TOPGUN instructor and Navy Pilot Hal “Bull” Schmitt

© 2017-Atascadero News

Stumbles into wine industry and keeps the course

TEMPLETON – Being a TOPGUN pilot and instructor can be a highly stressful career. In order to decompress, Hal “Bull” Schmitt would land himself in Paso Robles from his Leemore Naval Station in hazy Kings County to drink the wines from his favorite appellation with his Navy fighter pilot friends. He’d been stationed all over the Far East and lived all over the world, but preferred to wind down where the weather is equable and the people are welcoming. Though he loved frequenting the wine country, he hadn’t considered himself a wine connoisseur at the time.

He said he just aimed at putting a dent in the growing Paso Robles wine supply.

Volatus, which is Latin for ‘flight’ is Schmitt’s wine label, a yearly production of 600 or 700 cases of about four reds, one white, and a rosé. Schmitt has been making the wine out of the Midnight Cellars winery for about nine years now.

But becoming a winemaker had not been Schmitt’s career plan at all. He had a rock solid military career under his belt already. He didn’t need another job. All he wanted was a little down time.

The big change in the wind came when Midnight’s winemaker Rich Hartenberger decided to pour a ‘95 Cabernet Franc into Schmitt’s glass, a single varietal wine that Schmitt hadn’t ever heard of. While bonding over Hartenberger and Schmitt’s Notre Dame and Midwest connection, Schmitt realized that glass was the best wine he had ever tasted, and it felt like a revelatory slap in the face.

“It was that moment of clarity,” Schmitt remembered thinking, “This is why people like wine.” Midnight Cellars’ ‘95 Cab Franc is still up in Schmitt’s top three wines. He’s saved stashes of bottles, and opened one up just the other night with his brother, Kevin Schmitt, who heads the Volatus sales and quality control from Virginia. Both brothers couldn’t believe the wine was “still tremendous.”

Schmitt was so impressed that day that he offered to help Hartenberger on his next harvest. A couple months later, Hartenberger called him back, asking if he still wanted to help, and if he could start right away.

Schmitt went to get Navy approval for his new side project. Luckily, his commanding officer happened to be huge into wine.

“He said take as much time as you need as long as you bring wine back,” Schmitt said.

So Schmitt took leave from the Navy. He has only missed two harvests since 1998, because of two Navy deployments, but otherwise, the winemaking and the close relationship he developed with the Hartenberger family completely hooked Schmitt. His jet has landed in Paso.

Nowadays Schmitt flies quite a few planes, literally and figuratively. His 2016 harvest recap includes a CAVU white Rhone blend, made with Viognier from the Caliza Vineyard up the road, Grenache Blanc, and Roussane from Templeton Gap.

A small, family grower contributed to the Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s now “tucked away” in two year old French barrels.

Schmitt bought a couple tons of Syrah from the El Pomar district, falling for the dark fruit flavors and deep, inky purple color, which will blend into the Fox-3. He found some Petit Verdot and Tannat for blending as well. Schmitt said he is “totally hooked” on Tannat ever since he found a couple vineyards that grow the dark and intense “but not overly tannic” varietal. He made more Tannat in 2016, than any other varietal.

For all the Volatus reds, Schmitt used a long cold soak process for ultimum extraction.

Volatus can be sold online to most states, but the bulk of sales are Schmitt’s wine club members, who Schmitt said are closely supported by military folk. The wine club is named “The Ready Room” after the aircraft carrier space where fighter squadrons would historically wait to be prepared at a moment’s notice.

The Volatus Reserve Red ($25)  is Schmitt’s top seller. The 2007 blend of Malbec and Syrah, known for its’ warm, velvety voluptuous characteristics, was given 92 points by the Sommelier Company.

The 2014 TOPGUN Cuvee ($28), a Paso Robles Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon blend, is a full-bodied wine.

“Our plan forward with the current wine is that Bordeaux style blend,” Schmitt said.  “I like oak so there’s great oak on it.”

His 2014 Fox-3 ($32) is a 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache.

“I’m biased but it’s pretty tasty wine,” said Schmitt, adding that the term Fox-3 is a call pilots make when they fire a missile.

“When I went to TOPGUN that was my first lecture and first subject matter that I had to master,” he said.

Also available now is Schmitt’s 2015 bright ruby Pinot Noir from the Adelaida District ($34) and the 2016 Bolter Rosé ($14) made from the dry rosé of Tannat, Grenache and a hint of Viognier.

The 2014 Inside Passage Reserve White ($25) is Schmitt’s first white wine, and is a sumptuous blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. His 2015 CAVU ($25), named after the ultralight aircraft, is a blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne.

In between winemaking, Schmidt also performs tactical systems and analyst work for TAC Air, a company run by former TOPGUN graduates. He may be preparing for harvest one day and working on airplane weapons systems and giving lessons on new fighter planes on other days.

Schmitt is always in motion. He also runs a photography school with his wife, Victoria, leading groups of adventure photographers to Alaska twice each spring to photograph eagles, glaciers and bears.

He is also the father of three daughters, two of whom have claimed the small vineyard at their Templeton home as their own. He and his wife Victoria work together in the wine and photography business, working late photographing bottles of Volatus, and lately, cooking anything and everything on Schmitt’s sous vide oven.

Schmitt’s life and winemaking philosophy might have been channelled by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus himself, as he believes, like Epicurus, that happiness is not a private affair, and it can be more readily achieved where like-minded individuals band together to help inspire one another’s pursuit of happiness. He has a wonderful, encouraging relationship with “Toby” winemaker at Tobin James Cellars. James talked Schmitt into increasing his production to be two feet in the game. Schmitt completely delights in making good wine, and he loves to share it with others, especially his surrogate family at Midnight Cellars.

“I can geek out like the best of them on wine, but you don’t need to do that all the time,” he said. He likes to keep busy with many projects, and said he feels fortunate to be still flying, while also enjoying the fun of winemaking and leading photography groups.

“There’s a lot of things that I like to do that share something in common,” he said. “I did learn that when you’re flying fighters, especially fighters in a dynamic environment, everybody tends to think you need this technical skillset. Yes, it’s true, but the best pilots are those who can think in an artistic manner as well. So it has to be a combination of the technical and of the art.”

The other night he and his wife, who watch cooking shows for ideas, made a birthday dinner for Victoria’s sister: Super slow roasted tri-tip on the sous vide paired with a Fox-3, and Alaskan snow crab legs paired with his rhone white CAVU. His 3-year-old, Tiernan, preferred eating a hot dog, but his 7-year-old daughter Sorin (named after the founder of Notre Dame), and Reagan, his 10-year-old, were all over it. His daughters picked for the vineyard last year. Schmitt may come across as a serious person because of the TOPGUN conditioning, more of an Iceman than a Maverick, but as soon as he starts talking about wine, the creativity and passion pours out, and it’s obvious Schmitt has landed on a path that suits him and his wines mimik his spirit of perfectionism and dedication, as well as his Epicurus-centered philosophy that drinking and eating should be fun and social. Schmitt said he’d be bored doing only one thing. “There’s zero stress involved in winemaking,” he said. “It’s kind of a fun, creative process. It’s very different than everything else I do. Now I’m fortunate to do it more often.”

The movie Top Gun has played a role in his life, believe it or not. Until the movie, Schmitt thought Military pilots were strictly Air Force.

Schmitt was born into a strong family in St. Louis, Mo., as the oldest of three siblings, but his father’s job as an Air Force officer led him to grow up at military bases all on both coasts of the United States and abroad, including Seoul, South Korea.

“It was pretty good living actually,” said Schmitt. “In retrospect it [moving around] was the best thing that ever happened to me. You learn to adapt to things and meet new people.”

In his high school years in Southeast Virginia, when his father was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Schmitt was set on following in his father’s flight path as an Air Force pilot. As a perfect package of good grades and success in sports, Schmitt proved to be military officer material, and was offered scholarships to go the Air Force path, only the Air Force wanted him to be an electrical engineer, which didn’t appeal to the young Schmitt.

That’s when he saw the movie and realized that Tom Cruz’s character was a pilot in the Navy.

“I feel the need…” as the movie line goes. “...for speed.”

Schmitt’s mother offered him a trip to visit Notre Dame. He fell in love the minute he stepped foot on campus, and decided he’d give them a call. Notre Dame offered him a scholarship, so Schmitt went into Notre Dame in Liberal Arts as a Russian language major and onto a 15 year career in the Navy.

In flight school, because of a gap year when, because of logistics, he couldn’t start learning to dogfight and to simulate aggressor roles in a trainer plane going 150-175 miles per hour, Schmitt was sent to an advanced fighter squadron in Virginia, a term called being “stashed.” The result was that his first flights were not in small airplanes but in F-16’s and A-4’s operating at 400-600 miles an hour. That kind of training gave Schmitt a head start at the speed of sound. He went on to fly the Hornet out in California just because he wanted to, remembering the photographs his father took on his many travels to the Golden State, on a camera his father bought during the Vietnam War. Schmitt would later go on multiple tours based from Naval Station Leemore and a couple tours at the Fallon Naval Station in Nevada, where TOPGUN is located. Much of his work in the Navy was in the Middle East.

There’s a certain amount of stoicism that comes with being a Navy pilot. You’d better not boast like Maverick. Schmitt is humble about his time about his two tours as a TOPGUN pilot, but you can’t help but imagine him doing the Iceman bite scene with a cork between his teeth.

Victoria Schmitt liked the “stable,” tactical side of Hal. She was finishing up a Photography and Graphic Design degree at Cal Poly when she met him. He was on his second tour at TOPGUN, but also making wine, another delight they had in common.

“She was absolutely the right person for me coming out of the Navy,” said Schmitt. “She comes from a radically different background from me.”

Victoria’s father is the drummer for Supertramp. Victoria Schmitt runs the West Coast quality control, sales and marketing for Volatus. In 2007, the Schmitt bought the Lepp Institute of Digital Imaging, a photography school she was managing in Los Osos, and the couple has been teaching clients photographic techniques ever since. Hal didn’t even own a camera at the time he purchased the school, but, like winemaking, rolled up his pant legs to stomp grapes, becoming proficient in no time, and decided to put his TOPGUN instructor techniques into teaching photography classes.

As a winemaker, Schmitt will continue to enjoy the process.

“Yes, it’s a business, but it should be fun,” he said. “I really believe more than anything that wine is made for drinking, and it should be a social experience. Yes, you can drink on your own, but it’s better when you have family and friends around. That’s how we approach everything.”

By “everything,” he might have meant the winemaking, or the piloting, or the cooking, or maybe even fatherhood. But whatever the project may be, Schmitt takes it to Volatus.