Robert Hall: Large-Scale Winery Helps Set Sustainability Standard

Owner Robert Hall. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Located in the heart of Paso Robles wine country, just east off of Highway 46, is the Robert Hall estate. Started in 1995, the winery produces some of California's most popular wines. In fact, last year Hall received the Golden State Winery honor for having the greatest number of award-winning wines, a first for any Central Coast winery. Along with its top-notch vino, the winery has also helped define sustainability as a Central Coast winery.Robert L. Hall, the winery's owner and namesake, is an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. The Minnesota native has had successful business ventures in everything from bowling lanes to travel agencies. He's even bred champion horses, but it was a family trip to Europe in the late 70s that inspired his next one.

The award for the Golden State Winery honor--a really big golden bear! Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Robert jokes how it was a time when "kids still wanted to go on vacations with their parents." I am not personally familiar with this era. I remember family vacations as painful and embarrassing hauls in one very beat-up station wagon.

Food for Thought

The family's visit to France's famous Rhone valley made a big impression on Hall. This is where Syrah originated from! He was captivated by the winery lifestyle of farming and how it was crafted. Plus, the area was experimenting with wine and food pairings that "you just didn't get in Minnesota," he recalls. (Another great place for wine pairings is the recipe section of our Green Wine Guide.)

During the 80s, Hall began developing his plan for a premium producing vineyard. He ventured west many times in search for the perfect region. He wanted to grow the same Rhone varieties he fell in love with a decade earlier. His travels brought him to Napa almost 20 different times but the vibe was too commercial for his taste. His wife Margaret and he eventually discovered the perfect terroir, the Paso Robles AVA, and by 1995 they acquired the "Home Ranch."

The winery now owns over 200 acres and produces over 60,000 cases a year. Just due east, at Hall's house, there are over 140 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Orange Muscat and their "Durrell" Syrah. Located at the estate's 10-plus acres are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, where they harvest some of their most intense fruit. A 65-acre vineyard above the Estrella River's southern bank produces the wineries more nuanced flavors. And at winemaker Don Brady's house, there are 18 acres responsible for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc and some Petite Sirah.

Winemaker Don Brady. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Brady explains that "When you control your grapes, you control your destiny."

In 2008, all of the vineyards were SIP-certified. The Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification is a third-party audit of the vineyard's practices that Robert Hall, other wineries and over 30 environmental, regulatory, and academic representatives helped develop. While it took over two years for Robert Hall to achieve their own environmental stewardship, the SIP certification itself took the Central Coast Vineyard Team over four years to develop. Our featured winery from last month, Halter Ranch, is another SIP-certified winery.

Smarter Than a 4th Grader

"Remember in the 4th grade, we created those conservation posters. Sustainability is the opportunity to put in practice what we put on those posters. We are making decisions that are good for today, good for tomorrow and good for our kids," explains Brady.

Some of those practices include using eco-friendly shipping materials, preserving and restoring the property's native oak trees, and offering protected habitat for wildlife. Cover crops, like barley, are grown between the vines to decrease soil erosion and small flowers are planted throughout as a haven for beneficial insects. Most of the plants are natives though some are just plant well-adapted to the Central Coast region.

There are 12 owl boxes throughout the four different vineyards which are specifically designed to attract barn owls and not the great horned owls. Barn owls, unlike great horned owls, are not territorial and feast off many small rodents like gophers which are very expensive to trap manually. However, great horned owls are about as selective as a cartoon Tasmanian Devil. They will eat anything smaller than themselves like bats, rabbits and even other owls. Bats, like bees, are pollinators.

The Robert Hall caves. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

While the winery aims to limit its chemical usage, it is not 100% pesticide- and herbicide-free. It does use SIP-approved compounds, meaning products that break down quickly and do not pollute water systems. They also have a short life span and are not broad spectrum control substances, like DDT. And the winery keeps extremely detailed records of their chemical use, as required by California law, which is then audited by SIP every year.

Not Easy Being Green

Brady notes though, even their attempts to be pesticide-free have had their own complications. "Farming in general is learning as you go along. Our Bezaritti [a mechanical hoe] comes in underneath the vines and cut down weeds. From using it a lot, berms have developed under the vines. So, the non chemical [solution] has created another problem," Brady states. During heavier rains berms will channel rain run-off and cause serious soil erosion.

With about 12 inches of rain every year and low levels of clay in the soil, Robert Hall winery is unable to dry farm its grapes. Yet, it is very focused on water efficiency. After the grapes are crushed, the winery sends their organic waste (called pumice) material to a local composter -- all 400 tons of it! The product is returned to the winery as compost later that year, and eventually returned to the vines themselves.

Brady explains that, "The certification program has made us more cognoscente of [our] water use--when we are using it and how much. We monitor the canopy and estimate our water needs at the vine. We have probes in the vineyard to evaluate soil conditions, to tell us how much water needs to be applied." He admits that while more water means bigger grapes, the right amount of water means much better grapes!

Barreling some sustainable wine. Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Robert Hall's wines are evenly priced with only a few over $30. They are available online at roberthallwinery.com and at many nation-wide restaurants and retailers. One of my favorite wines is the 2009 Viognier. It's dripping with honey and citrus yet remains light and fresh. With some subtle notes of ginger, the wine pairs perfectly with Thai food. I suggest take out! If you want to know exactly what Robert loved about France's Rhone valley then try their 2007 Rhone de Robles. The award-winning wine will only set you back $18 but with its full-bodied fruit and spice, you are going to want more than one bottle!

The winery's 2008 SIP-certified wines are also now available. These wines are certified based on the source of their grapes and not the production itself. However, Robert Hall is currently participating in SIP's pilot program for sustainability certifying wineries and wine production. Those releases include: 2008 Robert Hall Sauvignon Blanc, 2008 Robert Hall Chardonnay, 2008 Robert Hall Blanc de Robles, 2008 Robert Hall Orange Muscat (Margaret's Vineyard) and the 2008 Robert Hall Rosé de Robles from the Hall Ranch.

I think Brady sums it up best when he says that, "You can try to fix bad grapes but you can't make great wine out of bad grapes."

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Robert Hall Wine Pairings
Fajitas with the Best Damn Guacamole Ever
Quick and Easy Garlic Fondue
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Chèvre-Stuffed Dates with Pomegranate Molasses and Chili Oil
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