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Where’s WALT?

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Clos Pepe Vineyard in Santa Barbara. (Courtesy photo)

Vintners Craig and Kathryn Walt Hall, purveyors of fine Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, have developed a large following of wine lovers, enamored by the magnificent grounds and sculpture gardens, events, a state-of-the-art tasting and production facility and, of course, a menu of annual releases for the more discerning palates, including their signature 2014 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon.

Inspired by the memory of Kathryn’s parents, longtime growers Bob and Dolores Walt, they embarked upon a new venture a few years ago to produce high-quality pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay, something that required a new mindset. Perfect terroir is important to all varietals, but essential if there is any chance of success with these two.

WALT’s perspective is narrow in that they are continually seeking to produce or source the best grapes from specific vineyards, but broad in that they are present in all pinot noir appellations from Oregon to Santa Barbara. They have become a one-stop shop to explore literally “a thousand miles of pinot,” producing 23,000 cases annually of low-yield, boutique wines.

We recently joined our hosts, general manager Jeff Zappelli and wine educator Terry Cush, in the small Tudor-style bungalow off the Sonoma Plaza to taste some current releases and to discuss where they are and where they are going. It was a study in terroir and well-known vineyards.

Shea vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (Courtesy photo)

Full malolactic fermentation and numerous lees stirrings give the creamy, rich texture and soft minerality to our first wine, the 2016 WALT Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, with fruit from their estate Bob’s Ranch Vineyard east of Sebastopol. Sur lees aging and French oak give us creamy California-style texture with balanced citrus and stone fruit flavors.

From one of Oregon’s best-known vineyards, sourcing grapes to the likes of Bergstrom Wines and Penner-Ash, the 2015 WALT “Shea” Willamette Valley Pinot Noir offers dense, concentrated flavors with spice on the finish. Similar to Shea, “The Corners” Vineyard in the Anderson Valley has sourced grapes to numerous wineries. The vineyard, now owned by WALT, is located in Booneville, south of the valley’s more northern marine-influenced vineyards. More heat means more flavor and better mouthfeel, and the 2015 WALT “The Corners” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir may be your only opportunity to enjoy it.

The Sierra Mar Vineyard is owned by Gary and Rosella Franscioni, pioneer growers in the Santa Lucia Highlands, arguably California’s best appellation for pinot noir. The vineyard is at high altitude and exposed to the elements, producing a bright acidity to the 2015 WALT “Sierra Mar” Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir that exudes a rich mouthfeel and concentrated plum flavors with spices overtones. Wines from this appellation deserve our attention.

At nearly 1,000 feet elevation, the Rita’s Crown Vineyard, recently acquired by Seasmoke Cellars, is exposed and windswept, facing due west only seven miles from the Pacific Ocean. From diatomaceous soil and slightly stressed vines, the 2015 WALT “Rita’s Crown Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir has an earthy quality with silky tannins, expressive fruit and minerality on the finish. Seasmoke plans to continue sourcing grapes to fine producers like WALT, so we can expect more of this exceptional release.

2014 WALT “Bob’s Ranch” pinot noir. (Courtesy photo)

Now that WALT is leasing and managing Santa Barbara’s iconic Clos Pepe Vineyard, just off Highway 246 in the Santa Rita Hills appellation, we can expect more fine releases. From the dark color to the rich, bold flavors, the 2015 WALT “Clos Pepe” Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir was, without question, the most masculine wine of the tasting. The flavors were lush and complex with enough earthy tones on the finish to pair well with most food.

WALT has an aggressive business plan that has given them access and a strong presence in all major pinot noir growing regions. Their pedigree and commitment to quality are good indications of continued growth and success. Zappelli spoke of plans for a large, “green” production and tasting facility in Sebastopol that can continue to grow the brand in a sensitive and sustainable manner. This sounds pleasingly familiar to the Hall’s style of doing it the right way.

For today, visiting WALT in the small bungalow on First Street is a must when visiting the Sonoma Plaza, but with a reservation. Take the opportunity to refine your pinot noir palate by exploring all of its diverse and stunning terroir.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit Lyle’s blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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