Webster C. Hall matures into fine wine

SALEM – From the name and the antique painting of a hunt scene on its label, anyone seeing a bottle of Webster C. Hall’s 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve could believe the winery has been around ages.

The boutique winery with roots in Salem is relatively new on the scene, although one of its founders has made wine for more than 60 years.

“I have been making wine since I was 11 years old,” said Salem resident Charlie Hunt, “and I’m 74 now.”

Jesse Webster, left, and Steve Claytor enjoy a glass of their Webster C. Hall Cabernet Franc Reserve which is rooted in the dreams of Webster and Charlie Hall of Salem. They are at the winery in Franklin County on Cahas Mountain near Callahan. Photo courtesy Webster C. Hall Winery

Friends Hall and Jesse Webster of Salem and later, partner Steve Claytor of Oak Grove, planted almost 1,000 fine red wine grape vines on a little more than 1 acre in Franklin County. They produce about 3,500 bottlers per year, on average, said Webster.

More recently, the partners hired a top wine maker in Virginia to blend their vintages for them and a California firm to redesign their label. The wines started out as Barking Beagle, which is a story in itself.

“Wild turkeys were marching down the rows like Sherman through Georgia,” said Webster, as well as raccoons, deer and some ground hogs. So they started putting a trio of beagles in the fenced vineyard when the grapes began getting ripe. They still use the beagles, Hall said.

Charlie Hall started making wine when he was 11, he says. Photo by Steve Claytor

In 2010 the fellows decided to “improve our image and contracted with a California firm,” explained Webster.

“Now we have a really pretty label of an Australian hunt scene, with long-legged fox hounds, English ivy and a big tree.”

Their first wine was a 70 percent Cab Franc-Merlot mix, Hall said. “We were fermenting the two grapes separately and making varietal wines.”

About four years ago they added the smaller Petit Verdot grapes for more color and flavor, he said.

Although the friends started out doing all the work themselves, from planting to pruning to making the wine, today they have help. They consulted with Chris Hill a viticulturist from Charlottesville, and award-winning winemaker Michael Shaps, who is the enologist (the name for someone who makes wine).

But the blood, sweat and tears of starting the winery and planting the vines – with the help of a lot of friends, Webster pointed out – was all Hall, Webster and later, Claytor’s. Hall says he mostly “sits and supervises these days.”

“We spend lots of time tending the vines,” Webster said. “We have some people out in the country helping us by spraying, 14 times a year. We use some pretty environmental sprays. We don’t use any pesticides. We’re not organic but we’re really close. We use fungicides for the fungus. They have a really short life and biodegrade pretty quickly.”

The new label for Webster C. Hall wine features a antique painting of hunting beagles. Photo courtesy Webster C. Hall Wine

In March, they’ll be doing the initial pruning of the vines, which they’ll do three more times to prevent the grape leaves from shading the vines. “If we didn’t hedge them back, they’d be 12 feet tall,” Webster said, laughing.

In the summer, they pick leaves off the clusters so the grapes get more sunshine, then pick the grapes in October with the help of friends, he said.

“We transport the grapes the same day to the Charlottesville area to Michael Shaps. We pick and haul and try to get them there the same day because grapes need to stay cool and to keep them from growing rogue yeast,” Webster explained.

Webster C. Hall uses some new French oak barrels each year, and some used ones from California. The wine ages in barrels for about 10 months, and then it is transported back to the winery in Franklin County, said Webster, who

Two neighbors in Franklin County who used to grow apples take care of the vines. “They are familiar with fungus diseases of apples, so they know when to spray,” Webster said.

Early on, he took wine-making courses at Virginia Tech. “I took my first vintage to that course, and one person took a sip and spit it in the sink! The next year, my wine was better, and in 2007, I actually made some good wine,” Webster said.

He found out growing wine grapes and making wine was a whole lot more work than he originally expected, which Hall already knew. He planted his first vineyard in 1968, he said, in Alleghany Springs near Shawsville. “It was 3 acres, and at the time, supposed to be the largest vineyard in Virginia.”

And even though those were table grapes, Hall said he made some wine he thought was pretty good.

When Hall, who helped teach a lab on grapes and wine in 1972 at Virginia Tech, “They were using grapes from the horticultural farm at Tech where the shopping center is now.”

He recalled how he and Webster got started. “It was 2001 when I talked Jesse into growing wine grapes on his old home place, his ancestral place in Franklin County at the foot of Cahas Mountain, 10 mines from Callaway,” Hall said.

The winery is located “in the middle of nowhere but where the Blackwater River has its origins,” Webster said. “We’re on the slopes above the valley. The advantages are a longer growing season with the cold air going to the valley and the warm air coming up. Cahas Mountain is 3,500 feet and the tallest mountain in Franklin County, the tallest around these parts.”

In an interview last week, Hall explained why he wanted to get into the fine wine business on a small scale.

“It’s sort of a last hurrah. I wanted to have a real top quality wine before I was unable to do it any more,” Hall said. “At 74, I can’t get into the vineyard and do the work like I used to. Steve wanted to buy into it and we needed some young fellow who could do the work.”

Webster is a veterinarian whose full-time job is Vinton Veterinary Hospital. Claytor is vice president of development with Fralin & Waldron in Daleville, and had been considering starting his own vineyard before hooking up with Hall and Webster.

“This thing that started out as fun is turning into work,” Webster added.

In spite of the work, Webster said his wife, Louise, and Claytor’s wife, Kathy, are supportive of their wine passion.

“We have a wine-picking party the first weekend of December, and we invite all the people that helped us pick grapes. I call it the Wine Pickers’ Ball,” Webster added.

Countryside Classics in Salem and Mr. Bill’s Wines on Brambleton in Cave Spring sell two types of Webster C. Hall wines – Cabernet Franc and “Virginia Heritage.”

“It’s pretty tasty,” Webster admitted. Webster C. Hall’s 2012 wines are going to be good, according to winemaker Shaps. Last summer was dry, which is the best weather condition for wine grapes to concentrate their flavor.

The partners also sell their wine by appointment at the winery which is, according to Webster, “is not much to show except wooden barrels and the scenery, and an outdoor fireplace. People who do come love it.”

For more information on Webster C. Hall, go to websterchall.com.