Paula Harrell CES'83 has pursued winemaking with the same entrepreneurial spirit imbued in her from childhood.
The following is an interview with Paula Harrell, originally obtained for a story in the 2021–22 Convent & Stuart Hall Alumni Bulletin featuring alumni who are bringing fresh ideas to business and society.
What are one or two of your fondest memories of your time at Convent Elementary?
I met my lifelong best friend Nicole (Garrett) Fitt in the fourth grade at Convent. That is by far my fondest memory.
What inspired you to get into wine after being a mortgage adviser for 15 years?
While pursuing my B.A. at UCLA, I studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, and that trip sparked my passion for wine. I eventually bought a timeshare in Napa to allow me to spend more time in the region. I took classes to learn all I could about wine and the winemaking process. I became the go-to wine expert among my friends and family. If we were at a restaurant and I didn’t like one of the wines, I would order several glasses and blend them myself right there at the table! That’s really what inspired my journey into becoming a winemaker.
Briefly describe how you are involved in the winemaking process — from start to finish?
I don't own an actual vineyard (yet), so I source my grapes from vineyards in the Sonoma region and create my wines through a process called custom crushing. I am involved with most aspects of the winemaking process from purchasing the grapes, participating in the crushing and processing, overseeing bottling and labeling, and all business development and management. I am also often the face of P. Harrell Wines at events and tastings.
How does your family’s history and the city of San Francisco influence your winemaking?
My father and maternal grandmother built a thriving residential care business from the ground up. Even if I wasn’t a winemaker, I would be an entrepreneur. That was the driving spirit in my home. Growing up in San Francisco, I was surrounded by magic — the people in my home and my extended family, the city itself. Having that proximity to the Napa/Sonoma region didn’t hurt.
What are one or two of your most recent wines and what inspired them?
I have three wines in my portfolio. I launched in 2015 with “Three Fifteen” and “Haight Street.” “Three Fifteen” is a Zinfandel named after my childhood home address. Not only were my siblings and I raised there, but it was “home” to scores of family and friends. It will always symbolize my foundation, and it’s well represented in this Zinfandel, full-bodied and fruit-driven. It’s a classic Dry Creek Zinfandel, but its abundance of diverse flavors is reminiscent of the creative and fulfilling experience of growing up at 315 Santa Ana Avenue.
The Dry Riesling, “Haight Street,” refers to our family property located at 940 Haight Street. My father and maternal grandmother built this property from the ground up in 1969, and it became their flagship residential care facility and the cornerstone of the family business. This wine is as bold and driven in its complexity and flavor as my dad and grandmother were in launching and building their business. “Haight Street” stands out as a “white wine for the red wine lover.” Opening with a bouquet of peach blossom and passion fruit on the nose, the wine has a palate full of tropical fruit, lemongrass and honeydew. In my mind, it’s a worthy tribute to that legacy.
You are very involved in educating others about wine. Why is it important for you to share your vision and passion with others?
It’s hard to grow up in the Bay Area and not at least like wine. That said, I know so many people who love to drink it but are afraid to broaden their horizons to try new wines or they miss the truly magical experience of wine tasting because they don’t have the knowledge. It really elevates your experience with wine — and food — when you’re more educated. And in the business world, knowledge about wine is as important as knowing how to play golf. It creates an automatic credibility in certain settings.
Will you be involved with Chase Center for the upcoming Warriors season? If so, how?
I was honored to have been named the Chase Center’s Tastemaker in 2019 and they carry my wine in their Theater Box Bar. I’d like that relationship to continue and to also have my wine offered in other areas of the arena, as well as to participate in tasting events there.
You are the co-founder of the Oakland International Film Festival. What role does film play in your life?
Growing up in Panama, my mom used film as an escape from a somewhat lonely and difficult childhood. She instilled her love of film and theater in me and my siblings since we were very small. We grew up on Black Orpheus, Carmen Jones, The Sound of Music and dozens of other classics, but it was still not very often that we saw ourselves on screen. I was passionate about that representation which led me to co-found the Oakland International Film Festival.
What do you think you've carried with you from your Convent days?
So much! I was exposed to so much at a young age — theater, travel, music, dance, various art forms and sports. A lot of that came from my experiences at Convent. Not to mention, Convent gave me exposure to people who didn’t look like me or have the same background as I did, but I learned so much from them and they from me. It wasn’t just the exposure; it was an opportunity to see a different way of life and learn about different opportunities in life. I gained a sense of dignity, class and etiquette. I look back fondly on all of the experiences I had there that definitely played a role in shaping the person I am today.
How is Convent a part of your life today?
I’m still close to several friends I grew up with there, one of whom is my best friend to this day, and I’m the godmother to her middle child. I am very close friends with the former head of school, Angela Taylor, and was honored when she asked to meet with me to get a better understanding of the school and experiences from a former student’s perspective. I participate in the holiday fairs and events, I have purchased advertisements in the annual [Celebrate Spring] book they send to the families and I attend the Alumni Christmas Cocktail Party (Noels). Convent will always be home.