Craig Hall: A real estate career crafted like fine wine

Craig Hall has a knack for cultivating land.

In the Lone Star state, the soft-spoken developer builds office parks and high-rise towers. Lesser known in California, the billionaire has grown a whole new appreciation for soil. In Napa Valley, the soil means world-class grapes that transform into some of his award-winning wine.

Each has a place in his world. For Hall, he’s obsessed with doing projects he thinks are interesting and, hopefully, profitable.

“As a real estate guy, I had nothing to do with farming other than buying farmland to build a building,” he said. “Now, I’m a farmer and it’s so much fun to realize you can’t control everything, but you can influence the grapes by how much water you put on the vines and when and how you do it.”

Hall, 66, who oversees billions in real estate, said people are typically more interested in his wine business than anything else.

“It’s interesting that out of all these cool businesses I’ve worked on if I mention the word wine it’s like saying you make movies or own a sports team,” said the chairman and CEO of Dallas-based Hall Group. “I guess it’s romantic.”

He still remembers shopping for a Valentine’s gift for his wife Kathryn years ago when a woman noticed his ‘Hall’ winery shirt and told him, “Your Merlot changed my life.”

That passion for the carefully curated deep red liquid had a meaningful impact on Hall.

“It made me feel so good to be involved in making a product and creating something that someone had such an emotional, visceral reaction,” he told the Dallas Business Journal over a bottle of 2013 Hall “Jack’s Masterpiece,” Cabernet Sauvignon in the Arts District. “That was really neat.”

This month, the Dallas developer turned vintner released his latest book, “A Perfect Score,” that he wrote with his wife, Kathryn Hall.

The book — which is the sixth authored by Craig Hall — examines the couple’s acquisition of an 1885 winery in Napa Valley two decades ago leading to their HALL and WALT wines winning numerous awards, including two 100-point perfect scores by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, which is a consumer’s guide to fine wines.

If it weren’t for Kathryn, it would be unlikely Craig Hall would’ve found his rock star status. And, if it weren’t for her calming influence, the book might have been three times as long and made the real estate guru some new enemies.

“We have enough tension in the (wine) business, but we had a lot of tension fighting about the book,” he said. “If we kept the unabridged version, we would make twice the money.”

But Kathryn’s softer hand prevailed in the final edits. The former U.S. ambassador to Austria nixed some of the details surrounding the headaches in getting certain construction permits.

“We need a lot of reforms to our regulation in this country to free up entrepreneurs and developers to do things,” he said.

And that’s what Craig Hall brought to the couple’s winery business: An overflowing passion for real estate and business.

“I don’t know how to make anything small or a semi-hobby,” he said. “I just like to put it on steroids and go. So, that’s what I did and I really committed to doing it.”

Putting in a stake

Craig Hall didn’t know a thing about wine before meeting his wife, Kathryn. At one time, he said, he believed rosé was made from mixing red and white wine.

That changed in 1991 when he met the high-powered attorney that ran for mayor of Dallas, who later introduced him to her love for nature, taught him how to relax and brought him to her hometown in Redwood Valley in California. The two were soul mates from the get-go and, later, their wine empire seemed predestined.

But, like grapevines struggling for water and sunlight against a Napa Valley hillside, the business wasn’t easy. For Craig Hall, that’s the only kind of business he knows.

The Ann Arbor, Michigan native grew up the son of parents that served in World War II. Without a college education, his father went to work after the war to support a family. At an early age, Craig was diagnosed as mildly epileptic and put on medication to control his seizures, which made it difficult for him to concentrate in school and he was “kind of a bad student.”

He didn’t come out of his shell until he was taken off the medication in fifth grade. In high school, he became mayor for a day in Ann Arbor with a focus on student housing issues.

“In my view, students were getting ripped off by the landlords,” he said. “I took office for a day and presided over the city council and found to my shock and chagrin that in one day I couldn’t solve all the city’s problems.”

When the teenager turned 18, he decided to take his life savings of $4,000 — earned from working multiple paper routes, mowing lawns and washing dishes among other enterprises — to buy a rooming house to prove he could be a “good guy” landlord that could make a modest profit while providing a nice home to students.

“I planned to own it for one or two years, fix it up and sell it,” said Hall, who, at the time, wanted to be a social worker. “My motivation was purely political.”

Instead, Hall caught the real estate bug and never looked back. By 21, he was a millionaire. Then he moved to Dallas and built a $3 billion empire in the mid-1980s, which included a 10 percent stake of the Dallas Cowboys and a chain of racquetball courts he branded with Sports Illustrated.

Then the world changed. The Savings and Loan crisis hit as inflation and interest rates declined leaving over-leveraged properties exposed, including some of Hall’s real estate investments.

And, unlike today, Texas was the worst place in the United States for investment. Hall began liquidating personal assets, such as his stake in the Cowboys. It wasn’t enough.

In the resulting hysteria of the S&L crisis, Congress passed a law allowing the feds to seize underwater assets. Without Hall’s knowledge, the feds came after his real estate assets and the only way to keep them was to file personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992.

“That was the lowest point in my life,” he said, admitting he was depressed at the time. “I’m a Midwestern guy and bankruptcy was a terrible, dirty word. But it was the only way to get around the law and maintain control.”

Then he started fighting back.

Valuable lessons

Hall confronted the feds by holding news conferences, making his own allegations. Later, he worked out a deal with government officials and leveraged existing business relationships to get enough cash to satisfy debts.

By 1993, Hall was back in the real estate game having learned some important lessons. He learned that when your lenders go broke, you go broke. He learned that you always need to be a little bit scared; the world changes. Most important, he learned not to give up.

“I’ve had a lot of down times and disappointments in my life where I felt the things going against me were hard to figure out and I didn’t know how I would stay alive, but you get up the next day and keep going,” he said. “Eventually, it works out.”

Those business lessons eventually paid off years later in Napa Valley. But Craig Hall also had a lot to learn about the winery business.

One of those lessons: Finding a good vineyard is similar to finding other good real estate.

“I thought all vineyards would produce the same wine, but each vineyard is different,” he said. “The sun, soil and microclimate in some vineyards are much better than others. It’s like real estate. If you have the hard corner, you’ll have a better retail operation versus being in the back of a big shopping center.

“Everything is about the grapes,” Hall added. “If you don’t have great grapes you can’t have great wine. The Napa Valley grape struggles for sun and water. You want it to be small and dense, which gives it the uniqueness of its flavor.”

The Hall duo bought and completely transformed a vineyard and winery in Napa Valley, where they started their business.

The big turning point, however, for Hall’s winery business was buying the Napa Valley Co-op property. Kathryn Hall described it as a 33-acre “hodge-podge of factory-style buildings,” reminiscent of the properties in Craig’s first book, “The Real Estate Turnaround.” The book describes taking small buildings and rooming homes and turning them into profitable ventures.

“This was a large, well-located piece of real estate and I knew I would do something with it that would be special,” said Craig Hall.

“It would require building a large enough brand and a large enough business to be worthy of the real estate. In a way, the real estate drove part of the business, but it was also my entrepreneurial personality.”

“If you dropped me on Mars, I would start a business there,” he added. “That’s just what I do.”

Building a landscape

Hall recently committed to helping prominent businessman Walt Humann with the controversial revitalization of the historical Art Deco buildings in Fair Park. He donated $1 million to help develop Klyde Warren Park and he’s focused on his firm’s land holdings in Frisco, Richardson and Dallas.

The second phase of Hall Arts in Dallas’ Arts District is being routed through the city’s permitting process and Hall has already started construction on the 17th office building within Hall Park in Frisco. When Hall started the office park in 1998, the Dallas North Tollway ended south of State Highway 121 and there wasn’t a road to the field that would soon become a massive 162-acre, 2.2 million-square-foot, campus style office park.

Frisco Mayor Maher Maso said Hall was a visionary that saw what the future could hold for the North Texas city.

“Other developers said he was crazy, but he was the first true visionary that took a big risk, but also had a vision of what the community would look like,” he said.

For Herb Weitzman, a longtime friend of Craig Hall’s and chairman of The Weitzman Group, the developer has a passion combined with an unbelievable work ethic.

“When you combine those two things, you get results,” he said.

Earlier this year, Hall and his wife Kathryn sold the last of the couple’s multi-family holdings, which was “sort of an emotional thing,” for Hall, who got his start renting out a rooming home in Michigan.

Hall said he plans to focus on developing office buildings and helping creating more high-rise projects, as Dallas-Fort Worth becomes a denser region.

Even as Hall contemplates tearing down some low-rise parking garages to make room for more density at Hall Park in Frisco and has yet another speculative office building under construction on the campus, he remains humble when talking about his real estate successes.

“We were truly lucky in Frisco,” Hall said. “I can’t say I knew it was going to happen, but, simplistically, Dallas was growing north and we followed it at the time. It’s not rocket science, it’s real estate.”

Inside “A Perfect Score”

Craig and Kathryn Hall’s new book, “A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st Century Winery,” was released this month to the public.

And, in writing it, the couple hope to spread their love of the winery business. After all, it’s a bit of a love story between the two.

“My wine knowledge was non-existent before meeting Kathryn,” said Craig Hall, chairman and founder of Hall Group. “It was a big schism in our relationship.”

From the beginning, Hall knew how much Kathryn loved the place she grew up in California, in which wine flowed freely and decided to take the plunge.

“It was a pretty easy thing to get into and to love,” he said. “I’m from Michigan. That and a number of other states don’t have great wine. We had a cider mill that served non-alcoholic cider with donuts, which was a very different experience.”

Only about 4 percent of all the wine coming from California is from Napa Valley, but the valley is known for producing world-class cabernets. From the soil to the climate to the earth of the vineyard, it make all the sense in the world, he said.

Craig and Kathryn’s book chronicles the pair’s journey in navigating the industry as novice vintners to producing two wines with a 100-point perfect score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, which is the consumer’s guide to fine wine.

In all, the HALL wineries have produced 50 kinds of wine with 95 points or higher in part because of the quality of grapes grown at the winery’s five organic vineyards.

The Hall guide to appreciating fine wine

Craig Hall isn’t a wine snob. He gained an appreciation for wine after he met his wife Kathryn, who grew up in the vintner culture of California.

But there are ways to appreciate good wine if you didn’t grow up in the culture, he said.

“There’s never a right way or wrong way to drink wine, I really believe the most important thing about wine is to enjoy it,” said Hall, chairman and founder of Dallas-based Hall Group.

Recently, Hall sat down with the Dallas Business Journal in the Arts District outside his newly developed KPMG Plaza at Hall Arts to discuss his love for Kathryn, winemaking and his innate ability to start a business. Here are some tips from Craig on how to handle a fine wine:

  • Give wine time to breath after the bottle is uncorked.
  • About 2 to 3 percent of all wine you buy in a restaurant is going to be a bad bottle of wine. It’s called “corked,” and it happens when air gets in between the cork and the glass, which causes it to oxidize and taste funny. Most people don’t know this and think it’s not a good bottle of wine, but we want people to send wine back and we’re happy to take it back. The worst thing in the industry is to think it’s just not a good bottle of wine. I’ve even had our wine and the bottle has gotten corked.
  • Hold the wine glassby the stem and swirl it around to give it a chance to breathe.
  • Sniff the wine and enjoy the aromatics of the wine. It’s not just about the liquid on your tongue. It’s also about the nose.
  • Taste the wine. It’s about the texture and feel of it on your tongue. You want a nice aftertaste. Taste it on different parts of your tongue.
  • Don’t gulp down wine. In some countries, there’s a saying that basically translates into, “bottom’s up,” and they gulp their wine. But wine should be slowly enjoyed. Let the wine gently go over your tongue. Smell it and feel the texture of the wine on your tongue. It’s a full sensory experience.
  • Don’t drink wine in excess, especially at a business function. Wine is meant to be with food and meant to be enjoyed in a manner that is responsible.

Craig and Kathryn Hall timeline

  • 1991: Former Texas Governor Ann Richards introduces the Halls to one another in Dallas.
  • 1992:Craig Hall takes his first trip to California with his future wife Kathryn and gets hooked on the wine culture.
  • 1995: Craig and Kathryn Hall make their first real estate play in California vineyards by buying the Sacrashe vineyard.
  • 1997: On Craig’s birthday (April 11), Kathryn gets a call from the White House with a request she become U.S. ambassador to Austria. The Hall family lives in Vienna for the next four years.
  • 1998:Craig Hall opens his first office building in Hall Office Park, which was later renamed Hall Park. Currently, the 17th building began construction within the 162-acre campus-style office park in Frisco.
  • 2001: Craig and Kathryn return to Dallas and return to the business of making wine in Napa Valley, but the novice vintners learn they have to gain a reputation to begin selling and distributing wine.
  • 2002: The couple hires Mike Reynolds as president of the Hall wine operations. Reynolds is charged with improving the technology and quality of the wine.
  • 2004: Hall begins building the caves and winery of the new Rutherford winery.
  • 2005: The Hall Rutherford winery is launched and the couple hosts a grand opening for the Napa Valley community. The couple also buys a 2,300-acre parcel of land called Miranda Leonard Ranch.
  • 2006: Craig and Kathryn meet with a wine brand consultant to decide how best market the personality of the couple’s wine.
  • 2007-09: The recession hits Napa Valley hard and premium wine sales sharply decline as a result. At that time, the Hall St. Helena winery is the midst of being built, putting further financial strain on the business.
  • 2007:Craig Hall earns the Horatio Alger Award, which is an award honoring people who have succeeded in spite of adversity.
  • 2010: The Halls acquire Roessler Pinot Noir in August to grow the business.
  • 2013: Craig and Kathryn learn in November the winery’s 2010 HALL Exzellenz Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded a perfect 100-point score (the winery’s first) from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
  • 2016: Hall’s Napa Valley wineries have more than 170 scores of 90+ points from the consumer’s guide, which include two perfect scores by Parker’s Wine Advocate.

Candace covers commercial and residential real estate and sports business.

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