If another 6.5 magnitude earthquake hits Paso Robles like the one that collapsed the city’s landmark clock tower in 2003—and it will—you’d be challenged to find yourself in a better situation than touring the 19,000 square foot cavern under Robert Hall Winery.
The 4000 barrel cave is equipped with a series of swamp coolers for humidity and temperature control, keeping it at wine-ideal 55 – 60° F. Designed by Robert Hall himself and mined by Nick Pokrajac of nearby Templeton, the caverns—completed in 2001—were dug using the cut and fill technique conventionally used in hard-rock ore extraction. The caves can accommodate 289 guests and/or earthquake refugees, considering it was engineered to withstand a quake of 8.5 on the Richter scale—somewhat more powerful than the one that leveled San Francisco in 1906.
Robert Hall’s three-hundred acre estate on Paso’s east side began in concept in the 1970s when a trip to the Rhône Valley convinced the Minnesota entrepreneur and horse-breeder that the winery good life might be a better introduction to his autumn years. I will not say his ‘retirement’ because if I did I might wind up like Fortunato, walled up in one of the cellar niches: Robert Hall is hardly ready for the ice floe. He works his own vineyards tirelessly even today and can as often be seen shadowing the cellar rats or lording over the tasting room. And when he isn’t there, he’s likely globe-hopping, schmoozing, promoting product—which is one of the reasons why his wines can be found in virtually every state.
Prior to breaking vineyard ground in 1995, Hall and his wife Margaret wandered California appellations to find the right soil and climate for his pet varietals from Rhône, and like a few before him and many since, discovered it in Paso Robles. That year, he purchased Home Ranch in the rolling hills above the Estrella Plain, and later, Terrace Vineyard overlooking the Estrella River, Bench Vineyard, where the estates most intense reds are grown, and the 18-acre Brady Vineyard, planted to cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc and named for Don Brady’s family, Robert Hall’s winemaker. More on Don in a sec.
Robert Hall’s goal for the winery’s production was around 100,000 cases—a target which he has not yet hit, although producing wine for other wineries with the additional capacity is a good way to keep the crew busy and cover the cost of goods. Half of Hall’s acres are planted to cabernet sauvignon, but he’s planted thirteen on his beloved ‘Rhône’ varietals and five traditional grapes of Oporto which are blended to make Robert Hall Vintage Port; 2009 is the current release.
In the on-site laboratory, one Hall hallmark is here marked: The focus is on color monitoring and quantifiable tannin measurement, which plays as vital a role in vinification decisions as sugar and acid levels. This is down to Don Brady’s technical background, reaped in the laboratories and llanos of Texas where he learned his craft.
Brady was born in Navisota, Texas and won a horticultural degree from Texas Tech. As a budding winemaker, he could not have picked a better time or state in which to study: The University of Texas owns over a million acres of land in the western half of the state and they have never quite figured out what to do with it beyond oil leases. They tried fruit orchards, they tried eucalyptus groves, and with some of the run-off cash from the oil, they tried grape vines. Enter Don, who at Texas Tech was a benefactor of some of the shared wealth.
At this time, as in many states following Prohibition, the Texas wine industry was finally in the process of re-invent itself. It’s an interesting history, for sure, and I’m sure that even most Texans would be surprised to know that their state has more native Vitis grape vine species than any other region on earth and that Franciscans were making wine near El Paso a hundred years before California missionaries planted their first vine. Small wonder that Brady’s agricultural department was chomping at the bit to establish data and figure out why the gigantic, ideal high desert was not producing more quality wine—less, in fact, than even miniscule Sancerre. In the mid-Eighties, Brady reminisces about working the vineyards by day and running sample tests in a basement chemistry lab by night. That sort of fast-paced, candle-at-both-ends learning curve saw him pick up a lot of information quickly and led him to his first industry job at Llano Estacado winery, which he helped steer from a 13,000 case winery to a production of more than 80,000 cases annually.
Brady was in on a similar ground-floor growth explosion at his next post at Ste. Genevieve Wines in Bakersfield, Texas. This was near his family’s home in Fort Stockton, and he says wistfully, “I always wanted to return to my roots, and to my great chagrin, I got my wish.”
It was not necessarily his wife Kasi’s fondest wish. She’d also grown up there, and insists that having spent twenty years trying to get out of West Texas, she was not eager to spend the rest of Don’s working life festering there. So, even after having been awarded the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association’s highest honor, the ‘1991 Louis F. Qualia Award’ for outstanding contributions and leadership in the Texas wine, by 1999 he sensed that it was time to shift gears and move to the epicenter of the American wine industry, California.
And two years later, that’s where Robert Hall found him; Senior winemaker at Delicato Family Vineyards, where he was bouncing back and forth between Modesto and King City. By that point, Don was getting a bit weary of long commutes and producing wine in Big Box bulk—even good stuff.
A single walk through the vineyards with Robert convinced both of them that they’d seen the future, and it was now, and not only that, it was gonna to be (as the Texans say) walkin’ in tall cotton.
“I wanted to grow with a vertically-integrated winery—the appellation, the vineyards and people with the will and ability to develop signature, house-styles; the best wines that Paso Robles could produce.”
He found vintner’s Valhalla, his lone star, among the alluvial soils and uplifted seabed of several of Paso Robles’ ‘bubbles’—areas where climatic influence from the Pacific and soil composition, whose value may be determined by mountain run-off and the kaleidoscopic arrangement of solids and pores—a world away from the plains of Texas, where the vagaries of nature can wipe out one crop in three and a quarter of counties still have dry laws on the books.
These days, Brady’s sugar-poppin’ palate-pleasers may be more Beach Boys than Lyle Lovett, less Texas T black gold than Forty-Niner nugget gold, but his colloquialisms damn sho’ ain’t, and listening to his gentle, lilting Abilene drawl is half the fun in chatting with him. His ‘fine wine’ become his ‘fahhn wahhn’, choosing a vineyard site becomes ‘fahhndin’ the rahht abode’ and when his corkscrew doesn’t work, it’s ‘womperjawed’. Which detracts nothing from the technical alchemy in his constant data-mining in the winery lab and profound understanding of the art of his gig winemaking from root to Riedel. I would not hesitate to say that Don Brady is among the sharpest tools in the wine science shed to be found anywhere in the United—straahk that—the ‘YOO-nahted States’.
In terms of bringing in the bling, Brady has also proved his medal mettle. Personally, his acclaim includes being the 2001 recipient of the International Wine and Spirits ‘Wine of America’ award, and was recognized by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (in partnership with the Independent Grape Growers of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo Vintners Association) as Winemaker of the Year in 2006. His wares have done as swimmingly, but reached truly remarkable heights in 2010 at the State Commercial Wine Competition, which considers itself the oldest and most prestigiously judged wine competition in North America. Faced with a pool of more than six hundred competing wineries and three thousand entries, Robert Hall took home so many individual awards–five Best of Class (South Central Coast Appellation) honors, three gold and seven silver medals—that it was named ‘Golden State Winery 2010’, the first time that in the competition’s history that a Paso Robles winery—or even a winery from the greater Central Coast AVA— had been so honored.
And like that dude who was so impressed with his Remington shaver that he bought the company, Don Brady was so wowed by his new digs that he bought the farm. Eighteen acres of prime cabernet country on a sweet spot on the first bench above the Estrella river, where the soils are sandy and open. Besides his cabernet sauvignon, which he maintains is Paso Robles’ destiny grape both as a commercial cash cow and horticultural gem (“It reflects Paso Robles and amounts to more than half of what do here”), he is hugely high on petite sirah, for which the his land seems ideally suited. He admits that it can be a hand-sell among those who confuse it with Robert Hall Winery’s other primo cultivar, syrah, but once sampled, it is hard to forget. Blackstrap black, both bright and brooding, Brady has overcome two of the grape’s failings in other single-varietal versions: He’s tamed the tannins and avoided an overt prunishness that comes from grapes picked too ripe. Fair to say, there is nothing petite about Brady’s petite sirah beyond the name.
‘Hammer of the Gods’ is an well-worn descriptor used by locals to describe a truly remarkable wine, and here in Paso this can mean anything from in-your-face to over-the-top. Don Brady’s concoctions may be, on occasion, a little of the first but are rarely the second. He believes that his primary objective is ‘to not screw anything up’. His wines whisper loudly; his winemaking philosophy is a ‘quest for the good; an extension of the stewardship that begins in the vineyard.’ As a result, there is an appealing elegance to his product—a transcendent sense of balance to the myriad minutes and infinite incidentals that go into a superb glass of wine.
There’s grace to his grape, and that, oddly, is down to his Texas touch.