Democrats sparred over a wine cave fundraiser. The Napa cave's billionaire owners aren't pleased

RUTHERFORD, Calif. - To reach the wine cave that set off a firestorm in this week’s Democratic presidential debate, visitors must navigate a hillside shrouded in mossy oak trees and walk down a brick-and-limestone hallway lined with wine barrels. Inside the room, a strikingly long table made of wood and onyx sits below a raindrop chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals.

The furnishings drew the ire of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Thursday when she chastised Pete Buttigieg for holding a recent fundraiser in a wine cave “full of crystals” where, she said, guests were served $900 bottles of wine.

“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” she said. Andrew Yang, a former tech executive, added that candidates should not have to “shake the money tree in the wine cave.”

On Friday, the billionaire couple who owns the wine cave - wine is often stored underground because of the cool, stable temperatures - said they were frustrated that their property had set off one of the fiercest back-and-forths of the debate. Watching the contentious moment on television, they grew frustrated as Warren and other candidates used their winery as a symbol of opulence and the wealthy’s influence on politics.

“I’m just a pawn here,” said Craig Hall, who owns Hall Wines, which is known for its cabernet sauvignon, with his wife, Kathryn Walt Hall. “They’re making me out to be something that’s not true. And they picked the wrong pawn. It’s just not fair.”

Craig Hall said that he had not settled on a favorite Democratic candidate but that Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was a leading contender. His positions on climate change, gun safety and immigration appealed to the couple, said Craig Hall, who added that he wanted it to be easier for middle-class Americans to start successful businesses.

The Halls have given at least $2.4 million to Democratic candidates, committees and PACs since the 1980s, according to Federal Election Commission records. They have donated to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Kamala Harris of California before she ran for president.

But in this election cycle, some Democratic candidates have criticized the spending of wealthy donors like the Halls, arguing that their large contributions can lead to outsize influence on policy - or even jobs in a future administration. Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in particular, have harped on other candidates for soliciting wealthy donors and traveling from coast to coast to attend fundraisers.

For the Halls, the scrutiny has felt personal. Craig Hall said that during the debate, Kathryn Walt Hall turned to him and jokingly said she might go buy something for herself instead of contributing to another political campaign.

Craig Hall, 69, made much of his fortune in the real estate industry and said he started a business at 18 with $4,000 from his savings account. Kathryn Walt Hall, a lawyer and businesswoman, served as the U.S. ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton after donating to his reelection campaign. Her family has worked in the wine industry since the 1970s.

As chairman of the Hall Group, which is based in Dallas, Craig Hall oversees a financial services company, wineries, art exhibits and a luxury hotel. He said that in Texas, he is often seen as the most liberal among friends and business colleagues, part of why he felt unfairly targeted during the debate.

“These people don’t know who they’re talking about when they throw me in the class that they did,” Craig Hall said of the presidential candidates. “As much as it’s frustrating, it’s more disappointing to me that Democrats are fighting with each other when we have a common goal, which is to get back to the White House.”

On the debate stage, Buttigieg responded to the attacks by arguing that the views of donors would not influence his positions and saying that his net worth was one one-hundredth of Warren’s.

Buttigieg said accepting the contributions of all donors was necessary to “build a campaign ready for the fight of our lives,” referring to the general election faceoff against President Donald Trump.

Warren’s comments also did not sit well with some local residents, who are accustomed to encountering politicians and their high-end contributors. Pelosi and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California each own a valuable vineyard nearby.

“It connoted something snobbish, which it really isn’t,” said Carl Myers, a retired general contractor who lives in St. Helena.

Wine is stored in caves around the world, and Craig Hall noted that the Romans followed the practice. Storing wine underground saves money on climate control and humidification, said Jonathan Ruppert, the general manager of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in St. Helena.

“Caves are a necessity,” Ruppert said. “It’s the green way to keep wine and preserve it for aging.”

Although the wine cave at Hall Wines is occasionally used for fundraising events, it typically serves as a private tasting room. But the winery was closed Friday for the employee Christmas party and, in a sign of the times, active shooter training.

High-dollar donors have visited his wine cave, but Craig Hall emphasized that his wineries do not sell a $900 bottle of wine - or, at least, not a regularly sized one. The $900 bottle they do sell is 3 liters, he said, which holds as much wine as about four normal bottles. Most of the company’s wines cost between $45 and $65.

Craig Hall said he intended to support any Democratic nominee in the general election, but he admitted it would be hard to back Warren or Sanders.

“I hope I don’t face that question,” Craig Hall said. “It may be difficult. But I really want to support whoever the nominee is, and I plan to, but there may be some holding my nose.”

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