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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.


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