The Grapevine: Robert Hall started small but didn't stay that way

When Robert Hall and his wife, Margaret, moved to Paso Robles in 1994, it was supposed to be for retirement. Hall, who had been a shopping center developer in Minnesota and Arizona, bought 160 acres and planned to plant a vineyard on part of it, satisfying a longtime interest in wine.

But, as often happens, one thing led to another. Hall went on to acquire two more vineyards and eventually had 300 acres planted. And he decided to develop something else: his own winery. The first vintage for Robert Hall Winery was 1999.

That same year, Hall began construction on his winery and caves. The project was completed in 2001, the same year that winemaker Don Brady came on board after stints making wine in Texas and for Delicato in Manteca. Of the modern and spacious facility, Brady says: "It's a winemaker's dream."

Hall's interest in wine had been fueled by family trips in the '70s and '80s to France, particularly the Rhone River valley. So when he started his winery, Hall says, "I told Don cabernet was a big must, but what I really wanted to focus on was Rhone varietals."

Many Paso Robles wines these days are huge and very ripe, with tons of fruit and considerable alcohol. Brady takes a more restrained approach. He says his philosophy is to "keep the wines true to type and do the best we can in the vineyard." He adds: "We should attempt to have the grapes right at reasonable sugars so we can make wines with reasonable alcohol."

I ask him whether these are the sort of wines he wants to drink. "Absolutely," Brady replies.

He says that Hall doesn't dictate wine styles. Hall concurs, saying he prefers a more collaborative approach. But "Don certainly is in charge of it," he says.

There was one decision Brady had to be persuaded about, though. Hall says that when he told Brady they were going to produce a vintage port, Brady was skeptical. But Hall already had the traditional Portuguese grape varieties planted, so it was a done deal. It's turned out to be a big seller for the winery, Hall says.

The port is just one example of the varied wine lineup at Robert Hall Winery. In addition to the aforementioned cabernet sauvignon and Rhone-style wines (including syrah, grenache, viognier and red, white and rose blends), the wines range from chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to orange muscat and zinfandel.

All of the wines are very well-made, but my favorites are the Rhones. Among the whites, the 2005 viognier ($18) is fresh and a little floral, with aromas and flavors of peach blossom, white peach and pear, along with zippy acidity. The 2005 Blanc de Robles ($24), a blend, is crisp and minerally, with racy white peach flavors and a long finish.

A red Rhone blend, the 2004 Rhone de Robles ($18), was named the best California Rhone blend at last summer's California State Fair. It's easy to drink and smooth, with bright flavors of blackberry, sweet strawberry, chocolate and roasted coffee. The 2004 syrah ($18) is smooth and smoky, while the 2004 grenache ($24) offers pretty strawberry fruit and supple tannins. The 2003 reserve syrah ($34) is a little heartier, with bright blackberry, a note of white pepper and good balance.

The 2005 Robert Hall Rose de Robles ($14) is delightful, with soft cherry and raspberry flavors, along with a floral note; the 2006 version will be released in March.

You can taste these and the other current releases at the winery's impressive year-old visitor center, which has become a popular stop on the Highway 46 East corridor.

It's hard to say whether the developer in Hall eventually will prompt him to tackle another project, but for now he's enjoying what he's built in Paso Robles.

"We're getting into the big league in Paso Robles," Hall says. "I can't think of a place I'd rather live."