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Ronald Reagan and Von Holt Wines

Peter Alig
June 28, 2011 | Wine | Peter Alig

Ronald Reagan and Von Holt Wines

The direction of U.S. Secret Service agent Chris Von Holt’s life changed forever on a freezing January day in 1985.

Ronald Reagan had just been inaugurated for the second time, and Washington, D.C.-area hotels were bustling in preparation for the dozen or so Inaugural Balls marking the occasion.

Fortunately, Von Holt had enough seniority in the Secret Service not to be stuck outside on such a brutal day. Rather, he was stationed in the kitchen of one of the more prominent hotels, making sure that only authorized personnel entered the ballroom from the kitchen.

While his attention was focused undividedly on the wait staff, cooks, and hosts, during the occasional lull in activity he could not help but notice the numerous courses leaving the kitchen, and the empty plates returning. He counted up to five courses served, a meal he was not accustomed to witnessing.

“It turns out the event in the next room was being hosted by a delegation from California,” he said, “which certainly helped explain why the meal was so sophisticated.”

And, of course, so was the wine.

“In 1985 California wines were taking the nation by storm, and the names on the bottles leaving the kitchen were names most if not all wine enthusiasts would recognize today,” Von Holt recounted.

He even managed to squeeze in some words with the head waiter, who explained to him why certain wines were leaving the kitchen with certain dishes.

“I found this information fascinating, and I could suddenly see myself devoting more o f my time to exploring wine and food, once my days in the Secret Service were over.”

All in the Family

Chris’s wife, Pam, had been exposed to the joys of good food and wine even earlier.

Pam’s best friend growing up was French, so evening visits were spent around the table where wine and food were enjoyed side by side. One of her college friends ended up becoming a Master Sommelier, and conversations with him broadened her understanding of food and wine even further.

Pam successfully pursued accounting as a career, and while she is still involved in her profession, Chris’s retirement from the Secret Service created an opportunity that both of them had considered but never thought they could pull off.

They were now living near San Jose, CA, where Chris had spent the latter part of his Secret Service career. San Jose is an easy day trip to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, the birthplace of the wines Chris saw leave the hotel kitchen on that cold day in 1985.

“It was now or never,” Pam said. “Chris and I decided to make our own wine.”

Von Holt Wines

It is fitting that the seed for Von Holt Wines was planted in Chris Von Holt’s mind on such a frigid day. When Chris and Pam decided to enter the wine industry with Von Holt Wines, they opted to buy grapes from some of Sonoma County’s coolest growing regions.

One thing Chris and Pam learned from their conversations with the head waiter and the Master Sommelier was that wines with good but not overpowering acidity were the most food friendly. Grapes grown in cooler regions tend to be harvested with higher levels of acidity than grapes grown in hotter regions.

According to Pam, “Chris and I had tasted so many wines over the years that simply overpowered our favorite foods, so we consciously focused on making wines with elegance rather than brute strength. Good acidity can be a source of that elegance and freshness we were looking for.”

“We also wanted to make wines with personality,” she added, “wines that tasted like they came from a particular spot on earth, so Chris and I focused on making wines from single vineyards, not several vineyards blended into a single bottle.”

Chris and Pam also chose to make wine from Pinot Noir and Syrah, red grapes particularly suited to cool climates.

After much searching, in 2008 Chris and Pam picked their first Syrah grapes from the Hoppe-Kelly and Old Lakeville Vineyards. Their first Pinot Noir harvest took place a year later, with fruit originating from the Suacci and Ketcham Estate Vineyards.

“We are extremely pleased with our first releases,” said Chris. “Not only were we able to purchase the grapes we wanted, we were able to work with a great winemaker, John Fones, who produces our wines at a first-rate facility in downtown San Francisco.”

Pam added, “I never thought I would end up in the wine industry. It has been so rewarding and so much fun! We’ve met wonderful, passionate people, and we are thrilled to be associated with them.”

The production of Von Holt Wines is a mere 600 cases, 450 of which is Pinot Noir. To put that in perspective, the Napa Valley production of Robert Mondavi Winery is in the neighborhood of 300,000 cases.

“We would like to have made more,” said Chris, “but Pam and I were so selective when it came to fruit!”

NOTE: This article is scheduled to appear in the Summer 2011 newsletter of the Association of Retired Agents of the United States Secret Service (www.oldstar.org).


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