Learn about Hal Schmitt, a real-life Top Gun maverick and his transition into winemaking.
From Top Gun standout to maverick winemaker, Hal Schmitt has flown a unique path to becoming owner of Volatus Wines in Paso Robles, California.
As a teenager, Schmitt had his sights set on the military, not merlot. He attended Notre Dame University on a Navy scholarship, participated in the ROTC program, and immediately entered the Navy after graduation. During his 15-year naval career, Schmitt achieved the rank of Lt. Commander, was deployed in the middle east, attended the prestigious Top Gun flight school and served as an instructor there twice.
After his first fleet tour flying the F18, Schmitt was eligible to apply to attend Top Gun. Less than five percent of fighter pilots are accepted.
“I’ve always wanted to be the best I could possibly be, and I had some advocates and was accepted into the March 2000 class,” Schmitt says.
After graduating the course, Schmitt stayed for three years as an instructor, before another sea-based tour. After that he returned to Top Gun as an instructor.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: THE PERFECT PAIRINGS BY SOMMELIER ERIK SEGELBAUM OF MONOGRAM
Ironically, what is now a prestigious move, torpedoed his career back then.
“In every occupation there are certain things you must do to advance. At that time returning to Top Gun took me off that path,” Schmitt says. “Back then the Navy wanted you to get out of the cockpit and attend the Naval War College, but I was young, aggressive and very good in the airplane and I thought I could have a bigger impact as a Top Gun instructor.”
After he made the decision, Schmitt soon realized that the next five years after Top Gun weren’t going to look the way he imagined. Thankfully, he had an unexpected ace up his sleeve—wine.
FROM THE SKY TO THE VINEYARDS
Unbeknownst to him, Schmitt was priming the soil for his second act since the start of his naval career.
“In the late 1990s I was stationed 90 minutes away from Paso Robles. There wasn’t much to do in the town we were at, so we came to Paso,” he explains. “At the time I didn’t know anything about wine and didn’t really like it. In fact, I was usually the designated driver.”
It was meeting winemaker Rich Hartenberger, owner of Midnight Cellars that changed everything for Schmitt.
Hartenberger noticed that Schmitt didn’t join his friends sampling the wine, inquired why and when Schmitt said he didn’t like it, Hartenberger made it his mission to change his mind.
“He opened a 1995 bottle of Cabernet Franc and from the second it was uncorked I could smell it,” Schmitt says. “And after tasting it I was hooked.”
With his Type A personality and perfectionism, Schmitt doesn’t do anything half way and enthusiastically jumped into his newfound passion.
“I started sweeping floors at Midnight Cellars and learning everything I could,” he says. “In 1998 I worked my first harvest with them after my CO gave me time off from the navy as long as I brought him a case of wine back.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Almost everything Schmitt learned about wine and winemaking was learned from the pioneers of the Paso Robles wine industry and from simply doing.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: WINE WEEKEND IN WILLAMETTE | UTOPIA VINEYARD
“The sense of community here is tremendous. You can learn from everyone,” Schmitt says. “99 percent of winemakers here will teach you anything you want to know, there isn’t a sense of competition. It was working with Midnight Cellars, Dark Star, Joey Barton of Barton Family Wines and others that taught me almost everything I know about wine.”
While deployed, Schmitt also read the coursebooks used in UC Davis’ prestigious viticulture program. In 2004, on the urging of his friends in Paso, Schmitt made his first vintage.
GOING ALL IN
Finally, in 2007 Schmitt left the navy and went all in on his passion for wine and his burgeoning label, Volatus Wine.
Meaning, flight in Latin, the apropos named winery makes a wide variety of wines, thanks to the sheer number of varietals that thrive in Paso Robles. Volatus owns a small vineyard planted with Zinfandel and makes an estate Zin that is surprising low in alcohol for a Zinfandel grown in Paso. Schmitt sources grapes from 12 different growers in the area for the rest of his wines.
Many of the wines in the Volatus portfolio are named after flying terms including the 2021 Charlie, a 100 percent, lightly oaked Chardonnay, the 2020 Fox-3, a Grenache/Syrah blend and the Bolter, my personal favorite rosé out of Paso Robles.
Schmitt met his wife, Victoria at Midnight Cellars and other Volatus wines honor her famous musical family. Her father was the drummer in Supertramp and the Bloody Well Right, a 100 percent Tannat and the 100 percent Tempranillo Long Way Home honor him. The Dancing in the Moonlight Chardonnay and The Boys are Back Syrah pay homage to her uncle who was the guitarist in Thin Lizzy.
“I want our wines to taste how that grape should taste, to taste like it comes from Paso and to show my personality, which is serious, but fun-loving,” Schmitt says. “If I’ve done this, I’ve reached my goal with wine.”