Wednesdays with Winemakers – Donald Patz 6 min read

Donald Patz, founder and partner in Patz and Hall Wine Co., first got interested in wine while pursuing a degree in biology at the University of Oregon. His passion eventually brought him to Santa Rosa where he started his career in sales for a nationwide wine distributor. In 1985, Donald accepted a national sales management position at Flora Springs Winery where he became fast friends with then assistant winemaker James Hall. They bonded over the belief in hand-crafting small lots of artisanal wines from top-notch fruit. Three years later, the two business partners, along with their life partners, founded Patz & Hall. It wasn’t until 1995 that Donald was able to give up his day job at Flora Springs, and later at Girard, that helped fund his startup winery. Today, Patz & Hall is a prosperous brand with tens of thousands of fans worldwide. The unwavering commitment to crafting world-class Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs using finest fruit from the most notable vineyards, has paid off.


Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?

For me – it’s important to do something really challenging and interesting. I liked the fact that every year is different and the way that site and micro-climate would impact the end result of our wines. Having a chance every year to make something unique that brings pleasure is very satisfying.


If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?

I don’t know! I know I would not have gone to work for a big corporation. I might have chosen the Physician path – while in university I was really interested in medicine. It’s the challenge of figuring out what is going on in the body and helping people. Or a Rock Star – yeah, probably a Rock Star!


What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?

My side of PATZ & HALL has really focused on the marketing and sales – I think my strength has been establishing and maintaining some great relationships with sommeliers, wine buyers and our distributors across the USA. That’s been the most fun, too.


What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?

Every winemaker wants to try making every kind of grape into a special wine. The discipline of focusing just on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has been really useful and takes away from the impulse I have – everyone really has – to try doing everything.


What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?

I am grateful that the cellar issues have not been a problem. Maybe the batonage we did on the 1988 vintage – I think we prematurely oxidized it. It was too fun to do it!


What is your proudest achievement?

This whole thing at PATZ & HALL. We really started with so little at the beginning, it’s really amazing that we have come this far! But, you probably mean besides that. We were there really early on with Pinot Noir and I think all the partners had a vision of what California Pinot Noir could become. We staked a lot on the future quality of Pinot Noir and I am so proud of the path it has taken industry wide – as well as being one of the earlier producers.


What was your scariest vintage to date?

It was our second vintage. There was a lot of controversy about it due to early rain making an impact on the harvest. The wine 1989 NAPA VALLEY CHARDONNAY was good but hardly a show-stopper. We did a lot of careful sorting and really had all the fruit in before much rain hit. It lingered on in our warehouse long after we released it – the only time that’s happened. Eventually, it sold – we were so glad to see those last cases go!


What is your favorite word or saying?

“Hey! What’s that?” There’s a story to it that I’ll tell you sometime.


What is your most prized possession?

My wife gave me a Rolex watch. I am not generally impressed by possessions but I really like my Rolex!


What song best sums you up?

There are not many songs about wine. I am a big Rolling Stones fan, “Sweet Virginia” has a line about California wine. I’ll go with that.


What is your favorite memory?

Wine memory? My favorite wine memory is from the time before PATZ & HALL when a friend of mine told me that he didn’t believe any wine over $10 was really any better than a good one for $10 or less. So, I told him to bring his favorite $10 bottle over and I would pull out a bottle I like. We tasted his – I think it was a Chianti – anyway, we both agreed it was pretty nice. It was long ago – I brought out a Ridge Zinfandel (1977 Shenandoah to be exact). His eyes almost popped out of his head. A month later we were both looking at wines in a local wine shop and he was asking me if the $30 bottle of Grand Cru Chablis was a “good deal.” It’s fun to share wine.


Which of the 5 senses is your strongest?

I find I smell a lot of things! HA!


What is your biggest motivation?

I think it’s succeeding as a team. We’ve come a long way as a collection of families from the partners to the current employees and the vineyard families. It’s important to everyone that we strive for something even better from PATZ & HALL.


Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?

Krug Champagne. It’s pretty versatile. If it’s my own wines then I’d choose HYDE VINEYARD – Carneros Pinot Noir. Tomorrow I might choose something else.


What is the difference between a good and great wine?

Harmony and intensity. Great wines to me just have more of everything than lesser wines. More flavor, more complexity and more mouth filling textures. They also bring it all together within a harmonious whole where each component is amplified by the others.


Name 3 individuals you would like to have dinner with.

David Lynch (Film Director), Bill Plante (CBS News), Vladimir Putin (President of Russia)


Who is your winemaking hero?

There are several but today I would say Martin Ray. He believed in 100% Chardonnay and 100% Pinot Noir wines before anyone else was serious about them. He made very personal, sometimes very idiosyncratic wines. He was very outspoken about the California wine business and I think there is an echo of what he was trying to do still running through the wine business.


What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?

It seems fairly straightforward – balance means that the wine has all of its components in alignment so that none of them is dominating. I like harmony in its place now since balance is often a euphemism for Acidity (and under ripe fruit). Every winemaker who has ever set out to make something special has had balance in mind. No one has a lock on the idea of producing balanced wines – it’s what we all do.


What is the one thing you want people to remember aboutyour wine?

Aromas. Great wines make you want to savor the smell and wonder at the complexity and power and diversity that can be produced from grapes. This is especially true for Pinot Noir.


Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?

I wish all California Chardonnays tasted like this! (consumer at the Wine Experience) By the way – I am glad they don’t!

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson is Editor-in-Chief at PalateXposure, a destination site for oenophiles, gourmands and luxury travelers. She also recently launched #Wine, a site dedicated to wines and spirits reviews, and #Photography, a site devoted to high-quality wine, food, and travel related photography.

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