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Halleck Blog

Ross Halleck
July 22, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Sebastopol's Hilly New Haven for Pinot Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysterious terroir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Area finds an advocate

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

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

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

Pinot proliferation

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

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

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

Time Posted: Jul 22, 2014 at 1:46 PM
Ross Halleck
June 29, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Life as a FULL-TIME vintner!

I have enjoyed all things about being a vintner during the last 15 years. 

Coming from a Silicon Valley career of branding and marketing, however, I was concerned that focusing on only Halleck Vineyard would result in boredom and (God-forbid) drudgery.

The years in early Silicon Valley were almost like a drug. My marketing firm, Halleck, Inc., was privvy to breaking technologies on a weekly basis. Starting with Activision in the 80s during the early days of video games, we developed the branding for 3Com and its introduction of the local area network (LAN) with Bob Metcalf, and went on to work with Apple in the failed world of virtual realities, IntelliCorp in artificial intelligence, Netscape (the first commercial browser), Neuropace (the first implantable device for treatment of epilepsy), and literally a thousand other companies attempting to break through with disruptive technologies for over two decades. 

Silicon Valley was and is a culture of egos and thought leadership.  I felt privileged to participate and "earn my chops" by assisting these leaders to communicate, compelling engagement and desire for their products or services. They were heady times for a young man in the asendency of his career. I loved the ride and resonated with the competitive and aggressive world. 

When I moved to Sebastopol in 1991, I commuted for 10 years back and forth to Palo Alto. Jennifer and I planted the vineyard in 1993. Connor was born that year, guiding us to estabish the vineyard as a college fund.

During these decades, I have kept my hand loosley on the pulse of Silicon Valley through friends, colleagues, and my consulting gigs that kept Halleck Vineyard afloat. Basically an ADHD candidate, I thrived on the varied texture and the complexity of keeping a lot of balls in the air.

As you may have read, as of January of this year, I have devoted my energies to Halleck Vineyard full time. Jennifer and I are growing the winery. We have assembled a stellar Board of Advisors/Directors, all leaders themselves. They have assisted in developing financial models, personal introductions, navigating the complex legal and financial world of raising money, and coaching toward success. I created a comprehensive marketing plan and business plan for the next 5 years. Jennifer and I worked together to populate the financial model with real numbers based on years of experience. These have been vetted by banks and accountants. And we have raised capital.

These past 6 months have been an education unlike any while serving companies in Silicon Valley. Although I sat on the sidelines and watched many clients raise A-D rounds of venture capital, achieve multiple rounds of financing or go public, it was only vicariously that I knew what was going on. I sat on the Advisory Board of a respected Venture Capital firm, posing as if I understood the business. Fortunately, they only asked me marketing advice.

So today, I marvel at my ignorance and naivete. Far from being bored with the chores of managing a vineyard, winemaking, marketing, sales, finance, business strategy, hospitality and travel, I am overwhelmed by all there is to do and the little time there is to do it. Every fiber of my ADHD is maxed out and I am a happy camper. 

Most importantly, there is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than sharing this magical place, Halleck Vineyard, with you.

Please plan a visit.

It is what drives the unremitting passion that Jennifer and I share in making wine: community and gratitude.




Time Posted: Jun 29, 2014 at 3:41 PM
Ross Halleck
April 21, 2014 | Ross Halleck

2013 Barrel Sampling and Final Blends

It was a gorgeous morning in Sebastopol. I was up bright and early in anticipation of one of my favorite activities: barrel tasting to determine the final wines for the vintage.

Rick, Jennifer and I had the barrels laid out on the winery floor in stacks of two for accessibility. Normally, they rise to the ceiling, requiring a long climb to the upper reaches. The winery now has rolling stainless steel ladder-staircases with rails for safe assent. In the early days, we would scale the barrels, legs straddled on either side of the aisle, feet securely placed on one barrel after the other, climbing to the top. With wine-thief in our mouth, a glass in one hand, we would pop a bung with our free hand from the barrel and carefully balance it on the curved barrel side while placing the thief into the bung-hole to extract the wine. 

Today we had 44 barrels of young Pinot Noir to taste through, conveniently spread out in every available space on the winery floor. They held juice from our Estate Vineyard, The Farm Vineyard, and a range of other 2013 harvest acquisitions to comprise our Hillside Cuvee, Sonoma Coast, Three Sons Cuvee, Russian River Valley, and a reintroduction of our Clone 828, Sonoma Coast. 

Yes, it is daunting to taste so many wines. Each barrel holds, in fact, a different wine. Though coming from the same vineyard, the barrel imparts a different signature, or flavor profile. Some are new, some 1 year old (filled once), some 2 years old (filled twice) and some older, which we describe as neutral. But they are made by different coopers (barrel makers), and the wood comes from different forests. We have a preponderance of French Oak barrels, but this year we also experimented with Hungarian Oak, made by the finest French coopers.

So you can imagine this a complicated task: choosing which of our barrels to include as vineyard designated wines and which ones to blend into our Cuvees. This is not about picking perfect wines. None exist at this stage. This is about identifying components that together can construct a perfect wine. We had over a dozen barrels of The Farm Vineyard, Pinot Noir, for example. Only 7 will be used for our 2013 Halleck, The Farm Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir. The balance will be used in our Three Sons Cuvee, some in our Hillside Cuvee for flavor, and even some to "spice-up" our Clone 828. Even though The Farm Vineyard is a Russian River wine, we can add it to our Sonoma Coast blends in modest doses to enhance flavors.

We are creating recipes on the run. These recipes can never be used again. The wines from the vintages will never be the same, the barrels will never be the same, and our palates will never be the same. It is interactive art.  

We worked methodically. We first tasted all 14 of The Farm Vineyard barrels. We identified those we thought were the best, as-is, or had components we thought would complement a final blend. Remember, these all contain wine from a single, 2-acre vineyard. It is all made from the same grapes. But it was surprising how different each barrel tasted. We eliminated those which we thought would be best with other elements we could add to make our Cuvees. We were left with a smaller set. Then we created makeshift "assemblages" in glass. Jennifer took notes and we nodded at the ones we liked, then moved on.

Next we tasted through the 7 barrels of the Halleck Vineyard Estate Grown Pinot. We will make 6 into vineyard designated wine, or about 130 cases. The other barrel will be blended into our Sonoma Coast. This is MUCH more than the "homeopathic infusion" we have used in the past. The Hillside Cuvee will benefit significantly from this additional component. 

Then we tasted the balance of our Sonoma Coast, followed by Russian River Valley barrels. We earmarked as we went using blue stickers on selected heads, comparing our decisions to the final number of cases we hoped to achieve for each type of wine. We discussed every step of the way, comparing each other's experiences and palates. The hours sped by. It was pure delight. 

Bottling will not be for some months. But this hard work is done. Now it is time to wait. We taste along the way to determine the best time to capture the magic from barrels into bottles. It will never be as delicious, in my view. Like a snapshot, bottling is an attempt to capture a moment; But it pales in comparison. Unlike a snapshot, however, something else emerges in wine that can be transcendent. It can be absolutely sumptuous and exhalting. Just different. 

Time Posted: Apr 21, 2014 at 5:46 PM
Ross Halleck
April 8, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Vineyard and Winery Progress

It is a foggy vineyard morning. We are in full spring and swing. The buds have burst into leaves; the shoots displaying promise of their profusion of confusion. Spring is associated with anticipation and hope.

The color of the vineyard has radically shifted to verdant in a few short weeks. The grass and cover crops are being kept in check by weed-whacking, leaving an emerald carpet between the rows of grape vines.



Within the sprouted leaves is the young inflorescence. These are the microscopic flowers that, once pollinated, will produce grapes.

The poppies are pulled tight against the chill, awaiting the sun to warm them into display. And the towering purple echium is cascading over 15 feet from the vineyard floor, rising like Masters of the Universe in their royal attire.





The swing is in the business side, also bursting with promise. I am devoted to pressing the boundaries to grow the winery, yet maintaining its sense of community. We are building a luxury brand, but contrary to supporting exclusivity, I am striving for "inclusivity". 

I am excited to conduct our first webinar tasting in a few weeks, officially releasing our 2011 Sonoma Coast Hillside Cuvee Pinot Noir. I anticipate doing these regularly, assuming it is fun and goes well.

This weekend I am co-hosting our Wine and Yoga weekend with my dear friend and yogini, Gayle Olson. This promises to be enjoyable and enriching. 

The days are good. My heart is full. I am grateful to be here and to share it.

Time Posted: Apr 8, 2014 at 9:56 PM
Ross Halleck
March 25, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Rain and New Growth

It is raining now!

We are thrilled, hoping it will continue. We just completed pruning Halleck Vineyard last week, very late for us. We attempted to fool the vines into not budding and remaining dormant by delaying pruning. How silly was that?! ;-) I remember an old margarine commercial with the tagline, "You can't fool Mother Nature." Wise words for a questionable product. Here are the results of our folly:

These are the old 3013 canes, pruned and piled at the top of the vineyard. We will grind them to mulch for spreading over the garden.








This is a close-up, now a week old. You can see buds breaking from the old dried vines. Clearly, not what we intended.

And here are the pruned canes, one week later. Sometimes the shoots grow 3" per day.

We are enjoying the gray wet conditions. It was gorgeous and clear for sunsrise, with spectacular colors indicating the oncoming wealther. The old addage held, "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning".

We are anticipating a great wine year. Rick and I created the final blends for 2013 yesterday. This is the most fun I have and should be illegal;-). We will be offering 5 different Pinots for 2013, including our Sonoma Coast, Clone 828, which had its sole performance in 2006. Those of you who were fortunate enough to enjoy this wine will be excited by the 2013. We will also offer our Estate Grown, Three Sons Cuvee, Hillside Cuvee, and The Farm Vineyard. Stay tuned.



Time Posted: Mar 25, 2014 at 9:25 AM
Ross Halleck
March 5, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Raining and Pruning; Tasting the 2012 Vintage Pinot

The vineyard is no longer asleep. We tried to hold the vines back by delaying pruning, thinking that we could fool them into extending winter in their hearts. But we are the fools in our attempt to control nature. This is a dance with Gaia and she always leads. Humility is the name of the game. 

This is very late to prune and the vines are letting us know. Even the lifeless canes seem to be pushing buds. Not so lifeless as we would think. So off they come, selecting only the 3-4 most vital to bear the fruit of 2014. It is an arduous process, requiring hand selection, cutting and tying every cane to the trellising wires. We only have about 2000 vines in our one-acre Halleck Vineyard. But it takes days with a team of three working morning to evening.

PrePruning Halleck Vineyard    

We practice cane pruning at Halleck Vineyard. We draw from the strongest canes that come from the center trunk of the vine each year to bear fruit. These are trellised vertically as the year progresses.

The alternative, which is employed at The Farm Vineyard, is cordon pruning. In this case, the trunk has been trained to split into a T and goes horizontally right and left. Shoots grow from each cordon that bear fruit. It makes for a beautiful vineyard, but is not as flexible as a cane-pruned vineyard. We can select canes every year that are the strongest, and even increase canes to increase production. You are restrained by two cordons in cordon pruning. 

On a different note, I had a case of the 2012 Three Sons Cuvee delivered from storage this week to taste. We would normally not release this wine until the Fall, giving it a year on bottle. It has only been about 6 months. All I can say is, "WOW!!". We tasted it with our friends who joined the barrel tasting on Saturday and my single case was sold. I just had two more delivered for sharing with visitors. This is not an official release, mind you. We will probably release it in the Fall, as planned. But if you want to take a flyer (roll the dice;-), you can order it. There is not much and it will go fast. Just sayin'...


Time Posted: Mar 5, 2014 at 8:20 AM
Ross Halleck
February 22, 2014 | Ross Halleck

Winter in Wine Country: 70 degrees and sunny

Today has been a gorgeous day in Wine Country. We are praying for rain, but basking in sunshine. I did a 3 hour cycle through the vineyards north of Sebastopol. There were about 20 of us. It was a peloton of athletic middle-aged guys in sleek bike attire. All were businessmen: wine, finance, engineering, CPG, you name it. The majority continued on through the afternoon, but I had to head back for a tasting at noon.

The vineyard will get pruned tomorrow. We have been waiting for winter to express itself. It appears that we will have real weather this week. Storms are predicted in succession starting on Wednesday. This will assuage lingering concerns of drought should it deliver as the meteorologists suggest. And snow in the Sierras for skiing! 

Next weekend is barrel tasting for those wineries dressed in their weekend best for visitors. If you are coming up, I am hosting a very private barrel tasting on Saturday morning. We do not have a "hospitality center" with barrels displayed horizontally on a tasting room floor. We will be in the barrel room, climbing ladders and pouring out of long wine thieves. Bungs will be pulled and replaced from each draw. Glasses will be on barrel heads and we will be spitting into floor gutters. This is the real deal. Each cooper (barrel maker) imparts its mark on the very same wine. It is amazing to experience. 

The 2013 wines are stunning. We only have room for 12. So let me know.

Time Posted: Feb 22, 2014 at 4:40 PM
Ross Halleck
February 12, 2014 | Ross Halleck

There went the drought :) So we hope.

This week's rain has partially eliminated fears of drought in California Wine Country and Halleck VIneyard. Enough rain fell in these past days to make up for the entire months of January and February.

Prior, everyone was asking about the drought and its effect on the grapes. The short answer is, "No damage." We hadn't pruned, so the vines still thought it was winter, despite sunshine and sustained warm temperatures. We would have normally pruned by now. Our concern was if the warm weather continued, the vines may have thought it spring and budded early.

The microscopic flowers that become grapes soon would follow.  If the rain ensued after bud break and flowering, we could have lost the crop to "shatter": the flowers are hit with water and can't polinate. If rain hadn't come at all, we were at risk of water shortage issues. In Sebastopol, we have plentiful wells from which we irrigate. So this still may not have been a problem in our little micro-region. But it was early for these concerns. As a farmer, I'm an optimist. 

While there is plenty of rain, the soil can only hold so much before saturation. The rest runs off into the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley water sheds and hits the ocean. So our cup is not full, despite the abundance of water, frogs, snow in the Sierras and chilling temperatures. We need sustained rain over the winter season to assure a strong crop for 2014.

Time Posted: Feb 12, 2014 at 8:25 AM