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Halleck Blog

Dave Pruett
May 7, 2017 | Dave Pruett

Dinner and Broadway!

Halleck Vineyards Inner Circle Wine Club Dinner & Play in NYC


I got hooked on fine wine almost 40 years ago on my first trip to the Napa Valley. However, as much as I enjoy the beverage itself, a huge part of the pleasure of drinking wine is sharing it with other people. I don’t necessarily mean private groups of millionaires who drink only the finest wines from the finest vintages, or wine geeks that analyze and score every wine with the focus and seriousness of brain surgery. I have no objection to these groups at all; everyone should enjoy the types of wine they like in whatever manner they choose—or choose not to drink it at all.

I’ve enjoyed a few expensive bottles in my day and have been known to geek out with like-minded wine lovers on occasion. Far more important, however, are the times I’ve shared a bottle (or eight) with a group of friends while enjoying the camaraderie and conversation that flowed with the wine. More than a few of my lasting friendships have developed that way.

Oh, and the food. Did I mention the food? Food and wine are like bread and butter. You can eat them separately, but why would you? Like the wine, the food can be fancy—caviar and foie gras—or plain—burgers and hot dogs on the grill. The only requirement is that it taste good.

Valeria and I have been friends with the Halleck family, owners and operators of Halleck Vineyard in Sonoma, California, for about 10 years now. Ross and Jennifer Halleck were married when they started the vineyard, planting their first vines in 1993 and producing their first wine in 1999. They have since divorced, but they continue to work together with their three sons to operate the family business.

The Halleck logo perfectly symbolizes the central role wine can play in building friendship and community. I will quote from the explanation of the logo from their web page.

“Our symbol represents an H for Halleck. More importantly, the Halleck logo expresses “one to one”, depicted as Roman numerals. We intend to have personal contact with everyone who enjoys our wine. Hence we invite people to our home to taste, invite our wine club members to the winery to sample barrels, travel across the country to share meals, and invite people to join us on trips around the world. 

Viewing the dot as a grape, it has served as a plant of power for 8,000 years, 1,000 years before Mesopotamia and the birth of civilization. Wine connects us. It has the unique ability to elevate a conversation and enhance intimacy, building community. The circle represents our community.”

We have attended winemaker dinners with Ross and Jennifer in restaurants near us, we’ve enjoyed meals and wine tastings in their home in Sebastopol, CA, and we’ve traveled with Ross to destinations in the US and abroad to drink Halleck wines and meet others who have a similar appreciation of good food and good wine. Ross arranges these events for members of the Halleck Wine Club, which is called The Inner Circle, i.e., the community of friends and family symbolized by the circe around the logo.

Ross recently organized a special night of wine, food and a play in New York City. The wine, of course, would be his (more about those later). The food would be served at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, a premium steak house with locations in a dozen or so cities across the US (including the one here in Chicago that I visit from time-to-time). After dinner, we would be off to see “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” starring Denée Benton as Natasha and Josh Grogan as Pierre. The play, currently in production at the Imperial Theater, is based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel War and Peace.

With the play starting at 8:00, dinner had to start early, so 27 of us met at the bar in the downstairs wine cellar at Del Frisco’s for a pre-dinner glass of wine or cocktail. Ross took the opportunity to give us all a rundown of the agenda for the night.

This may have been the first time I saw a bar strainer being used to “ring” a wine glass to get everyone’s attention, but, hey, whatever works!

Ross was pouring the 2015 “Little Sister” Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, California (on the left is this picture). 

I am a huge fan of Sauvignon Blanc in general, and Halleck produces a consistently excellent one year after year. The new 2015 bottling earned 98 points and the “Best in Category” designation at the California State Fair. As with many types of wine, the prototypical Sauvignon Blanc is from France, specifically from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé in the Loire Valley. Halleck’s style has the minerality, acid backbone and the citrus and herbal aromas of a good Sancerre with the added fruitiness that comes from ripe California grapes. Julia Child attributed her change from a person who loved to eat into someone with a passion for cooking outstanding food to her first meal in France: Sole Meunière (filet of sole with lemon and butter) and a bottle of Sancerre. I can’t say that a seafood dish and a bottle of Halleck Sauvignon Blanc will change your life, but it will be a darn good meal.

As we entered the wine cellar set for our dinner, shrimp cocktails and crab cakes were already on the table for us.

The trio of shrimp were dressed with a trio of sauces: classic cocktail sauce, a mustard sauce and an herb and garlic sauce. Call it a classic or call it a cliché, a shrimp cocktail is a fine way to start dinner in a steakhouse.

The crab cake was outstanding, made with huge lumps of blue point crab and served with a Cajun lobster sauce that was rich and just a bit spicy.

More of the Halleck Sauvignon Blanc was poured with these dishes and it was perfect with the shrimp. To my taste, the second white wine pictured above, the 2016 Saralee’s Vineyard Dry Gewürztraminer was the best match with the crab cake (all such opinions are highly personal; your taste may vary!). 

Gewürztraminer is not a well-known wine grape and relatively rare in California. It makes delicious wines in Germany and the Alsace region of France that vary from very dry to luscious, sweet dessert wines. The name means “spicy Traminer” because of the spicy notes in the wines aromas and flavors. The wines have an unmistakable nose that includes lychee nuts, roses, lemons, dried fruit, grapefruit and honeysuckle. All of these aromas are reflected in the flavors of the wine along with a slight bitter note. “Bitter” may sound bad, but it is an important part of what makes Gewürztraminer a unique, delicious and food friendly wine.”Gewürz” (as the cool kids call it) is a great match with many Asian foods, spicy foods, curries and the like, especially when it is just off-dry.

One of my all-time favorite food pairings involves Gewürztraminer. Back in the 80s, a winemaker named Richard Arrowood made sweet, late harvest Gewürztraminers at the Chateau St. Jean Winery in Sonoma. These wines were the perfect match for pumpkins pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The pumpkin pie spices and the spiciness of the wine played together beautifully.

As with the Little Sister Sauvignon Blanc, the style of Halleck’s Saralee Vineyard Dry Gewürztraminer is very consistent year to year. It is fermented dry (all of the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol), but the fruitiness and aromatic qualities of the grape make it seem a touch sweet. The complex aromas and flavors that characterize wines made from Gewürztraminer grapes are held up with a solid acid backbone and minerality. It’s the acidity that makes Gewürztraminer, like Riesling, a refreshing, food-friendly wine. 

By the way, when I said the tables were set for us in the wine cellar, I meant it quite literally.



We had several choices to make for the rest of the meal. The full menu looked like this:

I ordered another steakhouse classic, the Blue Cheese Lettuce Wedge, as my salad.

Now, I am the first to admit that this is not a “healthy” salad. A good one comes with a flavorful, thick, creamy blue cheese dressing (sometimes ranch), lots of blue cheese crumbles, and ripe tomatoes on a fresh wedge of iceberg lettuce (no fancy lettuce—gotta be iceberg). Topping it all should be a generous amount of crisp, smoky bacon. Like the shrimp cocktail, you can call it a classic or a cliché, but a good one is delicious. This one was delicious.

Valeria chose the classic Caesar Salad.

Legend has it that the Caesar Salad was invented by Caesar Cardini in his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. He is said to have tossed fresh, whole Romaine leaves (as served here—not the usual chopped lettuce) and croutons with a dressing made of, garlic, Parmesan cheese, coddled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. (The anchovies that are now a standard part of the dressing and sometimes placed on top of the salad are said to have been added by Caesar’s brother somewhat later.) As with any salad, the secret is a flavorful dressing and fresh greens. This was a good one.

Someone seated near me ordered Del’s Salad so I snapped a picture.

I didn’t actually taste this one, so I can’t say much about it, but anything topped with perfectly cooked bacon can’t be all bad!

The success of a steakhouse, however, comes down to one thing: meat. Yes, they can offer good, even great seafood and even vegetarian dishes, but if the steaks are not the star, why is it called a steakhouse?

I ordered my personal favorite cut, a Prime New York Strip.

I find that ordering a steak “medium rare” or whatever your preferred temperature is does not produce consistent results, so I specify “warm pink center” for my steak. That can be considered medium-rare to medium-well, depending on where you go and who you ask. In any case, this was perfectly cooked and well seasoned with salt and pepper, which is all a good steak needs (could have used a touch more seasoning for my taste, but it was good). This was unmistakably a prime piece of beef—well marbled and meltingly tender with a rich, full beef flavor. I had no trouble finishing all of it.

If Ross makes his white wines to go with seafood and Asian, curried and other spicy foods, the reds, all Pinot Noirs, are made to go with meat (if you can resist drinking them on their own). A total of 5 Pinots were poured for us. Confusingly, I managed to capture only 3 of the 5 in this picture of 4 bottles.


Pinot Noir is, of course, the great red wine grape of the Burgundy region in France. It has found a home in the cooler areas of Sonoma County, much like Cabernet Sauvignon found a home in the Napa Valley. The quality of California Pinot Noirs has been improving steadily for years now as more and more vines have been planted in more suitable locations and matured enough to produce really good wines. 

Depending on the year and the Hallecks’ evaluation of the availability and quality of fruit, they may bottle a half dozen or so different Pinot Noirs. I will avoid the temptation to do a deep, geeky dive into the nuances of each wine we tasted, but I will refer you to the winery’s web site for a detailed description of the current releases. I find their descriptions to be quite accurate.

Instead, let me just discuss the general style of Halleck Pinot Noirs, which is consistent across all the bottlings I have tried, though each vintage and vineyard has it’s own nuances. A great red Burgundy smells and tastes of various combinations of red and black fruits—cherries, black cherries, pomegranates, cranberries and so on. There is often an earthy or loamy component that is clear, along with some spicy and/or floral notes. There should also be a certain amount of minerality and a good acid structure to support it all and give the wine both freshness and ageability.

Halleck Pinots exhibit all of these characteristics in various combinations and to various degrees, along with the richness that comes from California fruit. I generally taste the Burgundian heritage of these wines clearly, even as the California fruit comes through. Some of my friends who have a passion for red Burgundy simply do not appreciate an excellent California Pinot Noir, while some of my California wine-loving friends have never developed a taste for Burgundy. I say, vive la difference! California Pinot Noir producers have clearly learned a lot from French wine producers and freely admit it. French wine makers have also learned a lot from California winemakers (though some are less likely to admit it). The result is better wines from both countries.

The Three Sons Cuvée is produced every year and is a blend of grapes from several vineyards. It is named after the three Halleck sons, Connor, Adam and Quinn, and the sales are used as a college fund for the boys. Typically the least expensive of their Pinots and easy to drink young, it nevertheless shows the distinct Halleck style.

The Hillside Cuvée is blended from several Sonoma Coast vineyards, which tend to be cooler and produce lighter, but complex wines. (You are not seeing double; I somehow put two bottles of the same Hillside wine in the picture.)

Clone 828 may sound like a character in a Star Wars movie, but it is not. There are several different clones of Pinot Noir grown in California, each designated by a number and sometimes a name. Winemakers and wine geeks can talk about them endlessly—which one to grow where, which to blend with another, the characteristics of each and on and on. 

The obvious question for most of us is “what is a Pinot Noir clone?” The best way to think about them that I have heard (if you are not in training as a Master of Wine) was told to me by Erica Trombetta, the winemaker and half of the mother-daughter teams that is the driving force behind another family owned, small winery in Sonoma County, Trombetta Family Wines. Like Halleck, they specialize in Pinot Noir and also make some Chardonnay, the classic red and white grapes of Burgundy. Erica compares Pinot Noir Clones to Labradors—the dogs. There are black, chocolate, and yellow Labs. Color aside, their sizes, shapes, personalities and general behavior are all very similar. Pinot Noir clones are like black, chocolate and yellow Labs—definitely the same breed, but with clear differences in aromas and flavors. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it give you the right idea. 

The Clone 828 come from Sebastopol, where the Halleck home is located. It has only been produced a few times, but I am hoping it is a regular in the lineup as it is a delicious wine. When a group of Inner Circle Wine Club Members went with Ross to Cuba, the Clone 828 was the star of the trip. 

The two Pinot Noirs I did not photograph were two vintages of The Farm Vineyard: 2007 and 2013. I have several Halleck Pinots going back to 2007, and they are still drinking beautifully. If they have lost any of their fresh fruitiness, it is more than made up for by the depth and complexity that has developed in both the flavors and the bouquet. This was evident in these two vintages poured side-by-side. The bright red of the 2013 had turned a bit garnet in the 2007 (the natural evolution of wine color in the bottle), but both wines were clear and clean. Similarly, the ripe, black cherry fruit of the 2013 was still there in the 2007, but more of the earthiness, spiciness and other subtle favors and aromas showed through in the older wine. 

I should point out that all of these are small production wines: less than 200 cases of most of them are produced each year and none reach the 300 case level. These small, family-owned Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma County are doing some wonderful things with the grape, but you have to look for them and get on their mailing lists.

OK, back to dinner! Valeria ordered the lamb chops.

She ordered, and received a warm pink center. The meat was nicely seasoned, very tender and the lamb jus on the side was delicious.

The usual steakhouse sides—mushrooms, spinach and potatoes—were served family style for us to share.

There were two choices for dessert: chocolate mousse and cheesecake with strawberries. We ordered one of each.

The mousse was light and chocolatey, but I would have like darker chocolate (another personal taste). The cheesecake was rich, creamy and relatively light, at least for a cheesecake. It was really good.

The challenge for all of us after tasting the wines and eating a steakhouse meal was to make it to the Imperial Theater. Luckily (or thanks to Ross’s planning) it was just a pleasant walk of a few blocks to the theater on a beautiful spring evening.

This production was set up so that some audience members were actually seated on the stage with the actors singing and dancing around them—and sometimes requiring audience participation either by an individual or by all of us clapping out a beat. Ross had arranged for us to be part of the on-stage audience. At one point, little plastic eggs were passed out. They were filled with sand (or something that made a noise) for us to shake and become part of the band. I was afraid I would fall asleep during the play after the big meal with wine, but there was no chance for that!

The stars of the show were Josh Grogan and Denée Benton as Pierre and Natasha. 

As the name of the play suggests, it is set in 1812. It is based, as I mentioned earlier, on a part of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, certainly one of the greatest Russian novels, or novels in any language, ever written. The play is an opera, with all of the dialog sung. You can read the story (if you haven’t already), but it involves lovers, infidelity, betrayal and deep friendships. The singing, costumes and set were all outstanding, so it was all a treat for me.

For Valeria, however, there were considerations that made it less enjoyable for her. She grew up in Russia and is not only intimately familiar with every aspect of the book and the history around it, she has seen a number of other plays and movies based on the novel. For her, there were a few too many clichés and much of the music played before the play and at intermission was from the wrong period. It was sort of like going to a production of Hair (set in the 60s) and hearing 80s music playing. She also found the portrayal of some of the characters to be quite inconsistent with the novel. She had high praise for the quality of the singing and acting however, especially for Josh Groban, whose voice and mannerisms, in her mind, captured Pierre perfectly.

Ross Halleck had worked with Josh Groban sometime previously, probably on some charity event, and he arranged for us to meet the star after the performance.

Of course I don’t really know him, but Josh Groban is either one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, or he is the best actor you will ever meet because he sure seemed genuine and friendly. He had been up since 4:30 am to make an appearance on the Today Show and had just finished over 2 hours of singing, dancing and playing multiple instruments in heavy costumes, but he came out smiling, relaxed and quite ready to spend 15 or 20 minutes with us, graciously signing autographs, answering questions, and posing for pictures.

So that was our Dinner and a Play with Halleck Vineyards in New YorkCity. Everything about it was memorable, and I certainly look forward to the next time I meet with Ross and my friends in the Inner Circle. I don’t know where or when that will be, but I do know there will be plenty of wine, food and friendship!

Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, New York City
Address: 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Phone: (212) 575-5129
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Price Range: $50+
Hours: Lunch: Monday – Friday: 11:30am – 4:00pm
            Dinner: Monday – Saturday: 5:00pm – 12:00am 
                        Sunday: 5:00pm – 10:00pm
Credit Cards: AMEX, Diner’s Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

Time Posted: May 7, 2017 at 10:52 AM
Ross Halleck
January 5, 2017 | Ross Halleck

State of the Union: 2017

When one sets sight on “Building Community Through Wine”, it suggests union. This isn’t about one, nor individuals, but a group with a common thread. It’s what inspires me about Halleck Vineyard: it combines family, agriculture, manufacturing, creativity, and communication to actualize something bigger than the sum of the parts. It creates community. Owning a winery from-earth-to-glass is true synergy.

So please forgive any pretention in offering a State of the Union for Halleck Vineyard. If you’re reading this, you’re a part; I hope you find my musings relevant, informative and at best, inspiring for a new year, 2017. Thank you.

2016 was one for the record books. Halleck Vineyard, for the first time in over a decade, entered wine competitions. This was a strong recommendation from our Board that we took to heart. Between the end of 2015 to the end of 2016, Halleck Vineyard won 24 awards in 7 of the most respected national and international competitions in the world. These included The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition, the Pinot Noir Summit, the New York International Wine Competition, the Six Nation Challenge, the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and California’s 50 Best.

Why we chose not to compete for many years hails from our upbringing. We were taught and groomed by one of the most talented winemakers in the world, Greg Lafollette. For those who don’t know, Greg achieved meteoric success with the catapult of “Flowers”, a winery he built for the Flowers family. Now owned by Constellation Brands, Greg oversaw the construction of the winemaking facility, managed the vineyards, and made the wine to national acclaim. It was one of the first “cult wines” of the Sonoma Coast. Our present winemaker, Rick Davis, worked under Greg for years.

Greg had a “thing” about competing for scores. He believed, like we do, that reducing a wine to a number misses the point. Wine is not a one-dimensional experience, so it’s irrelevant to grade based on its flavor at any point in time. The EXPERIENCE OF ENJOYING wine includes the setting (internal and external), with whom you’re sharing, the food accompanying, the temperature, the stemware, the vintage, the varietal, the moment, and an infinite number of other contributors. To include hundreds of wines, even thousands, in competition, more factors suggest the randomness of the results: who is tasting, what they had before, after, and in what order, temperature of each wine, how the wine was transported, distance transported, how long it had been in transit prior to tasting, how long it had been opened when tasted, ad infinitum. Attempts are made in the best competitions to manage these variables, but most are cosmetic, because the true number of variables is incalculable.

To exacerbate, the internet has eclipsed the rags/mags of last century. The numbers don’t go away! So a winery is marked by a number forever, however insubstantial. You can open a stunning 2005 Halleck Vineyard Pinot Noir today and check online to find a review written in 2007. Is that review relevant to the bottle you’re about to drink? Only by comparison to the current moment. If you use that review to purchase the wine in 2017, it’s entirely irrelevant, giving no indication of the experience you might have or the quality of the wine.

But in our culture, numbers have not only become a shortcut to knowledge, they’ve achieved true status on their own. The system is fickle and has become pay-to-play in the larger publications. Truth be told: the wineries who buy advertising get scores bumped. Since we’re a young aspiring brand, we didn't have the luxury to bark at the moon. We needed to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.  On strong recommendations, we started paying the entry fees and sending wine around the world. Fortunately for us, it bore rewarding fruit. That doesn't mean I’m converted, just successful this year. And grateful.

We also grew the number of restaurant partners, thanks to the hard work of our son, Adam. At 21, he had just come off a year working at one of the best restaurants in Sebastopol. He loved the culture, but was challenged by the demanding hours and little opportunity. So he decided to work for the family business and sell to restaurants, the people to whom he felt affinity. And it was great for us. In our first months of training and working together, I could see how easily the young wine buyers related to Adam. The somms could talk to him because he came from a wine family and was closer in age than his dad.  Adam almost tripled the number of restaurant accounts we serve in the Bay Area and New York City. He took his first trip alone to New York and made bank!

We also filled our Inner Circle this year. We capped at the people we can serve with the wines we produce. This gives us an audience large enough to produce several wines in small lots specifically for the Club.  It’s been so validating growing our list of people interested in joining our Inner Circle. This is the Holy Grail of an artisan wine like Halleck Vineyard; We have a waitlist.

Our vintner events were memorable. Dinner at Gramercy Tavern with Michael Anthony topped the charts. This was our 8th, so the relationship has become family-like. I’ve worked with all the servers and Michael joined us for cocktails in the middle of service. Then, before dessert, he escorted the whole group through the kitchen to meet the team and witness the magic taking place.

The night following at Eleven Madison Park was also stunning. It was a wonderful group that magically congealed and carried on until 3 am, going from dive-bar to dive-bar. A great punctuation to an elegant dinner in the Big Apple.

We will focus attention this year on San Francisco, as we’ve some amazing restaurant partners and a wonderful Halleck Vineyard community in the Bay Area. But two trips to NY are already on the calendar for 2017 in the Spring and Fall

What I’m about to reveal is not generally shared. But Halleck Vineyard is more than a business and you more than a customer. We are community. In Yiddish, we’re mishpucheh (mish-pukch’-ah). In 2016, we “hit our numbers”. We achieved our sales goals, set three years ago. It was challenging and our future is dependent on it.  And it is because of you. We actually met our goal on December 31. Not a moment to lose. All I can say is “Thank YOU!”

So what does this mean for our future?

There are three legs to the stool we call “Building Community”.  The first leg is making the wines we all love to mark special occasions in our lives. In fact, opening a Halleck Vineyard wine makes any occasion special. This is by intention and we are grateful to be given license by you to continue. We welcome you to our home to stay connected. A part of that first leg is sharing our home and family with you.

The second leg represents shared experiences. We plan trips around the country, the world and to your town. We enjoy food, wine, and camaraderie, hosted by some of the finest chefs in the world. Some are right in your own kitchen;) Or favorite club, restaurant, or backyard. Among many, these have included Gramercy Tavern, Per se, Eleven Madison Park, the Grand Central Oyster Bar, and the Union League Club in NY. In the Southeast, we’ve enjoyed the hospitality of Restaurant Eugene, the St Regis, Aria, and Bacchanalia. In the west, we’ve been honored at the Olympic Club, the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park, Michael Mina, Boulevard, Bix, Restaurant Picco, the Buckeye Roadhouse, RN 74, Nick’s Cove, and the field box at AT&T Park to see the Giants! We’ve also taken trips to Honduras, Kenya, Italy and Cuba, where we’ve enjoyed our wines with the cuisines of many local chefs and tribes.

2017 is more. We have two trips planned to NYC. One at the end of April through the first week of May. The second is the week surrounding September 13. We have many special experiences only NY and Halleck Vineyard can offer.

We’ve a cruise planned in mid-March with the band, “America”, in the Caribbean. If you enjoyed the music of the 70s, this should be fun. And a special trip is in the works to a private island in the Bahamas, also sometime in the spring. We hope to go back to Yosemite in the fall. Due to conflicting schedules, Guatemala was postponed. We will revisit this later in the year.

The final leg to our stool of Building Community lies in philanthropy. We believe it important to support not just ourselves, but those in need. So we offer to those causes closest to your heart. As part of our Inner Circle, if there’s a charity that is deserving of your time and effort, we lend a hand. We create auction lots with some of our esteemed restaurant partners or those in your community. We offer our wine, our time, our community and our ideas. In the last few years, we’ve raised almost $500K. This is how a community can stand.

To conclude, the underlying theme to 2016 has been gratitude. This wonderful area in which we live, Sonoma County and Sebastopol, have awarded us with an extraordinary environment to grow: our community, our family, ourselves, and our grapes. It has placed us smack-dab in the center of a vortex of talent and generosity, all of which contribute to our efforts. We are buoyed by the people supporting us; that means you.

So the state of our union is healthy and thriving. Thank you for being a part.

Time Posted: Jan 5, 2017 at 11:08 AM
Ross Halleck
June 6, 2016 | Ross Halleck

Best of Class: Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits

For 77 years, the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition has showcased the finest domestic and international vintages through a wine-tasting event that is widely considered to be one of the most prestigious in the United States. 

An esteemed panel of judges use a blind-tasting method, maintaining the highest standards of integrity and professionalism that has remained the competition’s foundation for 77 years. 

Results are as follows:

2013 Halleck Vineyard Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD AND BEST IN CLASS in Pinot Noir above $30. 92 Pts

2014 Halleck Vineyard Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: GOLD AND BEST IN CLASS in Gewurztraminer. 91 Pts

2014 Halleck Vineyard Little Sister, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: GOLD, in Sauvignon Blanc above $!5. 91 Pts

2013 Halleck Vineyard Hillside Cuvee, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: Silver, in Pinot Noir

2010 Halleck Vineyard The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir: Silver, in Pinot Noir

Add this to our previous list.

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition of over 7300 wines:

We entered five wines, all won medals: Two Gold, Two Silver, One Bronze.

1. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Little Sister, Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: GOLD

2. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD

3. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: SILVER

4. 2010 Halleck Vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: SILVER

5. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Hillside Cuvee, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: BRONZE

In Australia's Six Nation Challenge, we entered one wine

6. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: GOLD

These wines won in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, of over 1250 wines:

7. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD

8. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: GOLD

9. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Little Sister, Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: GOLD

These wines won four Gold Medals in the prestigious Pinot Noir Summit and California's 50 Best (one Gold each, in each competion):

10/11. 2010 Halleck Vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD

12/13. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Clone 828, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: GOLD

Time Posted: Jun 6, 2016 at 3:55 PM
Ross Halleck
May 8, 2016 | Ross Halleck

Vintage 2015: Making Wine!

As a vintner, I share a profession with practitioners of varied backgrounds; there is a broad swath of activities that the title, "vintner", covers. Rarely does one person do them all. These include:

  • Viticulture (farming of the grapes and collaborating with other viticulturists)
  • Monitoring the maturity of grapes to ensure their quality and to determine the correct time for harvest
  • Crushing and pressing grapes
  • Monitoring the settling of juice and the fermentation of grape material
  • Filtering the wine to remove remaining solids
  • Testing the quality of wine by tasting
  • Blending the wines from different lots to determine final bottling.
  • Placing filtered wine in barrels or tanks for maturation
  • Preparing plans for bottling wine once it has matured
  • Selecting, purchasing, designing and producing all the components of bottling (glass, labels, capsules, corks, shippers)
  • Making sure that quality is maintained when the wine is bottled.

There are many things not included, but fall into my job description. These ALL have to do with the "business" of winemaking. I'm more involved in some aspects than others, but I touch them all. This is also true of Rick Davis, our winemaker. And of Jennifer Halleck, my business partner and ex-wife.

We operate in close communication and collaboration throughout the year. Much we can do by phone and email, each of us acting independently to get the necessary parts done.

But at this time of year, we circle the wagons. This is my favorite!  It's in the spring that all the vineyards picked from the previous vintage have become wine-in-barrel. They've been contained for 6-8 months. Each is expressing characteristics of vineyard, vintage, and cask. 

This year, we had only 16 full barrels of wine to work with. This is in contrast to 50 last year! 2015 was a lean vintage. We also discovered a slight spreadsheet error late last year that alerted us we were making too much wine for our budget or for our sales. The Gods shined on us with a small crop this year.  

Bung holeA barrel holds about 60 gallons, give or take. This represents approximately 25 cases. The wine from each vineyard has been contained in a unique collection of French casks, representing different coopers (barrel makers), forest sources, toasting regimens (fire applied inside the finished barrel during manufacture), and age. It’s truly amazing how impactful a barrel is to the flavor of the wine. And even more amazing how many barrel variables impact the wine, even down to individual barrel makers, everything else being equal.

It’s is our work to make sense of this amalgam of liquid and determine all the wines made. We decide which wines will be vineyard designated (wines from a single vineyard), blends, the names, and the composition of each. 

One would think it easy to take a single vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, let's say, and call it a wine, combining the barrels together. But this isn’t how to make the very best wine from that vineyard. As I mentioned, each barrel imparts unique flavor components. So it’s our job to taste each of the barrels, say eight in this case, and see which combination make a wine that expresses itself the best. And we don’t need to use full barrels. We can employ partials. Oh, and we have the liberty, per law, to use as much as 5% from other vineyard sources, just in case we can elevate that wine with the infusion of more magical elixir. Underlying our creativity, we’re thinking about how much wine we can sell and the price. 

Vineyard designated wines, by appearance, are the most straight forward. For the blended wines, we have more latitude, choices and complexity. Laws dictate how much wine from specific sources are required to achieve the AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation of Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast or Napa Valley. 

This year, we again had Pat Kuleto's vineyard from Napa. This gave us more juice from a place far from our home turf. Last year’s vintage required care as the barrels combined didn’t add up to a complete wine; we had to bring in surgically precise amounts of our Russian River fruit to elevate that vineyard. The results of the 2014 are stunning! But this year, 2015, the fruit was stunning and yielded a vineyard designate we didn’t anticipate. You will LOVE it!

We ended up with six wines for 2015 as a result of approximately four hours of work. This is how we did it.

Prior to the work-day, Jennifer and I review the previous year of sales, our wine club memberships, and the growth year-over-year. We then look at the vineyards and our wines by SKU (shelf keeping unit or the names of the wine, i.e. Three Sons Cuvee, Clone 828, Estate Grown, etc.). We project what we can sell by channel and SKU: through tastings, wine club memberships, internet sales, and restaurant sales. To a great extent, this is divination. Every business has to do it. They are called "projections" and it’s always surprising how close one can come just by setting the intention. In this case, we are projecting five years out, as our wines for any given year generally do not hit the market for two years, sometimes more. 

We provide case quantities to Rick for the current vintage. He must apply the wine in barrel, in gallons, to a rough mix that aligns with our projected sales/desires. Since 2001, when we started working with Rick, he understands what we’re looking for from the wine in the barrels. We often bring in new vineyards and are always looking. But we have maintained the cornerstones of The Estate, The Farm Vineyard and a few others for many years. Rick makes calculations and proposes blends on paper.

Day 1

On the first day, Rick collects individual samples from all of our single vineyards into small crew cap laboratory bottles. Every bottle has a portion of each vineyard wine collected from all barrels. This gives us a fair and representative sample of our vineyards. We have only 5 vineyards for 2015, vs. 8 last year. These samples await in a conference room at the winery. We also bring in a dozen wine glasses, graduated cylinders, a long pipette, masking tape, flasks, pens and notepads. 

First, we taste through the vineyard samples and comment. We do not swallow a drop. We have flasks for spitting and it isn't pretty. We take personal notes. A casual conversation ensues full of chuckles, side comments, critique, aha's, and general observations. We’re formulating opinions about the vintage and vineyards. There are generalizations across the board, indicating vintage character. Then specifics to the vineyards are noted from the past. 

Once we have a sense of the component wines, Rick presents his suggestions from the Rubik's Cube of possibilities for the percentages to make up our desired finished wines. These are on paper. After discussion, we construct them, using the graduated cylinder for measuring into wine glasses. 

We taste through these: casual comments, critiques, observations. We all have opinions and they often don’t agree. So we try variations. The pipette is used, as small amounts can make HUGE differences in flavor. These small amounts translate into big gallons at scale. The conference room is our lab for concocting the perfect blends. 

This goes on until we’ve all agreed with the flavors in the glasses, their names, the amounts of each from our vineyard sources, and the proper percentages for AVAs and vineyard designations. When it's over, however, we still have another day of tasting work.

There are successes and disappointments in this process. One wonderful surprise is the Kuleto Vineyard. In 2014, it needed a boost. So we determined to make it a blend, bringing in wines from Russian River and Sonoma Coast to elevate. This year, 2015, the Kuleto is outstanding on its own. We’re excited to introduce this wine to our Inner Circle members as a vineyard designate.

Our flagship wine, the Estate Grown, however, suffered in 2015. As much as we want to make a vintage every year, we had to be honest with ourselves. The quality of the fruit did not warrant a vintage. So this wine will be blended into our Hillside, which will give it a big boost.

Day 2

After a week, we convene again on the winery floor. All 16 barrels are laid out in two long rows, side to side and end to end, with space to walk on either side. The barrels are all labeled: HL (for Halleck), cooper (barrel maker), toast level, forest source (in some cases), age of barrel, and vineyard. They are grouped into general clusters by vineyard for ease.

On a clipboard are the results of tasting the previous week. The wine in the barrels (by vineyard) is divided amongst the individual wines to be bottled. We use the barrels to create new samples in glasses. Every vineyard is in a complement of oak barrels by age: new, 1 year old, 2 year old, neutral. They also are made by different coopers, or barrel makers. These each impart different flavors to the very same wine. 

We start by vineyard. We pull the bung, or plug, from the top of the barrel. Using a wine thief, we draw wine from a single barrel into a glass. We smell it, take notes, and pour it back. We do this through the entire selection of barrels for that vineyard. This gives us an idea of the character of each barrel. Then we discuss the barrels. If we are blending for The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir, for example, we start with the best barrels for that particular wine. They are ALL good, mind you. But some sing and some SCREAM!!! This is an AWESOME job :-) We eliminate the singing barrels, but also look for individual character that may not be screaming on its own, but we sense will add something special to the overall blend. Then we taste and spit through our top selections. 

When we have a sense of the vineyard and our top selections, we look at our proposed formula. The Farm Vineyard blend may include a skosh of the Estate, or a dash of the Hass, or a dribble of the Marshall Vineyards. To be a vineyard designate, it cannot contain more than 5% of anything else. And that "anything else" has to be the same AVA. 

We go through each wine by vineyard and smell through, taking notes. By elimination, we choose the best. We may only need a few gallons. We taste. We very pull from each barrel using a wine thief the rough percentages to create the final blend into a glass. This is alchemy. 

We have a VERY different wine than we tasted in the conference room the week prior. The conference room was the starting point. Our second day revealed specific barrels, each with their own character. The flavors are amazing and we keep going, trying different barrels with the formulas to detect nuance. 

We worked another two hours on the barrel floor. After determining the specific barrels and vineyards for each of our vineyard designated wines, we’re left a mix of everything else. This goes into one of our blends, depending on the sources of the fruit: Russian River Valley fruit goes into our Three Sons Cuvee and Sonoma Coast fruit goes into our Hillside Cuvee. We taste through the results and we can move wines back and forth to achieve greatness in both. 

This is not science. Science contributes an important lens to monitor and guide some decisions: brix (sugar), acidity (pH), volatile acidity (VA), tannins, alcohol level, protein precipitation, bitartrate precipitation, malolactic fermentation, press cuts and many more.

But winemaking is a greater part art and mysticism. Magic is what happens. 



Time Posted: May 8, 2016 at 5:59 PM
Ross Halleck
March 30, 2016 | Ross Halleck

Cooking With Mike at the Gramercy Tavern

When I'm in New York, I have to pinch myself to see if I'm not dreaming. There is no city in the world that I find as hospitable, culturally rich, exciting, fun, or has as good of dining.

We've been privileged to be served by Thomas Keller at Per se with 24 members of our Inner Circle. And equally fortunate to dine at my favorite Jewish haunt, 2nd Avenue Deli. And everything in between. Whether it's Keens, Grand Central Oyster Bar, Del Friscos, Blue Hill, The Union League Club, Eleven Madison Park, The Norwood, The Tennis and Racquet Club, The Penn Club, Estiatorio Milos, The Trustees Dining Room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or any spot we stumble into at Eataly, there is nothing like the quality of food, service and ambiance of NYC.

With all these to choose from, time and time again we plan our trip around Gramercy Tavern and the extraordinary gifts of Mike Anthony, the Executive Chef.

Mike grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated from Indiana University with degrees in Business, French, and Japanese. We both hale from the Midwest.  He embarked on his culinary career in Tokyo, Japan, falling in love with the simple, seasonal Japanese approach to food. 

Mike moved to France in 1992, working in several renowned kitchens.  He returned to the United States five years later, working first at Restaurant Daniel and then as the Chef de Cuisine at March Restaurant.  Subsequently, Mike joined the team of Blue Hill as co-Chef Blue Hill NY in Manhattan and later as the Executive Chef at Blue Hill Stone Barns.

In 2006 Mike took the position of Executive Chef at Gramercy Tavern. In this role he leads the restaurant into its next chapter while staying true to its original vision: to honor the rich tradition of American cooking and bring guests together in a convivial spirit of community to enjoy exceptional, seasonal food. 

Passionate about using ingredients that can be traced to their sources, Mike forges strong ties between the restaurant and local farmers, very much like we do in California with our food and grape growers. He and his staff visit local farms.  Mike also invites outstanding local producers to Gramercy Taver.  The menus highlight these relationships and Mike’s farm-fresh, thoughtful cuisine.

Mike was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs” and was also lauded in Bon Appetit’s “Next Generation”.  Under Mike’s leadership, Blue Hill at Stone Barns received a three-star review in The New York Times, as well as a James Beard Foundation nomination for “Best New Restaurant” in 2005.  The New York Times awarded Gramercy Tavern its second three-star review, and Time Out New York declared Mike “Best New Chef” in New York City.  In 2008, Gramercy Tavern earned the James Beard Award for “Outstanding Restaurant.”  In 2011, he was named Chef-Partner of Gramercy Tavern. In 2012, Michael won the James Beard Award for “Best Chef in New York City” and in 2015, won the James Beard Award for “Outstanding Chef in America.” Mike is also the author of The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook  and V is for Vegetables.

I enjoyed the Arctic Char on my visit to Gramercy Tavern with my son, Connor, when he entered NYU. We paired it with our Three Sons Cuvee and it blew my socks off. I think it would go also particularly well with our Sonoma Coast Pinots due to their brightness and minerality. 

Arctic Char with New Potatoes, Apples and Endive

Serve with Three Sons, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Yields: 4 portions

4 four ounce portions artic char, skin on

4 small white new potatoes

4 small purple Peruvian potatoes

1 honeycrisp apple, ½ small diced, ½ julienne

½ cup celery, small dice

1 Tbsp pickled mustard seed (recipe to follow)

1 head endive, julienne

½ bunch chives, minced

Olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice, to taste

For the potato salad:

1.    Boil white and purple potatoes in salted water until tender. 
2.    Peel the potatoes and cut into a medium dice.
3.    Mix the potatoes with diced apple, celery, pickled mustard seeds, olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.

For the artic char:

1.    Season artic char filets with salt, pepper, and a light layer of olive oil. Place filets skin side down on a hot grill. Cook for 4 minutes on each size for medium rare.

To serve:

1.    In a bowl, mix the endive with minced chives and julienne apple. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
2.    On each plate, place artic char on top of room temperature potato salad. Top artic char filets with endive salad.

For the pickled mustard seed:
Yields 1 C

1 cup rice wine vinegar                

1 cup sugar                        

1 cup water    

1 tsp salt                    

1 cup mustard seeds    

1.    Bring all ingredients to a simmer. Simmer for five minutes. Let cool at room temperature.    


Time Posted: Mar 30, 2016 at 10:08 PM
Ross Halleck
March 14, 2016 | Ross Halleck

Caring for an Adult

It feels like yesterday when we planted Halleck Vineyard. Jennifer was combing the Yellow Pages looking for rootstock, stumbling across a single-line listing for “John Caldwell” under “Nurseries”. This was amongst ads hawking all manner of services and products. Previous calls came up empty. There was a dearth of Pinot Noir rootstock available in 1991-92.

John answered the phone and spoke to Jennifer about our location and specific site. He was an enthusiast and guided us to some new Pinot Noir clones from Dijon, France: 777, 667 and 115. We’d never heard of them. But we hadn’t heard of anything. This was our first foray into agriculture.

There’s a book on our coffee table written by Judy Reynolds called “Once Upon a Vine: Stories of California’s Artisan Wineries”. It describes us as “Pioneers”. This suggests foresight. In truth, we embarked on this expedition blind, simply pursuing a passion for Pinot and a relatively inexpensive way to landscape our newly acquired property. 

As they say, “the rest is history”. We met Greg Lafollette through our son’s school. He offered to purchase our fruit. We won the prestigious Pinot Noir Summit in 2002 as Judges Choice, establishing Halleck Vineyard as the #1 Pinot noir in the US. It was the first wine produced from this spot. Our area has filled with viticulture, providing ample selection to complement our small Estate Grown Pinot Noir and build a cult following.

23 years have passed. Our vineyard has continued to mature, flourish, and display a growing complexity. The depth of fruit is nowhere more apparent than in our most recent 2012 vintage. This will be sold out this month. But last year we tasted all vintages since 2001 of our Estate Grown and all were stellar. The 2001 still demonstrates its wondrous heritage. Read the tasting notes of our library wines.

As we move into our 18th vintage, the vineyard is an adult. This suggests shifts in care.

Cordon PruningWe recently pruned, taking note of the vigor of each plant. We’re striving for quadrilateral pruning. As a Cane-Pruned vineyard, we can manage the fruit production of each vine more directly than with a Cordon-Pruned vineyard (see photo to right). We cut the canes back right to the trunk, giving our property a denuded appearance.  Each vine “whispers” what it wants (see below): 

• A vigorous vine declares, “four canes” (quadrilateral)

• Another states, “three canes” (trilateral)

• And a third requests, “two canes, please” (bilateral)

These are judgement calls and overall vineyard production and quality are impacted.

In response, we’re adding a new system to deliver nutrients through irrigation to the vineyard . It will include a tank for introducing the organic supplements and a pump for distribution. 

To determine the exact additives, in a few weeks, we’ll take soil samples from different depths to provide insight into condition and content. Further, we’ll cut early leaves for a petiole analysis, giving us a view to the health and well being of the plants. From these perspectives, laboratory results will inform us what we can feed our family. We strive to meet their craving and maintain the quality and lusciousness of our Halleck Vineyard Estate Grown, Sonoma Coast, Pinot Noir that we all love.

Time Posted: Mar 14, 2016 at 11:19 AM
Ross Halleck
March 10, 2016 | Ross Halleck

Curried Quinoa and Salmon: Austin Perkins from Nick's Cove

We are privileged to partner with the finest chefs in the world. Thomas Keller of Per Se and The French Laundry, Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Cat Kora, and Michael Psilakis, to name a few. 

We're featuring dishes from many of our friends on a monthly basis with recipes and stories, like Austin Perkins from Nick's Cove, my local favorite. 

He grew up in our neighborhood enjoying the coast, its natural beauty and abundant farm produce. Austin likes to keep it simple and let the natural flavor of each ingredient do the talking.

He began at Nick's Cove Oyster Bar and Cottages in 2008 and he contributed to some our first vintner dinners. He took the helm at Nick's Cove in 2011 as Executive Chef, creating the finest seasonal, sustainable California cuisine from the area's abundant farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties, including fresh seafood and oysters from Tomales Bay.

Austin has built relationships with local farmers, like ourselves, sourcing ingredients for the menu. Dishes change seasonally as he creates special experiences and events to highlight the bounty of the area.

The dish we've come to love, the Curried Quinoa with Fresh Salmon and Aioli, he developed to pair with our Dry Gewurztraminer in his early days at Nick's. We use it to highlight the spicy and complementary fruity notes of this amazing wine.

Curried Quinoa with Fresh Salmon and Aioli


Flank of salmon (think 8 slices, 1 inch wide to lay on top of quinoa in large martini glasses)
1 Cup Quinoa
1/2 tsp. Salt
4 shallots
small bunch green onions
small bunch of cilantro
cinnamon stick
1 med. jalepeno
Trader Joes curry powder (or create with equal parts Cumin, Corriander, Cardomom, Cumin and double Tumeric, with cayenne to taste)
Curry aioli (good mayo)



Place salmon on small baking sheet covered in ample aluminum foil coated lightly with olive oil.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven and wrap in excess aluminum foil to finish cooking as it cools to warm or room temperature. Delicately flip salmon and remove the skin. Slice to desired size.


Cook as rice (1 1/2 cups water: 1 cup quinoa); boil water with salt, 2 tsp. of curry powder, and a cinnamon stick.  Add quinoa, simmer covered for about 15 mins.  Cool, drizzle with a little olive oil. Add more curry and salt to taste. Can take a good strong curry flavor.
Sauté chopped shallots and chopped jalepeno, add a little white wine when browning starts.  
Fold this into the quinoa
Chop up fresh cilantro and green onions (about 1/3-1/2 cup each) 
Fold this into the quinoa 
Salt to taste


Select organic mayo made from olive oil. Just mix in curry powder to a strong flavor and deep mustard color. Add pinches of cayenne to taste.


Place Quinoa in martini glass. Lay slice of salmon on top. Dollop aioli on top of the salmon.

PERFECT Pairing!

2016 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Dry Gewurztraminer

Time Posted: Mar 10, 2016 at 12:09 PM
Ross Halleck
January 22, 2016 | Ross Halleck

13 Awards!!

The Largest Competition of American Wines in the World names the Best of the Best: With 7,164 entries from 28 states across the country, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition once again successfully narrowed thousands of wines down to an exclusive few. This is the highest number of wine entries ever entered, shattering 2015's previous record of 6,417 entries.

Submissions poured in from across the nation, from independent winemakers and boutique wineries to large scale producers.

The winners of the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition were announced last week. For four days, 65 judges from around the nation and world met in Sonoma County to deliberate and choose the best wines from the entries. The wines were judged by an independent panel of experts and presented by the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGATE. 

We entered five wines, all won medals: Two Gold, Two Silver, One Bronze.

1. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Little Sister, Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: GOLD

2. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD

3. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: SILVER

4. 2010 Halleck Vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: SILVER

5. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Hillside Cuvee, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: BRONZE


In Australia's Six Nation Challenge, we entered one wine

6. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: GOLD

These wines won in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, of over 1250 wines:

7. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD

8. 2014 Halleck Vineyard, Saralee's Vineyard, Russian River Valley Dry Gewurztraminer: GOLD

9. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Little Sister, Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: GOLD

These wines won four Gold Medals in the prestigious Pinot Noir Summit and California's 50 Best (one Gold each, in each competion):

10/11. 2010 Halleck Vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: GOLD

12/13. 2013 Halleck Vineyard, Clone 828, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: GOLD

So this makes it a sweep this year. ALL OUR WINES WON. 

Time Posted: Jan 22, 2016 at 1:58 PM
Ross Halleck
January 15, 2016 | Ross Halleck

Going Organic

Halleck Vineyard has been farmed organically for well over a decade. We are not certified, but we are wholly and intentionally organic. This means that all our farming practices, amendments and pest control is both sustainable and everything we use comes from the earth with no synthetic chemicals.

Certification requires thousands of dollars in paperwork and fees, but does not yield a different result. Given the one acre size of our vineyard and the intimate relationship we have with every purchaser of our wine, we determined this money better spent on things other than government, lawyers, and administrators. We chose expenses that contribute to the quality of the wine.

Farming organically costs a bit more money than "conventional" farming because naturally sourced material does not hang around as long. So it must be administered a bit more often. It's also slightly more expensive. We are investing in a new in-line fertilization system to reduce labor and enhance control over the delivery of nutrients. Further, we are embarking on a revitalization of Halleck Vineyard, now 22 years old, moving emitters, diagnosing the health of every vine, and taking steps to bring each to its fullest potential.

Going organic was a decision Jennifer and I made early, prior to its recent uptick. We were growing our sons on this property, as well as grapes. Keeping them safe and healthy was the highest priority. When we began, the "word on the street" was that organic wine was not as good as conventional wine.

Fortunately, this has been proven dead wrong.

We are determined to move this needle further, so we decided to ask Ben and George, owners of The Farm Vineyards, to follow suit. We are the only winery to have made wine from this pristine site. The decision to go organic required a lot discussion.

Ben and George live on the vineyard with their dogs, llamas, and bees.  When I approached them about organic farming, they listened intently to my romantic notions of the importance of organic farming for the land and community.

They responded with their hard truth: while they understood, they weren't convinced the hard costs outweighed the benefits. In their own research, they visited a local wine store and called friends who control some of the largest brands in the world. All reported that "organic" is not important: not worth the time, or the money.  My experience told me otherwise.  After much conversation, we came to an agreement.  The Farm Vineyards will be using organic farming starting this spring!

We are in for the long haul. On the front lines, as we are, people are purchasing our wine at the vineyard. Almost everyone asks if we are organic. I want to answer yes, but can only do so partially. It's not the same as a retail environment where that question is not obvious nor the vintners within reach. Halleck Vineyard is also at a much smaller scale than agri-business; large enterprises turn like a cruise ship rather than a speedboat. We are a boutique winery, working with mostly boutique vineyards.

We are hoping to influence our community to going wholly organic across all our wines. We are asking all our source vineyards. We are often very small purchasers of their crop. But the more who ask, the faster it will change.

Time Posted: Jan 15, 2016 at 4:41 PM
Ross Halleck
November 15, 2015 | Ross Halleck

Cuba: Epic!

A journey is difficult to characterize in words. They are insufficient in conveying one's feeling as events unfold, scenes change, landscapes transport, people are encountered, generosity witnessed, and experiences shared. 

offer my impressions of Cuba, now almost 60 years through a blockade that's created deprivation and suffering. One would think the Cubans might hold resentment and hostility to Americans for a random act of political violence intended to bring Castro to his knees. It didn't work. Instead, it strengthened the resolve of these highly educated and resilient people. The Cubans have neither succumbed to hate. They are loving and festive. We were treated to gracious hospitality, rich culture and a privileged view, though clearly from the outside. There were limitations and advantages.

A baker's dozen of us dropped in just prior to the gates opening for general tourism from the United States, its closest and most affluent neighbor. The jury remains out as to when unstructured tourism will be permitted. Though the American Embassy stands tall on the Malecon, a sea wall of miles along which people congregate, stroll and sit, the embargo is still in place. It's clear at every turn.

We met in Miami, thankfully all on time and in good spirit.  Jay Holland and I took 6 months of planning, design and manufacture of a custom rolling Halleck Vineyard travel bag which holds a 6 bottle wine carrier. I'd arranged for the custom cases and 52 bottles (we were restricted to 4 per person) to arrive the day before, giving me time to pack "goodie bags" for all guests; each bag with loving contents poised for check in. The bags were completed only days before our trip.   It was a fun group! Bob, Carol, Ken, Kerri, John, Tara, Arnon, Carolann, Carolyn, Howard, Dave and Valeria gelled into instant friendship. 

At 4:45 the following morning, we headed to the airport from our hotel. We noticed on the flight schedule that planes were leaving for Cuba every 15 minutes throughout the day!

Except for 13 people attempting coordination for the first time, the 40 minute flight went seamlessly, as did our entry into the country. Our bags were never inspected. We could have brought more wine. We lost 3 bottles to breakage. Not bad, in total, for wine. But some adjustments to the bags will be made.

We were met by Mariana, 24, working as a tour guide in social service to the state. She is not paid and is indebted to the state for 2 years in compensation for her free education. She spoke wonderful English, had a rapier wit and was an excellent representative of Cuban education and culture. We were her second group. 

Our bus was a crisp, modern 20 passenger Chinese coach, air conditioned, with big windows, reclining seats, a sound system and plenty of chilled water bottles. Ably driven by Gerardo, we made a couple of stops: a sweltering tour of the bullet-holed Museum of the Revolucion; then a delicious Cuban lunch at El Aljibe, which boasted an impressive wine cellar. Afterwhich, we headed to our hotel.

We were concerned about our accommodations, as Cuba is "as advertised": falling apart. It was shocking to witness the ravages of time on a clearly once-thriving metropolis. It was dystopian, as if post-apocalypse. The most beautiful of buildings looked bombed-out, abandoned and crumbling. We were hoping to find an oasis in this "city-of-deferred-maintenance" to call home for a week.

It was a relief to pull up to the Melia Cohiba. It's an urban resort overlooking the sea, surrounded by squalor. It boasts several music venues, bars, restaurants, luxurious pools, work-out facilities, spa, clothing store, cigar shop, apothecary, medical services, and night club. It was built to international standards for a five-star hotel. It was disconcerting at the pool bar, looking up to towering decrepit skyscrapers surrounding the area, vacant and shedding. 

The Melia Cohiba, with 470 rooms, was full and booked for seven months, as were all 4 and 5 star hotels in and around Havana. But even at 5 stars, the night club did not have toilet paper in its marbled luxurious bathrooms. There is a shortage.

As we proceeded, the schedule was jam-packed, creating some grumbling amongst our seasoned travelers. In attempting to carve some free time, it was clarified that, as Americans, we were not tourists, but travelers. This included participating in the activities planned. There was clearly an agenda. With a short reorientation, we went with the flow and continued to be surprised and delighted. Mariana also capitulated and included some free time to wander independently. Each experience bonded our group.

We were treated to the finest dining Cuba offers. We enjoyed several dinners at famed Paladars, the latest expression of capitalism in this socialist country. These are restaurants converted from homes by their owners. Each expressed the personality of its proprietor, and every meal was better than the last. 

La Casa was hosted by young Alejandro, who took it over from his parents. They still live in the back and he reminisced about watching TV in the dining room we enjoyed. His was the most established, boasting 20 years in business. The dining experience and hospitality were signature. 

An unusual find was NaZdrarovie, a Soviet inspired eatery serving nostalgia to the large population of Cuban famiies who worked and were educated in the Soviet Union. It's Canadian owner, Gregory, has lived in Cuba for 25 years, more than half his life. He was the first North American to teach politics at the University. We were surprised to find photos of Mariana's father all over the walls. Her father was a Cuban Soviet Cosmonaut. It was her first time to see this. At just a year old, the establishment is thriving. We reveled in the extraordinary view from our veranda three stories above the Malecon. And the food was delicious.























A highlight was a lunch we helped prepare at El Ajiaco, a palapa-styled Cuban diner nestled in a suburban neighborhood. We first toured a small organic farm, hosted by Jesus. He grows the herbs and greens for this Cuban specialty, Ajiaco, the namesake of the restaurant. The efficiency and ingenuity invested in this small residential yard were impressive, bordered by a stone wall dug from the plot. Then a few short blocks away, we disembarked at the restaurant where Jesus walks his herbs daily. Everything in Cuba is organic. Everything. There is no money for or access to chemical augmentation.

On the back patio, we were treated to a demonstration of the ingredients and preparation of our Cuban stew. We split into groups. One half worked in the kitchen at the stove preparing some of the components for lunch. The other headed to the bar where we enjoyed instruction in making the perfect Mojito. It far surpasses the American version. Then we swapped stations to assure we all had drinks.

Prior to eating, Pedro, the owner, introduced his entire staff. We had the opportunity to open all Halleck Vineyard wines to taste and educate the dozen service personnel. It was an honor to share my wines in this global arena.

Pedro is one of Havana's unique group of Sommeliers. Their mission is to elevate the position to include not only command of all the world's wines, but also chocolate, spirits, and, of course, cigars. They entitle the post "Habana Sommelier". This will be a challenge with the limited access to world wines in Cuba. One admires the ambition. 

The day prior, Pedro was joined by professor and Somellier, Jose Pellogrino, author of Mi Pasion Gourmet, a text on the art and appreciation of wine in Cuba. The two hosted a private seminar for our group in the Hotel Florida in Old Havana to explain their wine program. They boast over 100 budding sommeliers.

Eating and drinking was a focus, but we also toured the National Museum of Fine Arts and the home/studios of two world-renown Cuban artists, Beatriz Santacana, sculptor and ceramicist, and whimsical mosaicist, Jose Fuster. 






Jose's home and entire neighborhood is "like Disneyland, only real". We found ourselves using this catch-phrase often throughout our trip. Every surface of Jose's three story home is covered in small tiles with messages and colors. And this has spread throughout the neighborhood. This prolific artist recruited an army of participants as his projects became more ambitious. Characters and shapes sprout everywhere. His world lookes as much like Who-ville from Dr. Suess. 

We toured Old Havana, a district in the process of restoration. It was encouraging to see these historic buildings in restored glory. We hardly passed a bar without a drink and swept into small boutiques and kiosks full of art, handicrafts, and antiques. Music was everywhere we went. We enjoyed fine dining in two august remnants from the jeweled past, Cafe del Oriente and Conde del Castillo, both in Old Havana and state owned. 











There were tours of Havana Club Rum factory and Partagas Cigar factory. Then the group headed out of Havana into the countryside to a tobacco plantation and toured an enormous network of caves the African slaves used to escape Spanish oppression. The caves ended at a boat ramp, deep underground. Boarding the large wooden vessels, they were guided out to daylight. Just like Disneyland, only real. 

Cuban history under oppressive regimes (the Spanish, the British and the Americans) forged a fierce nationalism. It's been tempered in blood and there is evidence of this throughout the country. The red in the national flag symbolizes blood. We witnessed the nightly cannon blast to close the walls of the old fortress city. There are remnants of older walls removed as the city expanded beyond their boundaries. Statues, t-shirts, paintings, books and graphics of revolutionaries are ubiquitous. 

There were many confusing aspects of Cuba. We couldn't comprehend how real estate is divided, coming from a market economy. There are some luxuriously restored homes, but most are not. The majority would not be considered habitable. We were told by Mariana that some of the larger homes house multiple families. She described privilege as "luck", as many live in homes that go back generations. But there is no rent or taxes. Gregory opened his Soviet restaurant on the sea in his apartment of decades.  He pays no rent for his apartment/restaurant. Then he rented another place to house his family. It was unclear how the rental market worked or was supported locally.  

Staple foods and provisions are not centrally available. One day, you might buy onions from a vendor on the corner. On another, the vendor will be gone or out of stock. This is true of all aspects of life in Cuba: restaurant dishes and flatware are sourced individually. There is a shortage of toilet paper and many other daily necessities. Most toilets do not have seats.

The practice of "baggage provisions" pervades. Business people with contact outside the country cajole friends, relatives, and associates to bring items in their luggage. This is the only way Gregory can procure caviar for his Soviet diner. 

One evening, thirteen of us were served the best prepared lobster I've ever enjoyed. They were huge tails, succulent and gorgeously butterflied and presented. The restaurant was called, "The Californian". Charlie, the owner, represented one of the "new entrepreneurs" of Cuba. He sported pictures on his Android standing in comradeship with the American Ambassador for the opening of the US Embassy. In speaking with Charlie, he was embracing every aspect of the changes occurring in Cuba. He moved his car out of his garage to warehouse beer for a local event. His wait-staff takes home $100-150 per night, more than the monthly wages of most Cubans. And many of his servers are doctors, lawyers and other highly educated professionals. 

There's not a great deal of modeling for young people in this new era of entrepreneurism. There is an embedded distrust I sensed from Mariana of this new "order". Most Cubans get everything for free, are paid nominal wages for their jobs, and have little example or incentive to achieve more. The 50+ years of austerity has ingrained itself. But things are changing and it may be rapid. The biggest barriers are infrastructure and orientation. 

Yet there are exceptions sprouting. One great example of capitalist ingenuity is a night club called the Art Factory. It boasts a purely avante garde setting,  live music, dancing, provocative installation art, delectable nibbles, several bars, and a pulsing beat for change. It's the creation of two young men with a vision. And it's garnering international attention. 

As a counterpoint to the new order, our last night we were caravanned from our hotel in a line-up of beautifully maintained 1950s American cars. Following a tour of Havana by night, we enjoyed yet another elegant meal at a chic waterfront bistro called Del Mar. 

After dinner, we were transported to 1939 and the historic Tropicana Club. Sitting outdoors stage-side, beneath a canopy of caoba trees, we were dazzled with a musical dance performance that lit the night over two hours. The choreography, production, costumes, music, lights  and stage play were nothing less than spectacular. There were perhaps 75 performers and musicians sequencing show number after number, replete with headgear of color and stature. Every performance had a different set of costumes and themes. I've never seen or heard anything like it, as it represents 76 years of continuous refinement. Like Disneyland, only real.

With a large influx of Americans chomping-on-the-bit to see Cuba, the question is: "Can Cuba handle it?". With Yelp and Trip Advisor offering unfiltered impressions, will our compatriots be generous or unforgiving? There are many things lacking. They are FAR outweighed by kindness, generosity, cuisine, art, rum, cigars,  fun, and love. But time will tell. 

The success of this visit was uplifted by the people of our Inner Circle. Many had met at different events over the years, but what gelled between us eclipsed all expectations. Every day had us considering destinations for our next trip. Cuba was a pure expression of "Building Community Through Wine" (and rum;-).

Cuba stands as an epic journey. I've been invited back.  Halleck Vineyard wines lubricated many new and promising relationships. There are upcoming wine festivals and a keen interest in boutique artisan wines to balance the "big brands" from around the world available everywhere. I've volunteered to help with the Habana Sommelier program. The timing is perfect. We had the opportunity to participate in history as Cuba opens its doors to change. 

Time Posted: Nov 15, 2015 at 6:19 PM