Hobbs's choice

Flying winemaker has become a pejorative - flitting in and flitting out, making identikit wines either to sell to connoisseurs or appeal to mass-market tastes. Christian Davis catches up with high flyer Paul Hobbs
27 August, 2008
Page 24 

Paul Hobbs had stars in his eyes. Not because he was dreaming of Robert Parker or Wine Spectator points for his wines, but because as a child he wanted to be an astronomer. The 54-year-old was destined for medical school - following in the footsteps of his great grandfather - but his father had other ideas. He got the young Paul to taste a 1962 Château d'Yquem, pouring it into Dixie paper cups at the dinner table and then, in concert with the impressionable young man's botany professor at the university of Notre Dame, he encouraged him to take a year out - much against his mother's wishes. As a result of his new-found passion, young Hobbs had an apple orchard at the family farm grubbed up and replanted with a vineyard.

The medical profession's loss was the wine industry's gain , but it is not known if Mrs Hobbs ever forgave his father.

Hobbs enrolled in the master of food science course in the department of oenology at the University of California in Davis - shorthanded to UC Davis by anyone who knows where the best winemaking courses are held.

He says: "I came over to California from the east coast and had been here for three months before I decided to visit Napa [Valley, California's premier wine-growing region]. The Robert Mondavi Winery was the first and a lady - I always remember her - Lily Thomas, was so knowledgeable that we spent two hours with her. The other wineries were nothing after her."

His thesis on oak extraction got the attention of none other than Robert Mondavi, who is widely regarded as the visionary of Napa Valley. H obbs was offered a job and went on to become head oenologist of Opus One, the joint venture between Mondavi and the Rothschilds, of Bordeaux first growth Mouton Rothschild fame.

As an aside, Hobbs comments on the differences between how the two Californian families - the Gallos of E&J Gallo and Mondavi - put the Golden State on the vinous map. "Gallo had a different approach: they wanted to conquer the world with inexpensive wines. By the mid- 70s, Gallo was more sophisticated than the University of California. But Mondavi was the heart and soul of Napa and California winemaking."

From Mondavi, Hobbs went to the Simi Winery in Sonoma County, where his first major task was to come up with a new Cabernet Sauvignon style. With extended macerations and careful fruit handling, his wines received plaudits and he was promoted to vice president and winemaker.

While at UC Davis, Hobbs met and befriended Jorge, the son of Nicolas Catena, a seminal figure in Argentinian winemaking. Despite invitations to visit, it was not until he was on a trip to Chile in 1988 that he crossed the Andes and met Nicolas. "He proposed a project to me: 'Make the best Chardonnay in Argentina.' A brilliant move - show people that Argentina could do it".

At around the same time, arguably the most famous flying winemaker of all, Michel Rolland, whom Hobbs had met when he was a consultant to Simi, had started work in northern Argentina in the Salta province.

According to Hobbs, at that time no body was interested in the Malbec variety. French literature on the grape variety, which is the grape of Cahors in France's south west and had been used for blending in Bordeaux, was regarded as "useless" as a single variety. Hobbs noted that there was some old vine Malbec in Catena's Lunlunta vineyards by the Rio Mendoza. "I tasted the grapes and they were good - mind you, they turned my tongue black. We thought we would give it a go and Seguin Moreau (the French oak barrel maker) gave me 10 barrels of American oak for free."

At a tasting in the mid -90s for some American journalists who had come to taste the Catena Chardonnay, for fun Hobbs produced the Malbec and according to him, "they went ball istic". Inadvertently, Argentina had found its flagship grape variety.

For Hobbs, it was time to stand up and be counted - to found his own winery. This he did in 1991 in the Russian River Valley, part of the Sonoma AVA (American Viticultural Area). "Having put so much energy into helping others improve the quality of their wines, I eventually felt compelled to take on the challenge of making wines under my own label.

"I was seeking top, unique terroir. There is not much left in Napa, so I concentrated on Sonoma with the Russian River Valley out towards the coast. I set out to produce small-lot, hand-crafted, vineyard-designated wines."

These days Hobbs divides the majority of his time between Sebastopol in California and Mendoza, working mainly for Pascual Toso  - "Wherever the harvest is", he says cheerily. His hobbies include skiing, cycling and long-distance running - but not marathons ("10km is enough these days"). He also has a predilection for cars - he owns a new Range Rover, a BMW and a Porsche 911 Carrera. Argentinian roads being what they are, he has a Toyota Corolla down there. "The roads are so bad, you go down a pothole and lose your front axle coming up." Not the place for a Porsche.

Nevertheless, although consultant or flying winemakers have a rather bad i mage - Michel Rolland portrayed one in the film Mondovino as just driving around wineries in Bordeaux in a luxury Mercedes, telling winemakers to "micro-oxygenate" - Hobbs is anything but vegetating. When asked what other projects, he is working on, he gaily reels off a number of countries and companies who require his services.

He is working in other regions of Argentina, including La Pampa, south of Mendoza in the upper reaches of Patagonia. Over the mountains, he is working for five companies in Chile - San Pedro, Chile's second-largest wine producer, Viña Tarapacá, Mont Gras, Veramonte (just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and Odfjell.

Intriguingly, he is working for Arvain in the Tokaji region of Hungary, best known for the world-famous dessert wine, but he is searching for a dry white. "Dry Furmint (an indigenous variety) is hopeless," he says. "We are  hoping to develop a superior dry white and are looking at Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay which are far better suited."

He is also working for a new winery called Sauska in Villány to the south, a warmer region better know for red wines. "The reds are rubbish," pronounces Hobbs. "We are going to change that. We are looking at Bordeaux varietals as well as Pinot Noir and Syrah." On top of all that, Hobbs is casting an envious eye over Armenia. Little does it know.

The irony for Hobbs is that while most of these guys hate the term "flying winemaker" - because of its connotations of merely dabbling with something and the alleged resultant sameness of the wine - Hobbs does have a flying licence. "It is inactive at the moment, but I love flying and am thinking of re-activiating it," he says.

As to his preferred flying machine - a four-seat, single-engine, high-wing Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

Not bad. Must be money in them there hills.

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.