathering of riders in front of the Dry Creek Store. We kept up momentum, turning right onto Canyon Road for our first climb of the day. We were passed by at least 100 motorcycles at that turn, blasting their presence for all to heed, as they proceeded up Dry Creek Road. Then on the climb up Canyon, another 30-40 passed us, begging the question whether they took the wrong turn from their group. 

After almost 25 years in Sonoma County, I had never been on Canyon Road. This gorgeous venule carried us up several hundred feet, to descend into the northern reaches of Geyserville. We turned south into town, then east along Hwy 128 where we were engulfed in the vineyards of Alexander Valley in all directions. This is a breathtaking stretch of rolling pavement. Our first 30 miles came up quickly, the entire group gathering in close cluster at the Jimtown Store for a lunch break.  

With only 20 miles to go, everyone made short work of a snack and hydration. We continued on Hwy 128, heading toward Chalk Hill. We hung right onto Chalk Hill Road. This is another rolling portion; but nestled along the Mayacamas on the eastern borders of Alexander Valley, the ups and downs were becoming more pronounced. The group hung together for a short spell, but the time-in-the-saddle and distance were starting to take their toll on a few of us and we separated by ability.

At about mile 40, we were confronted by the biggest climb of the day. It was about two miles up with grades hovering at 12-13%. This is not atypical of the climbs in my neighborhood, so I am used to them. But I did not eat enough for lunch and I could feel my energy dropping precipitously. Some of the slower riders were catching up and I was falling to the back of the pack. My spirits were good as I simply recalibrated to the new pace. My legs felt strong, though my butt hurt. 

The group gathered at the junction of Pleasant Avenue. Then we continued up Faught Road, hugging the hills with vineyards to our right to the west. I was slowing, so I enjoyed the views and watched my fellow riders disappear around the twisting curves of the road.

But then the road started looking unfamiliar and getting particularly rough. I had taken this ride a year back with Paul and Dick, so I got a keen sense that something was amiss. I took out my phone and gave Paul a ring. Fortunately, he pulled out his phone at just that time, so he saw my call come in. We compared notes and I had missed a turn about a half mile back. So I turned around and resigned myself to being alone the balance of the trip. I was now back in familiar territory, so I was fine.

After turning left on Shiloh Road to follow the group, I crossed Hwy 101 and was picking up speed. I blasted through a green light, but noticed a familiar orange t-shirt on a cyclist sitting on the corner. I yelled as I passed, "George?". He was buried in his phone, and I wasn't sure, so I circled back to check. Sure enough, our most recent Society member was standing on the corner, uncertain where to go or where he was. I instructed him to follow my lead and we continued enroute and sparked up a friendly conversation about wine making. 

We had only a few miles to go and I knew the route, so George and I shared pleasant company heading back into the Russian River Valley. Paul, our leader, intersected us in a circle-back to be sure we were OK. Upon confirming our whereabouts and good standing, he blasted back ahead to meet the group at his house. George and I maintained a comfortable pace along Shiloh, turning left onto Windsor, then left again onto Stusser. We took a short hesitation at Saralee's Vineyard where I shared our warm relationship with the late Saralee Kunde and the source of our Dry Gewurztraminer fruit, now in the stewardship of Kendall Jackson. 

Stusser T-d at River Road, where we turned right along a smooth shoulder amid lots of fast moving cars. We had to endure this for only a mile before turning onto Trenton and back to Paul's home on Vine Hill. Gatorades and beer were chilled and waiting as we dismounted from a fantastic ride. 

After bit of stretching and changing from sweaty clothes, we all gathered next to the swimming pool adjacent to Paul's stunning hillside vineyard. Paul went to work at the grill making burgers. We all enjoyed a selection of wines under the glorious crisp afternoon sunshine beneath his trellised dining patio.

Did I mention another pinch?



Time Posted: Oct 19, 2014 at 11:23 AM
Ross Halleck
October 19, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Another Perfect Day In Paradise

Time Posted: Oct 19, 2014 at 11:23 AM
Ross Halleck
October 15, 2014 | Ross Halleck

We love our dogs. And our Dog Club!

Our Halleck Vineyard Dog Club has taken a monumental jump this month. It has grown by 250%. 

I don’t mean this to sound hyperbolic. It is easy to grow by triple digits when the content is in the single digits. In real terms, we have displayed two dogs for many months. These include our vineyard Basenji, Franki, and his good friend from Aspen, Bella. Now we have 7 dogs gracing our Halleck Vineyard. Buddah, Lulu, Elwood, Gabby and Murphy have joined ranks.  

So why do we have a Halleck Vineyard Dog Club? The answer speaks to the heart of our mission: to build community. We love our dogs! Some love dogs more than children. And this is not unusual. 

I watched a 60 Minutes episode this past week entitled: “The smartest dog in the world”. It documents the amazing work of John Pilley and his Australian Shepherd, Chaser. 

Human beings have lived with dogs for thousands of years. You'd think that after all that time we'd have discovered all there is to know about them. But it turns out that until recently scientists didn't pay much attention to dogs. Dolphins have been studied for decades, apes and chimps as well, but dogs, with whom we share our lives, were never thought to be worthy of serious study. As a result, we know very little about what actually goes on inside dogs' brains. Do they really love us, or are dogs just licking us so they can get fed? How much of our language can they understand? 

Eighty-six-year-old retired psychology professor John Pilley and his border collie Chaser are inseparable.

During the 9 years of Chaser’s life, John has taught Chaser thousands of words. That’s right, thousands. And Chaser knows the difference between nouns and verbs. This is something that has not been replicated amongst any in the species of animals. We had thought that chimps were the closest to our level of intelligence, but they don’t hold a candle to what a dog can learn. 

Further, it has recently been proven that dogs REALLY love us. We know that when dogs and humans make eye contact, actually released is what's known as the love hormone, oxytocin, in both the dog and the human.

It turns out oxytocin, the same hormone that helps new mothers bond with their babies, is released in both dogs and humans when they play, touch or look into one another's eyes. So dogs are hugging us with their eyes.

So our Halleck Vineyard Dog Club is an extension of our family. It represents the dogs we love and who love us back. They are an integral and intimate part of our lives and community. They are there when we need them, comforting and supporting us with unconditional love. Who can say that about our kids or spouses ;-))

Time Posted: Oct 15, 2014 at 9:31 AM
Ross Halleck
October 9, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Senescence: Changing color to end a season

Every autumn we enjoy the annual harvest of our vineyards, as well as the spectacular beauty of the fall colors.  My recent trip to Aspen punctuated this season for me. The mixture of reds, umbers, and yellow result from chemical processes that take place in the vines as the seasons change from summer to winter. It is similarly reflected in the Aspen trees and this connection marked me this year.  

Three leaf pigments in grape vines responsible for color and its changes in the autumn are: chlorophylls, carotenoids, and tannins.

Chlorophyll absorbs the sun's radiant energy and is necessary for photosynthesis, the chemical reaction in which carbon dioxide and water are transformed to sugars, used for food by vines and trees. During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and leaves appear green.

As days get shorter and temperatures cooler in the autumn, the leaves stop their food-making process.  This is called senescense. Nitrogen and phosphorus are slowly withdrawn from the leaves to be stored in twigs and branches during the dormant winter period.  The loss of these nutrients, due to reduced exposure to sunlight with shorter days, gradually stops the production of chlorophyll.  The green leaf color fades and other pigments are unmasked to show their colors.  The timing of chlorophyll loss varies among different species, thus some leaves will remain green longer than others.

It seems that aspen trees at 10,000 feet in Colorado and Pinot Noir grown at 1000 feet in west Sonoma County hold a common thread. Did you know that enormous groves of aspen trees are all one organism, sharing a common root system?!

Carotenoid pigments are responsible for the yellow and orange colors in leaves. They are also located in the chloroplasts and assist chlorophyll in the capture of sunlight for photosynthesis. Caratenoids are always present in the leaves, but are not visible for most of the year because of greater amounts of chlorophyll.  The yellowish colors are unmasked as chlorophyll degrades.  Carotenoids are also responsible for the yellowing of leaves at any time during the year if there is a deficiency in nutrients or disease that reduces normal chlorophyll production.

Tannins are responsible for brown hues in the leaves. The golden yellow in some leaves are a result of tannins along with the yellow carotenoid pigments.  These compounds are always present in the leaves, but only become visible as chlorophyll and carotenoids disappear.  I did not realize that tannins are present in both the leaves and the fruit. Tannins are bitter substances responsible for the color and flavor of tea.  They are waste products of plant metabolism, deposited in the cell walls. They often accumulate in dead tissue.

Leaves that fall decompose and restock the soil with nutrients that make up part of the spongy humus layer of the vineyard and forest floors. These absorb and hold rainfall.  Fallen leaves also become food for numerous soil organisms that are critical to the health of the ecosystem.

Time Posted: Oct 9, 2014 at 9:19 PM
Ross Halleck
October 2, 2014 | Ross Halleck

The first snows in Aspen

Now in the seventh decade, I have a wealth of destinations behind me. The highlights are too numerous to mention: 

  • Sailing along the Kenyan coast from Lamu to Mombasa atop an Arab dhow
  • Absorbing the setting sun from a villa in Taormina, Sicily high above the Mediterranean
  • Watching the wildebeest migration from a baloon with my sons overlooking Masai Mara
  • Traveling down the Nile from Aswan, Egypt to Wadi Halfa, Sudan
  • Cavorting the streets of Venice during Carnivale
  • Hiking the Inca Trail in Peru to Machu Picchu
  • Watching howler monkeys from the pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala
  • Diving the reefs of Honduras and Belize
  • Piloting a plane along the entire Grand Canyon from Lake Mead to Lake Powell below the rim
  • Touring Tuscany with my sons, ex-wife and parents

And on and on; I am grateful beyond measure for this ceaseless wanderlust.

So it is time to add another: Aspen in the fall!

With harvest behind and juice in barrel or tank, I decided to take 5 days and head to visit a friend in Aspen.

Although I have been to Aspen before, enjoying the summer for its hiking and cultural events and the winter for skiing, I have never been in the autumn. This is considered a shoulder season, devoid of tourists, the streets quiet but alive, and the eateries full of locals. 

What is unsung that puts Aspen on my list is color. They call the place Aspen (duh) for a reason:-)

I was brought to tears by the beauty around every curve. 

I am here as the guest of a dear friend, Nancy, who has taken it upon herself to introduce her friends to Halleck Vineyard. Athough I am taking a break, she has organized informal tastings and gatherings to build community for me and us. 

It has been a stunning week, starting with an evening of friends around a table of Halleck Vineyard wines. Pete, Lori, Eddy, Wendi, Nancy and I enjoyed a convivial conversation preparing for dinner at Wild Fig.

What a surprise to discover that you cannot bring wine to a restaurant in Colorado. How is that for irony! You can go down to the local dispensary and buy a jar of cannibis like its a jelly donut, but it is against the law to bring your own wine to a restaurant. So we drank at home before a delightful meal at a signature Aspen haunt.

The following day, we started early to beat the weather. We were out at 8:30 to begin a 7 mile hike up to American Lake at 11,400 feet. This was a "breathtaker" for a sea-level guy like me. What Nancy described as an hour and a half up took us 2 hours and 20 minutes of beauty, up. Then another hour and a half down. Big hike for a first day. But I was wholly indoctrinated by then. 

 We were graced that afternoon with the first snowfall of the season. I swear: the snowflakes were an inch across or more. The mountain tops were dusted white and the grass in town was covered, but the temperature held the streets from any accumulation.

Another treasure during this season is the Aspen Film Festival. We enjoyed several movies, not all great, but all interesting and worthy of our time. 

The evening was another gathering of friends around some bottles. Paula, Judi, Alan, and Jill were indoctrinated into our family of friends.

Every day, however has been spent outdoors. Today we climbed Tiehack, one of the peaks of Buttermilk Mountain Ski Area. Joined by Leonard, Marie, Jill, and Lisa, the views were spectacular of Aspen. Walking up in the snow was an added treat.

We finished at Maroon Bells. Viewing them in crystalline white above Maroon Lake, I ask, "Why Maroon Bells?". I only needed to look to my right for the answer. In their shadow, the neighboring peaks were sheilded from the early snows. They were as maroon as a crayon. Quite a place.

Highlands from the top of Tiehack

Time Posted: Oct 2, 2014 at 3:14 PM
Ross Halleck
September 17, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Harvest is ON!!!

Part of me misses our annual harvest parties. We drew a group of friends, family and Wine Club members for an early morning breakfast next to the vineyard, cleared the vineyard for several hours, then enjoyed lunch on our deck paired with wines from previous vintages. They were always on a Saturday and we held them for over 10 years. 

Jennifer and I worked all night preparing the meal, then continued into the pick with full jets on.

They were energizing and poignant experiences that have faded into fond memories. 

So today we have a half dozen Latino vineyard workers doing the work of almost 100 gringos in less than 2 hours. Although the picture may not be as romantic, the function is greatly comforting. This is a professional crew and the grapes could not have stayed on the vines a day longer to achieve the quality we seek. Waiting to Saturday would have compromised the crop, already fast fading into light raisining. 

I awoke at 6:00 am to a still dark morning. I picked up the truck from the local Rental Place and the bins retrieved from the winery last night.

This morning, I began by unplugging the electrical chargers that surge 8000 volts of electricity around every row to keep away our unfriendly neighbors, the raccoons, who love to feast nightly on our crop.

Then I pulled off the straps securing the bins to the flat bed to allow arranging them for filling. I set up step ladders for dumping the small picking bins into the larger 1/2 ton bins for transport.

Then I greeted the crew and started documenting the event with pictures. They are fast, as the video shows. We have six men and women working at super-human pace.

When the pick is complete, i will drive the fully laden truck to the winery for off-loading, sorting, destemming, and crush. The babies will be put to bed for the season and I will sleep soundly tonight:-)

Harvest video from Ross Halleck on Vimeo.

Time Posted: Sep 17, 2014 at 8:33 AM
Ross Halleck
August 19, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Turning 60

Last week I entered my 7th decade. WOW!

In taking stock of the past 60 years, I am humbled by all that has contributed. No road is smooth and mine has been bumpy as any. Shifts in career, income, relationship and marital status, spirituality, and psychology have been part and parcel. 








I have been fortunate to enjoy consistently good health and a stable home, redefining family with my ex-wife, Jennifer. We have crafted a working partnership that has born a loving family and thriving winery. I continue to enjoy my parents, who travel to visit and join us on our Halleck Vineyard excursions. My sons are healthy, smart and active in very individual lives. They are all artists, gifted with keen intellect and strong life skills. 

I am blessed beyond measure, filled with gratitude and awe. I say with conviction that the 50s were the happiest decade of my life. Something shifted during that decade which redefined my relationship with myself. Jung described it as a "Middle Passage", and I felt a textbook example. 

In my early adulthood, I was excited by the accomplishments I accrued. Be it my career, financial status, physical exploits, family, or even the car I drove, I found meaning in identifying with these. In defining myself by what the world saw about me, I was buoyed by recognition and achievement. This is typical of many at this phase of life.

Something shifted at the end of my 5th decade, or late 40s. The "stuff" I described stopped working. My career was fine, but not fulfilling. My family faltered and I began to derail. I bought a fancy car as therapy, but it didn’t help. I was healthy on the outside, but I was unhappy on the inside. There were no charts for navigating these waters.

After several years of exploration and experimentation, I pieced together a revised world-view and set of practices that redirected my course. Something opened up within that aligned me with myself. What the world expected was no longer my operative. For the first time in my life, I truly understood the meaning of "integrity". I came to realize it as something very personal. When in concert with one’s integrity and humility, the world generally responds harmoniously.

So my 50s were an expression of this liberation. I stopped striving for financial gains and followed my heart in almost everything. I explored my dreams (literally). Rather than travel around the world as I had done for decades, I began adventuring within. My inner reaches were my new frontier. I still hopped on planes across the US and to Italy, Kenya, Honduras, Peru, Paraguay and Brazil, but these journeys were simply new settings, not the end-game. I realized with delight rather than chagrin that “wherever you go, there you are”.

There was a price for this apparent disengagement from common culture. I had created a thriving career in my early adulthood that progressively became less productive. I was not motivated to sell my consulting services and devoted myself more to making wine and a spiritual path; neither pay many bills. While I maintained ultimate faith in myself, I could tell that those around me who cared were concerned. I was going the wrong direction financially for someone looking at retirement just a short distance away.

But at the year’s turn, the onset of this next decade, the world shifted again. Something clicked inside. Inspiration struck.

In January, I wrote a business plan and 30-page marketing plan for the winery. I realized that I could not do it myself, so I reached out to people I admired to assemble a Board. Every person I invited agreed to participate. Jennifer and I hired counsel based on recommendations from the Board and rewrote our operating agreement. Then we raised capital to grow the winery. The “ask” went out to a few wine club members and friends; we hit our first target in a week.

Last week I celebrated my 60th birthday at Lake Tahoe. I was surrounded by love, including my parents, my sons, my ex-wife, a sweet lady, Sharon, and my dearest friends. Most are also wine club members. Mike, Patti, Kevin and Karen threw a party for me at a gorgeous home on Carnelian Bay. I blew out 60 candles in one breath and almost passed out ;-).

We enjoyed a BIG bottle of bubbly from Iron Horse and shared the first bottle of wine from our vineyard with our group: 2001 Tandem Winery, Halleck Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The wine was STUNNING, still shining after all these years. This is the wine that put Halleck Vineyard on the map, winning the prestigious Pinot Noir Summit, rendering it the #1 Pinot Noir in the US in 2002.

We spent the following day on the exquisite Wild Goose II, plying the waters of Lake Tahoe for 3 hours, successfully dodging local showers breaking across the lake. The panorama of threat, dappled with shifting spots of sunshine, were breathtaking. The waters remained calm, allowing us a swim in a sheltered cove. We ended our water excursion at Sand Harbor, Nevada, where we had a catered meal awaiting under the trees of the Shakespeare Village. Charlie Fee, Creative Director for the Festival, graced our party with a prelude to the show, “As You Like it”. When dinner was done, we carried our wine glasses to the front section to enjoy the three-hour performance under a starlit sky.

I awoke early the next morning after a late wine-filled night, a bit the worse for wear. I cycled 40 miles around a portion of the lake with a local friend, Sam Padden. Heading out of Northstar, we climbed 3000 feet during the ride, starting already at over a mile of altitude. Though I was depleted slowly pumping through the last mile into Northstar, it felt a fitting way to launch into my 60s: healthy and fit.

Punctuated by these experiences, I enter this new decade with great optimism. Each ten year cycle has had its own character. My 50s were about alignment and joy. I anticipate the 60s will be about integration and preparation.

I intend to integrate my skills, knowledge, and wisdom to prepare a foundation for a secure future. I am supported by an engaged community of family, friends, and business colleagues. And I have the life experience and integrity to guide a ship through troubled times into safe harbor.

The economy seems to be in a sustainable upturn. The global cost of labor is keeping costs down and contributing to an increase in profit. This bodes well for a luxury product like fine wine. Further, our focus on building community seems to strike a chord of resonance that is encouraging for business as in life.

So I have great reason to be optimistic. And excited! Thank you for sharing this road.

Time Posted: Aug 19, 2014 at 9:54 AM
Ross Halleck
July 28, 2014 | Ross Halleck

VĂ©raison: brindled, dappled, polka-dotted, speckled, variegated, varicolored: All words to describe this wonderful time when grapes move into their adolescence of the season.

Véraison is a viticulture term representing "the onset of ripening". It is originally French, but has been adopted into English (veraision). The official definition of veraision is "change of color of the grape berries." Veraison represents the transition from berry growth to berry ripening, and many changes in berry development occur at this time.

The initial phase of berry growth, now behind us, is a result of cell division and expansion. As berry growth slows the lag phase takes over. The lag phase is not a physiological stage, but a designation between the two periods of berry development. This is when veraision occurs.

Post-veraision, or when the fruit is entirely black, fruit acidity decreases with the degradation of malic acid. The degradation of malic acid during ripening elevates tartaric acid as the predominant acid; grape berries possess a small amount of citric acid. This is also an important flavor component. 

At the same time acidity decreases, sugars accumulate. This accumulation of sugars (glucose,fructose) reduces the volume of water entering the berry relative to the volume of sugar, resulting in an increase in sugar concentration. Further increases in sugar concentration are due to dehydration of the fruit. The amount of sugar developing in the berry depends on the level of leaf photosynthesis.

As ripening continues, the fruit becomes attractive to animals due to changes in aroma from acidic to sweet and fruity. As ripening occurs, herbaceous aromas are reduced.

This is our biggest concern right now. Birds are keeping close eye, as are raccoons, our arch nemeses. We have turned on our "electric fence". These are two rows of wires around each of our over 50 rows, delivering 8000 volts of electricity at low amps for any curious critter. 

We lost both our 2010 and 2011 Estate crops to raccoons. Thanks to the creative mind of Mike Mcquire, then 18 years old and working for the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue organization, we installed our experimental electrical solution. This was after several years of trapping and killing over a dozen with no marked effect on the damage. We were outmanned and outgunned. 

With our electical chargers clicking in cadence, notifying us of their diligent work, veraision is again a celebratory time. The vines are full and the berries multicolored.

The trigger of veraison is unknown, like so many things in agriculture. 

Time Posted: Jul 28, 2014 at 5:10 PM
Ross Halleck
July 22, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Sebastopol's Hilly New Haven for Pinot Noir

Jennifer and I planted Halleck Vineyard in the early 90s. Legend was created when our first vintage as a wine (2001 Tandem Winery, Halleck Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir) earned first place in the 2002 Pinot Noir Summit. This was also Greg Lafollette's first vintage under his new personal label, Tandem. He had recently left Flowers, where he earned status as "Winemaker Rock Star". 

This competition set the stage for Greg to become our winemaker and mentor, and Jennifer and I to build Halleck Vineyard as a winery and brand.

John Haeger further assisted, by including Halleck Vineyard in two of his scholarly tomes on the subject of Pinot Noir, published by the University of California Press in the mid-2000s.

I recently stumbled across this article by John, published in the SFGate in 2008. In re-reading, the work is still timely and prophetic. So I thought to include the link and the article, below. Enjoy!

Since the middle of the 1990s, the crenellated hills southwest of Sebastopol - the increasingly posh town of about 8,000 that anchors southwestern Sonoma County - have become a new theater for wine grapes. First in blends, and then in vineyard-designated wines, grapes from these hills have impressed winemakers with exceptional balance and a special vocation for nuanced style.

"The area looks a bit like the new gold standard for reds," says Greg La Follette, a winemaker with impressive credentials, including the Hartford Court, Flowers and Tandem brands. When La Follette talks about "reds," he means Pinot Noir.

Called Sebastopol Hills, the area is a roughly triangular chunk of land consisting mostly of northeast-southwest-oriented ridges on the lee side of a transverse ridge that separates the Russian River Valley from the Petaluma Gap. It is also the main watershed for Arastradero Creek, which flows north into Green Valley Creek and then to the Russian River itself. It is rolling country - everything has "a lump or bump to it" according to viticulturalist and vineyard manager Charlie Chenowith. McMansions and horse ranches share the turf with shrinking apple orchards, disused tractors and scrabbling chickens.

Though the area has not even been proposed as an official wine appellation, growers and winemakers sometimes talk about Sebastopol Hills as if it were.

The Pinots produced here are distinctly different from others grown nearby - in Russian River Valley generally, Green Valley, the Petaluma Gap and the true Sonoma Coast, on the western edge of the appellation.

Rick Davis, the winemaker behind several Pinot labels sourced from Sonoma and Mendocino county vineyards, says Sebastopol Hills Pinots show "darker fruit, more earth and more minerality" than wines grown in the heart of the Russian River Valley. They are, he says, "a bit more masculine," and have "a bit more mid-palate weight." Others observe that Sebastopol Hills editions avoid the "cola flavors" many tasters find in Russian River Pinots, expressing "elegant floral aromatics" instead.

Many winemakers are impressed with the area's ability to produce Pinots that are "flavor-ready" at relatively low sugar levels, and that retain their acidity as the grapes grow riper. Winemaker Ed Kurtzman, who sources several Hills vineyards to make cuvees for Freeman Vineyards and Winery, says that the vineyards "have the common characteristic of getting fully ripe without showing raisiny or overripe flavors" even in troublesome years when the warmest weather occurs at the end of the growing season. He also likes the region's tendency toward "elegant, svelte and focused" structure, with "flattering, fine-grained tannins." La Follette and others comment that Hills fruit seems to retain its natural acidity longer than grapes grown in neighboring areas, and they exult in being able to grow wines that have "a hint of red Burgundy" in their character.

In tastings, Sebastopol Hills Pinots demonstrate a preponderance of earthy and savory elements with unusual notes of salt marsh, iodine and pepper, and undertones of sober, dried fruit - a marked contrast to the exuberant fresh fruitiness that often typifies Russian River, and the wild, exotic, garrigue-like flavors that often mark wines from the true Sonoma Coast. (See "Buying guide," at right).

Mysterious terroir

Just what properties have combined to produce this profile is not clear. Although the terrain is hillier and higher in elevation than the relative "flats" of nearby Green Valley and Laguna Ridge, the well-drained sandy loam topsoils are not very different.

Higher elevations almost certainly play some role, placing most vineyards above the coastal fog that seeps in from the ocean most nights from June through September. Thus the vineyards stay a bit warmer nights and early mornings than nearby sites in the Russian River Valley, while afternoon winds off the ocean, so strong that stand after stand of trees has been tilted permanently to the east, temper midday heat.

A few miles northeast, in the heart of the Russian River Valley, the fog intrusion is more predictable and more consistent from one day to the next, and generally produces more reliably warm days and cold nights. Just south, in the Petaluma Gap, vineyards must battle against much greater influence from the sea.

When La Follette, seeking to understand the area's whys and wherefores, took Andy Walker, a UC Davis viticulturist, to the Sanchetti Vineyard near the area's northwest corner in 1995, he hoped Walker would point to "something, anything" distinctive that LaFollette could reproduce elsewhere. Walker only deepened La Follette's sense of mystery. "Look to the site, look to the hills," La Follette remembers him saying, "to find your answer."

As far as anyone knows the area's first tiny vineyard - barely three-quarters of an acre planted shotgun-style to Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and field blends in 1972 by a professor at Santa Rosa Junior College - was no more than a backyard project. But two decades later, after apple orchards had become unprofitable, the scene began to change.

First, new owners renovated the 1972 vineyard, near the intersection of Burnside and Sexton roads, and converted it entirely to Pinot Noir. Then, in 1994, Jennifer and Ross Halleck planted another backyard acre nearby, imagining it (perhaps unrealistically) as a "college fund" for their just-born sons. While her husband continued to ply his trade in marketing services and brand development for large companies in Silicon Valley, Jennifer calculated on the back of an envelope how many vines she would need to plant the acre, and called nurseries listed in the yellow pages.

"I had no idea what I was doing," she now admits cheerfully.

The following year John Balletto, the largest vegetable farmer on the Northern California coast, planted the Hills' first commercial vineyard on land he had bought 10 years before. As it turned out, vegetables had been too thirsty for its hilly, well-drained soils.

"I wasn't sure about grapes," Balletto says, but the late Warren Dutton, western Sonoma's premier grape rancher, assured him that grapes "would do fine."

Lee Martinelli's family, which had owned apple orchards on nearby Water Trough Road for a century, tried grapes, too. So did Ted Klopp, a farmer-cum-psychology professor who already farmed grapes on Laguna Road in the Russian River Valley. Klopp tried out a few vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay "where there were gaps" between the apple trees in his high-elevation site on Thorn Road.

When the first vineyards produced successful crops and surprisingly distinctive wines - against a backdrop of relatively low land prices and robust statewide demand for Pinot Noir - new venturers were attracted to the Hills. Down the slope from Klopp, Tom and Rebecca Kisaichi began to live a dream they had conceived in Japan. Tom had grown up drinking red Burgundy in Osaka, where his parents owned a wine store. After a year studying winegrowing with Charles Rousseau in Burgundy's Gevrey-Chambertin, the couple looked for an "affordable, Pinot-friendly hillside site" in California. In 1999 and 2000, they planted the vertiginous parcel below Klopp's vineyard, called it Maboroshi for their "dream" or "illusion," and committed to farm it with their own hands.

Area finds an advocate

At the south edge of the triangle, Rick and Diane DuNah tumbled into a larger-than-expected retirement project when they took junior college classes in viticulture. In 1998, they, too, planted Pinot Noir. Both they and the Kisaichis got encouragement from La Follette, who has become an advocate for the area.

A few industry veterans made substantial investments. Pinot Noir pioneer Merry Edwards planted a 24-acre parcel on Burnside Road in 1999. On Sexton Road, Jim Pratt, a veteran of the grapevine nursery business, bought enough declining apple orchard to set out 15 acres of Pinot. Pratt thought about planting Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer "so I would not have to worry whether the grapes could ripen," but settled primarily on Pinot Noir because "I knew from nursery work that it was on the comeback trail."

By 2007, more than 120 acres of vines had been tucked into an area about half the size of Manhattan.

Pinot proliferation

What began as a tiny trickle of Hills' fruit into exogenous bottlings turned into a proliferation of increasingly vineyard-designated wines. The first commercial wine fashioned primarily from Sebastopol Hills grapes was apparently the 1998 Flowers Sonoma Coast Cuvee, the debut vintage anchored with grapes from Jim Pratt's vineyard. A year later, winemaker Fred Scherrer bought Halleck's first commercially viable crop, blended it with declassified lots from David Hirsch's iconic vineyard near Cazadero, and created the first edition of another Sonoma Coast blend.

By 2001, La Follette's new Tandem Winery had made a vineyard-designated Pinot from the Hallecks' vineyard that turned heads, finishing first in a national juried tasting. Some of Ted Klopp's first harvests at Thorn Ridge went to Scott Rich, who made memorable vineyard-designated Pinots under his fine Talisman label - appreciated for sleek textures, bright flavors and explosive aromatics. By 2002, the Hallecks, who had always intended to make wine of their own, launched their eponymous label, with first La Follette and then Davis in charge. The DuNahs followed in 2003, and Balletto made its first vineyard-designated wine from Hills fruit in 2007.

None of these wines is in huge supply. But for fans of Pinot Noir that is about much more than fruit, or for those who appreciate an earthier and more savory style, the effort to find these wines is entirely worthwhile.

Time Posted: Jul 22, 2014 at 1:46 PM