In­ter­view: Paul Hobbs

De­scribed as ‘ the Steve Jobs of wine’, this busy con­sul­tant wine­maker has a hand in projects across four con­ti­nents. Peter Richards MW catches up with him to dis­cuss his ca­reer, in­flu­ences and wine­mak­ing style

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

One of the world’s busiest and most widely trav­elled con­sul­tant wine­mak­ers talks to Peter Richards MW

SPACE. THAT’S WHERE paul hobbs was ini­tially des­tined. A child of the 1960s, he loved maths, chem­istry and physics. ‘I pas­sion­ately wanted to be­come an as­tro­naut,’ he re­counts. But the doc­tor put paid to any fly­ing as­pi­ra­tions with an abrupt di­ag­no­sis of am­bly­opia, or lazy eye. ‘I was crushed, crest­fallen. At 16, I had to fig­ure out what to do. So I took an­other ap­proach.’

Chal­lenges, and over­com­ing them, are an in­trigu­ing part of his story. No one gets to the top tier of their pro­fes­sion – where hobbs un­ques­tion­ably is, be­ing one of the world’s high­est pro­file wine­mak­ers and con­sul­tants – with­out de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­silience. Yet with hobbs you get the sense that he rel­ishes the strug­gle it­self.

when I quiz him about the se­cret of his suc­cess, he says: ‘Be­ing told “no” is a good way to mo­ti­vate me. I like chal­lenges. I’m not afraid of hard work and I like do­ing things peo­ple don’t think is pos­si­ble. I’m al­ways push­ing against the es­tab­lish­ment. I love ad­ven­ture.’ And there he is: the as­tro­naut, vaguely pro­fes­so­rial in de­meanour, jaw set, plot­ting his moon shoot.

Farm boy

wine didn’t fig­ure in hobbs’ wildest as­pi­ra­tions early on. One of 11 chil­dren, grow­ing up on a fruit farm in up­state New York not far from Lake On­tario, the fam­ily was largely tee­to­tal, his mother keen to set the kids a good ex­am­ple. Milk was the drink on the fam­ily table. That is, un­til one fate­ful day when his fa­ther brought home a bot­tle of Château d’Yquem 1962. hobbs re­lates how, that same evening, a de­ci­sion was made to plant vines on the farm.

Though much has been made of this so-called epiphany, in truth, con­cedes hobbs, it was just as much a com­mer­cial de­ci­sion: his fa­ther was keen to diver­sify. And it cer­tainly wasn’t a Da­m­a­scene con­ver­sion for hobbs him­self, for whom the ‘bru­tal’ ex­pe­ri­ence of work on the farm after school – no sports for him, in­stead long af­ter­noons toil­ing, in sub-zero con­di­tions dur­ing win­ter – had taken its toll. ‘All I knew was that I didn’t want to work on a farm or have any­thing to do with farm­ing.’ he liked sci­ence and help­ing peo­ple, so he took him­self off to study medicine at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame in In­di­ana, with the aim of be­com­ing a sur­geon.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. At Notre Dame he crossed paths with botany pro­fes­sor (and wine lover) Rev James McGrath who, dis­cov­er­ing hobbs’ fam­ily was plant­ing a vine­yard, pressed him into join­ing a wine tast­ing group and later ‘col­luded’ with hobbs’ fa­ther to send him not to med­i­cal school but to Davis in Cal­i­for­nia to study wine­mak­ing. The pa­ter­nal aim was for hobbs to then re­turn to the farm in New York State and es­tab­lish a win­ery there, with wine­mak­ing be­com­ing a fam­ily un­der­tak­ing.

In­stead, hobbs got caught up in the bur­geon­ing wine scene in Cal­i­for­nia,

‘I’m not afraid of hard work and I like do­ing things peo­ple don’t think is pos­si­ble’

ini­tially work­ing with Mon­davi and Opus One in Napa, then Simi Win­ery in Sonoma. Con­sul­tan­cies en­sued – be­gin­ning with Bodega Catena Za­p­ata in Ar­gentina and fol­lowed by nu­mer­ous oth­ers in South and North Amer­ica – as did his own ven­tures, in­clud­ing Paul Hobbs Win­ery in Cal­i­for­nia, then Viña Co­bos in Ar­gentina. Other ini­tia­tives fol­lowed, in­clud­ing joint ven­tures in Ar­me­nia (Ya­coubian-Hobbs) and France (Cro­cus in Ca­hors, with Ber­trand Gabriel Vigouroux). His two most re­cent projects are in Spain’s Ribeira Sacra and, tellingly, a re­turn to New York State, in the Fin­ger Lakes re­gion.

Napa novice

It’s a far cry from his early days at Mon­davi when he was, as Hobbs puts it, ‘The low­est paid but most highly qual­i­fied wine­maker on the 200-plus win­ery staff.’ While still study­ing at Davis, Hobbs had been so im­pressed by the rigour and de­tail of Mon­davi’s op­er­a­tion dur­ing a tour that he went straight to Bob Mon­davi and an­nounced that he wanted to work for the com­pany and would do it for free. He started off in re­search, mi­cro-vini­fy­ing to study oak or mac­er­a­tion times, but spend­ing so much time on the don­key work that he felt that he’d be­come, ‘the world’s lead­ing ex­pert on wash­ing glass fer­ment ves­sels, with a Masters de­gree!’ But he saw the value. ‘It tough­ened me up,’ he says.

Such tough­ness didn’t make for plain sail­ing. While at Mon­davi, he ad­mits to ‘butting heads’ with wine­maker Zelma Long. He also formed an un­der-the-radar, after-hours group dubbed Skunkworks to study dif­fer­ent as­pects of wine­mak­ing and chal­lenge ac­cepted norms. He claims, ‘We be­came the epi­cen­tre of de­vel­op­ment at Mon­davi.’

After be­ing moved onto the newly formed Opus One project be­cause, ‘Mon­davi thought my qual­i­fi­ca­tions would im­press the French,’ Hobbs soon saw the irony as he came into con­flict with what he per­ceived as the ‘dog­matic, ide­o­log­i­cal’ ap­proach of his French col­leagues. He cites the ‘pro­to­col-based, heavy’ use of egg whites to fine, al­ter­ing the flavour of the wine and en­cour­ag­ing the de­vel­op­ment of spoilage yeast bret­tanomyces. ‘It both­ered me,’ he avers, adding, ‘We had a se­ri­ous clash of cul­tures.’

Sci­ence and vines

Hobbs’ sci­en­tific rigour, at­ten­tion to de­tail and an in­sis­tence on good hy­giene in the win­ery cen­tral to his wine­mak­ing ap­proach, ac­cord­ing

to those who work along­side him – but what’s also in­ter­est­ing to note is how this isn’t the end of the story. San­ti­ago De­icas of Fa­milia De­icas in Uruguay, for ex­am­ple, ex­plains how Hobbs has re­duced their use of oak and sul­phur diox­ide, em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of clean­li­ness and, ‘changed the whole wine­mak­ing cul­ture’. How­ever, Hobbs in­ter­jects, ‘In or­der to do that, the con­di­tion and qual­ity of the grapes is the num­ber one fac­tor. Bet­ter farm­ing is key. It all comes back to the vine­yard.’

Hobbs is at pains to em­pha­sise his fo­cus on viti­cul­ture. Re­duc­ing pes­ti­cides, en­cour­ag­ing bet­ter trel­lis­ing and canopy man­age­ment, healthy soils and plot se­lec­tion are all crit­i­cal in his book. Within this con­text, he re­jects the no­tion that the sci­en­tific sys­tem is his only method­ol­ogy. ‘It’s an in­ter­est­ing way to struc­ture your thought process,’ he states. ‘But it’s not enough to make a good wine. Not even close. To make a re­ally great wine, you have to feel it. It takes years of ex­pe­ri­ence to get it. For ex­am­ple, I now make pick­ing de­ci­sions largely on taste – and it’s not just flavour but other, less ob­vi­ous things, such as tex­ture.’ He’s de­scribed his wine­mak­ing ap­proach as, ‘one part sci­ence, three parts in­tu­ition’.

In search of bal­ance

Pick­ing de­ci­sions are an im­por­tant is­sue with Hobbs be­cause he’s of­ten cited as

‘To make a re­ally great wine, you have to feel it. It takes years of ex­pe­ri­ence to get it’

pro­duc­ing ripe, gen­er­ous wines no­tably high in al­co­hol. ‘In the early days, I leant to­wards the French model,’ he says, ‘with lower ma­tu­rity, more acid­ity. Then [Amer­i­can wine critic Robert] Parker came along and be­came a dom­i­nant force; peo­ple wouldn’t buy your wines if Parker hadn’t sanc­tioned them. Ev­ery­one tried to get on that band­wagon: tell me some­one who’s not go­ing to want to be part of that club! It’s im­por­tant to sell what you make. So sure, I was on board. But I never went over to full sweet­ness – some made sweet wines with­out tex­ture or struc­ture – I al­ways wanted back­bone and ten­sion.’

Hobbs notes how he is re­duc­ing, ‘the im­print of oak’ on his wines but re­jects the no­tion that high al­co­hol is in­her­ently detri­men­tal to qual­ity, in­sist­ing that con­flat­ing high al­co­hol and over­ripeness is, ‘a mis­take’. He ex­plains: ‘When you’re deal­ing with re­ally fresh fruit that’s not over­ripe, al­co­hol is ir­rel­e­vant. ‘My ob­jec­tive is to make wine that tastes good. I ab­hor wines that are un­der­ripe or over­ripe. I’m look­ing for bal­ance.’ (For more on this topic, see ‘Big and Beau­ti­ful’, p38.)

Hobbs ac­knowl­edges that he’s ‘caught up in a con­stantly evolv­ing dy­namic’, but in­sists on one thing: ‘True­ness of place: wine should give a sense of place, it’s about bal­ance and beauty.’ For him, this aim can co-ex­ist with craft­ing wine styles that he unashamedly de­scribes as, ‘pow­er­ful, ex­u­ber­ant, in­tensely flavoured, richly tex­tured.’

At the mo­ment, Hobbs notes that he’s ‘got a lot go­ing on’, tak­ing care of ven­tures on four con­ti­nents. His cur­rent clients in­clude: Pu­lenta Es­tate, Fa­milia Schroeder, Bode­gas Toso, all in Ar­gentina; Fa­milia De­icas in Uruguay; the VSPT Wine Group with winer­ies in Chiles and Ar­gentina; Val­divieso and Viu Ma­nent in Chile; Brave & Maiden in Cal­i­for­nia; and Early Moun­tain in Vir­ginia.

Look­ing ahead

‘I hope the fu­ture doesn’t mean more projects!’ he grins. But peace and quiet doesn’t look set to fea­ture heav­ily in his im­me­di­ate des­tiny. While he ad­mits to be­ing hap­pi­est ‘in the vine­yard, when I can get a sort of seren­ity’, he is also, ‘very happy trav­el­ling’ plus has young daugh­ters aged one and four, ‘and I love wrestling with them!’

His new ven­tures also look set to be a ma­jor fo­cus. He’s named his Fin­ger Lakes project Hil­lick & Hobbs (Hil­lick be­ing his mother’s maiden name). He tells me that his mother cried when he made his ini­tial de­ci­sion to go into wine (‘she was dev­as­tated’) but is ‘fine’ now, happy for his suc­cess. Hobbs’ fa­ther died in 2002 in a car crash while re­turn­ing from prun­ing vines. The fam­ily wine­mak­ing op­er­a­tion never did hap­pen. ‘My fa­ther died do­ing what he loved, any­way,’ muses Hobbs, not­ing how his Hil­lick & Hobbs ini­tia­tive is like a ver­sion of his fa­ther’s dream.

It re­minds me of a com­ment that Hobbs made when I asked him about the im­por­tance of wine. ‘It’s the fab­ric of life; it con­nects us with peo­ple. It al­lows you to smell the flow­ers and en­joy life a lit­tle bit.’ Wine may not have been writ­ten in his stars, but he’s made good sense of it since.

Above: the Paul Hobbs Win­ery in Cal­i­for­nia, ready for ac­tion dur­ing an­other har­vest

Above: Joan and Ed­ward Hobbs at their fruit farm with six of their 11 chil­dren, (from left) Greg, Dean, Paul, Deb­bie, For­rest and Chris

Be­low: Viña Co­bos win­ery in Lu­ján de Cuyo, Ar­gentina

Above: Paul Hobbs is hap­pi­est in the vine­yard, where he says he can find ‘seren­ity’ Left: Stage­coach Vine­yard in Napa Val­ley

Above: the Ya­coubianHobbs es­tate vine­yard in Ar­me­nia

Peter Richards MW is an award-win­ing writer, au­thor and broad­caster on wine. He is the DWWA Re­gional Chair for Chile

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