Monday, September 24, 2007

Paul Hobbs and his Single Vineyard Wines

For my latest blog posting I have chosen Paul Hobbs as my subject matter. Paul Hobbs has been making wine for over 25 years in California and Argentina. He is praised by critics, professionals, and wine geeks for his incredible single vineyard wines of remarkably consistent quality. Paul Hobbs wines make up one of the larger percentages of bottles in my collection and his Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is one of my favorite all around cabernet sauvignons.


Originally a New Yorker born and raised near Buffalo, it was no surprise to learn Paul comes from a large fruit farming family of 11 children. His first wine experience was what some would consider a remarkable first. When Paul was a small child his father gave each child a small cup of a well know Bordeaux desert wine called Sauternes, in fact it was a 1962 Chateau d'Yquem to be precise. At that moment he new exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up. According to his brother Matt, who I met recently at a wine dinner, Paul convinced his dad when he was 16 to rip out a few fruit trees and plant grape vines.

Paul received a viticulture degree as an undergraduate at Notre Dame and obtained a masters in enology from UC Davis - one of the perennial viticultural schools in the world. Paul got off to one of the best first steps a winemaker could have. Few people may know this but he is an alumnus of the Opus One team that made all of those fabulous wines back in the early 80's when that wine was the premiere wine made in this country. Paul was personally selected from UC Davis by Robert Mondavi to join a team built to create Mr. Mondavi's newest vision of American wine. In no time Paul was named head enologist at Opus One. To this day that wine still carries the prestige as one of America's finest cuvees. Though of late, Opus One has seen better days from critics. From there he moved on to Simi over in Sonoma's Alexander Valley in 1985 where he was the head winemaker. In 1989 Nicolas Catena hired him to create a world class chardonnay in Mendoza, Argentina. At the same time back in California Paul consulted for wineries such as Peter Michael, Lewis, Kunde and Fisher. In 1991 he decided to create his own label and recently in 2004 completed construction of a state of the art winery in the Russian River Valley town of Sebastopol. Up until 2004 Paul made his wines at Fisher and Kunde Vineyards in Sonoma County as he lacked a winery of his own.

The Craft, Terroir, and wines with "a First and Last Name"

Paul is a disciple of the traditional French methods and philosophies of winemaking: non-interventionist and bio-dynamic. Winemaking starts in the vineyard with meticulous care applied to the vines and the fruit. Vines are pruned, crops are thinned and come harvest the resulting fruit is ready for crush given physiological ripeness. Great wines are made in the vineyard. You can't make great wine from inferior grapes. A skilled winemaker can only mask the faults of inferior fruit and the resulting wine will be out of balance. A balanced wine seamlessly weaves the acidity, alcohol, fruit, and tannin (reds) components. In a poor vintage if a winemaker knows what they are doing and make the right decisions in the vineyard you can still get impressive results with outstanding fruit.

An excerpt from his web site explains his philosophy towards single vineyard wines, "Taking grapes from a particular site and allowing them to show me different possibilities in the varietal makes for a wine in which the subtleties of the individual vineyard come through — a wine, you might say, with both a first and last name." A single vineyard wine is made from the fruit of one designated vineyard that shares all or most of the components of that vineyard's terroir (pronounced ter-whar). Terroir being the French term for the impact of soil, angle of planting, air, wind, water, elevation and sun on a vineyard and its fruit. For example the Hyde Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is made from grapes sourced from the Hyde vineyard located in Los Carneros, a cooler wine region at the southern tip of the Napa Valley (see this month's Wine Spectator for a great article on Larry Hyde). Carneros is known more for pinot noir and chardonnay production because of its cool temperatures and the cool, clay loam soils. The resulting cabernet will have different levels of acidity, alcohol, tannin and resulting flavor nuances when compared to a To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon sourced in Oakville, a much warmer part of the Napa Valley. The To Kalon Vineyard lies in the sweet spot of Napa Valley: Oakville. Oakville is centrally located in the Napa Valley. The To Kalon vineyard lies west of highway 29 and east of the Mayacamas mountain range on the valley floor. Since it is at the floor of the valley the appellation is flat and its soils are dry and alluvial, a result of the volcanic activity of Mt. St. Helena from prehistoric times. This harsh soil is perfect for growing cabernet sauvignon. When it is farmed correctly it, amongst many other facets of growing wine grapes, stresses the vines to help produce impeccably concentrated fruit. Cabernets from Oakville are typically endowed with higher tannin and flavor complexity when compared to Carneros where a cabernet typically has softer tannin, lush fruit and crisp acidity from the loamy clay soil, cooler temperatures, and the almost constant winds blowing across Los Carneros. However Oakville cabernet is not without its own unique acidity. Oakville, like most other wines from warm growing regions, obtains its acidity from the cool nights where temperatures dip 20-25 degrees from days' high. This cools the fruit and slows the ripening process, while at the same time locking in flavor and nuance you find in a wine's bouquet.

The Wines

The Paul Hobbs Winery portfolio consists of well endowed and fabulously crafted wines of elegance and structure. Worthy of instant gratification but well rewarded with patience from cellar aging. Cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and chardonnay - the trifecta of California wine making of late - make up the bulk of the portfolio. Robert Parker is a huge fan of Paul's' wines and his ability to source great fruit. Each year he reviews in barrel and bottle the wines for his Wine Advocate buying guide. James Laube of the Wine Spectator regularly reviews the wines and they typically land north of 90 points from both Jim and Bob.The cabernet sauvignon portion of the portfolio encompasses distinctly different single vineyards and one that ties them all together. There is the Hyde and To Kalon mentioned above as well as the Stagecoach Vineyard from Atlas Peak in the Vaca Mountain range that borders the eastern edge of the valley. The newest addition to the lineup is the 2003 Dr. Crane Vineyard located up valley in St. Helena. Lastly, the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (my favorite and his most widely available at approximately 2,500 cases) blends all or some of the single vineyards (depending on the vintage) into one single expression of what Napa valley Cabernet Sauvignon is all about - power, elegance, and ripeness. The unequivocal iron fist in the velvet glove!

Pinot noir is quite the grape "du jour" of late. 10 years ago I heard that you could not give away California Pinot Noir. Since the Sideways effect took hold in 2004 the wine has had a surge of popularity unlike anything seen since the merlot madness of the late 80's and early 90's. These Pinots are all crafted from single vineyards and have been around far longer than the "Sideways" effect has taken hold. The Russian River Vineyard Pinot Noir is made up of a majority of Paul Hobbs' only estate vineyard - the Lindsay Estate Pinot Noir Vineyard (see picture) with some minor additions from other local Russian River vineyards. The Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir (my favorite) is a bigger, fuller style than the RR wine as the vines produce more mature fruit. Crisp, yet balanced acidity mingles with beautiful cherry and plum flavors on the palate. A dollop of vanilla rounds out the flavors and the leads to an always reliable, smooth finish. As if the Hyde Pinot could not get any better there is the "Cuvee Augustina" Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir. The Cuvee Augustina is named for Paul's daughter and is a selection of the best barrels of the Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir. The wine has a similar flavor palette but with greater structure from the extended barrel aging (16 months compared to 11 for the RR and the regular Hyde pinots) and a silkier, sexier finish. The latest Pinot Noir addition to the Paul Hobbs portfolio is from the Linsday Estate Vineyard located at the winery in the Russian River Valley.

All of the Chardonnay goes through 100% malolactic fermentation, a style that of late has been attacked of late as being "too California" as the ripe fruit from California in this French method tends to create wines with what seems excessive flavors of butter or vanilla flavor from the toasted oak barrels. The argument is that this style hides most of the other flavor components of a wine - mainly the fruit. These wines have the creamy flavors associated with barrel aging "sur lees" and malolactic fermentation, but are not overtly cloying so they take away from the fruit and acidity. These are enjoyable wines with impeccable balance. However if you like a Chablis style chardonnay you may want to rethink purchasing one of these wines as they are not inexpensive. The entry point wine is the Russian River Chardonnay, Paul's second most widely availably wine at 2,000+ cases. Walker Station Ranch, being the smallest in production with fewer than 100 cases in 2003, is my favorite of the group. It displays one of my favorite flavor profiles of a chardonnay - green apple. The Richard Dinner Vineyard chardonnay is located on Sonoma Mountain and is whole cluster pressed. The best barrels from Richard Dinner, like the Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir, receive the "Cuvee Augustina" status.

In Memoriam

Paul recently stopped production of one of the best examples of Merlot to come from California - the Michael Black Vineyard Merlot. Started in 1996, the last vintage was the 2003. In a sea of average to plonk-ish merlot coming out of California, this will be a dearly missed wine. A wonderful replacement to the merlot is the release of a Syrah available recently in 2007 and sourced from Sonoma County - the 2005 Kick Ranch, Sonoma County.


From the start Paul has displayed an unyielding dedication to creating the best, most natural wines possible. Since that first taste of d'Yquem to what will be a hopefully be a profoundly "Rhone at heart" Syrah, Paul's wines have been a result of dedication to the learning, creation and innovation of wine methods and philosophies. I can't wait to see what's next as the fall allocation is just a few weeks away!


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