Pinot Noir Wine Women #2: WALT’S Owner Kathryn Hall and Director of Winemaking Megan Gunderson

NOTE: During Women’s History Month, we feature as many women in wine as we can. In part 1 of this 2 part post, we featured two other pinot noir women,  Peregrine’s Nichole Cross and Megan McGrath Gates of Lucas and Lewellen. This goal has been challenged doubly this March by COVID-19 which impacted my ability to determine what was wrong with my laptop. My new charger should arrive any day, but this blog post may be rough until I get a chance to finish editing it. I had also planned on finishing my article about my interview with Italian wine importer Sheila Donahue as well as other content this month.

1000 miles of Pinot Noir.

When Kathryn Hall started HALL Wines and then WALT, she looked for people and partners as passionate about differences as she was, because this is what is required to make the best wine.

Kathryn Hall at Clos Pepe March 2020.

Kathryn’s family joined the grape growing business in the 1970s, but after graduating from UC Berkeley and working there as an assistant city attorney, she moved to Texas where she met and fell in love with Craig Hall, a non-winedrinker at the time. After serving from 1997-2001 under the Clinton administration as the ambassador to Austria, the Halls headed for the hills in Napa where they learned that “the best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow” as Kathryn describes in her 2016 bestseller, A Perfect Score (p. 67). This typifies their hands on approach of “taking care of people and crafting experiences” (p. 93) that are artistic, organic, and high quality even though being organic costs $250,000 more a year (p. 153).

“Like wine, art speaks without saying a word. Our hope is that the winery grounds, wine, and art all add layers to the experiences of our guests,” writes Kathryn (p.156).

This passion for perfection is what led her to source fruit from Steven Pepe’s vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA a few miles from the Pacific in Santa Barbara County.

Even though the WALT wine making facility is located in at HALL in Napa’s St Helena, WALT sources grapes up and down the west coast which are picked at night and trucked to the facility at 35 degrees where they make chardonnay and pinot noir for WALT (25k cases) and cabaret sauvignon under HALL (90k cases) using an optical sorter to maximize fruit integrity and keep vineyard character.

“The optical sorter was life changing,’ said Kathryn Hall at a 2020 press event.  “We end up getting a higher yield and higher quality.”

They pride themselves on using free run juice with no hard press with native yeast as possible with their generally organic fruit, but winemaker Megan Gunderson admited that if “Brix level can get away from me so I have to use a commercial yeast.” To avoid this challenge, she spends a lot of time traveling to those vineyards stretching those 1000 miles, and tasting the grapes to determine if the seeds inside tell her it is time to pick– she wants crunchy brown seeds.

“For me it’s really about getting out in the vineyard and tasting the ripeness of phenolics,” said Megan.

With only a few pinot noir vintages under their belt, they’re making 11 or so distinct pinots, but are still considered a small pinot noir producer with a small WALT tasting room in the Sonoma square in addition to tasting rooms in Napa.

Megan Gunderson, today’s Director of Winemaking at WALT and HALL, began there as assistant winemaker, then winemaker at WALT responsible for those 1000 miles of pinot noir, studied biochem and molecular science to be a doctor. Her attention to detail now focuses on creating pinot noir with a sense of place, and, during a 2019 World of Pinot Noir seminar about WALT’s pinot noir wines, Megan said,

“Central coast pinots are personally for me some of my favorite wines.”

“We were fortunate enough in 2010 to have a relationship with Steven Pepe who developed Clos Pepe and was instrumental in getting Sta Rita Hills established as an AVA,” Megan continued.

What makes Clos Pepe so special? The mountains here are a transverse range which means that the hillsides run perpendicular so ocean breezes and fogs find their way inland to cool off the grapes. Soils in the AVA are most interesting, said Megan, because Clos Pepe has ancient seabed soils that offer natural acidity:

“Clos Pepe has a freshness on the palate – true vineyard characteristic,” said Megan.

Clones are Pommard and Dijon 115 which gives a floral lift. In 2015 and 2016, they expand the footprint in vineyard for Dijon 667 for sweetness on the mid palate.

Sue: “This is an event to remember!”

In early March 2020, just before we were all told to shelter in place, Sue and I went on a bus as members of the press to a World of Pinot Noir seminar and kickoff party held at Clos Pepe.

We rode the bus there and back near Megan and Don Musk who is in charge of the vineyards. We talked informally (meaning no notes) as the bus headed from the Santa Barbara coast north toward the Santa Ynez valley to the Clos Pepe vineyards.

At the seminar, Megan said, “We always want to make better wine. We have one shot. You might sacrifice five tons of fruit but you might find a new way” that’s even better.  Megan loves to experiment, and in 2016, she tested out some whole cluster fermentation. As vineyards are getting older, she explained, doing whole cluster makes more sense so you can taste more of the terroir.

At the BBQ, we were really impressed at how well the 2017 from Clos Pepe went with the grilled foods.

The fruit forward wine tamed the spice of the BBQ food. Hitching Post Chef (and winemaker) Frank Ostin says it’s the smoke of the fire that makes the difference. He offers a BBQ boot camp where he teaches some of his tricks, and he’s got videos on the Food network too. We loved his rub of salt, three kinds of pepper, and garlic.

A few weeks later, we tasted the 2017 Clos Pepe again at home with a few meals.

2017 – WALT Pinot Noir – Clos Pepe – Santa Rita Hills
14.8% alcohol SRP $75
SAMPLE for my review consideration.

The wine spends 10 months in the barrel then is bottled without fining or filtration.

John: “This wine is so fat.”

Color: Medium density, garnet, mauve rim

Nose: Rose, eucalyptus, rhubarb,

Palate: Tart red fruit up front, cherry, tart mid palate, this is a very polished wine, very long lingering finish.

Pairing: One of our favorite pairings with Pinot is pate and mushroom brie together on a baguette. We also had a vegan mushroom pate, which had spices in it that went fantastically with the wine. At the BBQ it stood up to the grilled meat but preferred the vegetables. we paired it on subsequent occasions with pork tenderloin, chicken marsala, and salmon, and worked well but directly with each proving that the is a wine that is very diverse.

OF NOTE: We loved the rose!


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