How busy is Paul Hobbs?
When asked how many wineries he consults with around the world, the legendary California winemaker paused and counted silently to himself.
“I have a few more than 30,” Hobbs finally announced, though without much certainty. “Honestly, it’s a lot of work, and I am cutting back some. That part of my life is fascinating, if time-consuming.”
Hobbs was in Orange County recently to pour his wines at a dinner held at Watertable, the Hyatt Regency’s expansive oceanfront restaurant in Huntington Beach. It had been a long day of tasting, talking and meeting local wine retailers at several O.C. locations, but Hobbs showed no signs of flagging as he squeezed our talk in before the five-course meal he would host on the restaurant’s terrace.
His resume can be deceptive, Hobbs warned. “A big chunk of the consulting that we do is handled here in California, and that’s pretty much run by someone else from day to day. But all the international consulting I do myself.”
Though he remains busy with his partnerships in Argentina and France, the center of Hobbs’ universe remains Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, where he’s been making wines under his eponymous label since 1991 and where his winery opened in 2003. (His second California label, CrossBarn, began with the 2000 vintage.) Hobbs’ wines, fermented with native yeast and bottled unfined and unfiltered, have consistently ranked among America’s best. Robert Parker gave his 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard 100 points, calling it “one of the greatest young Cabernet Sauvignons I have ever tasted.”
Hobbs prefers contracting with vineyards to owning his own, but a look at the list of seven Sonoma and six Napa vineyards on his winery’s website reveals some enviable names: Beckstoffer, Coombs, Stagecoach, Hyde.
“The key to a good contract is the understanding between the partners – the grower and the winemaker,” Hobbs said. “I like to be very actively involved with what’s going on in the field, and I’m very meticulous about the work that’s being done. Not many growers are really okay with that.”
Hobbs prefers area contracts. “That means you’re paying for acreage, not weight in tons [of harvestable fruit]. I probably pay some of the highest prices for contracted grapes in all of the U.S. That’s what you have to do in order to get what you need.”
Here is how Hobbs paired his wines at a dinner he hosted:
2013 Russian River Chardonnay with grilled California preaches and greens. Vibrant, excellent structure, with aromas of stone fruit and apple and a mineral finish.
2013 Russian River Pinot Noir with prime beef tartare. Dark cherry, blackberry and cola with light tannins on the finish.
2013 Pinot Ulises Valdez with blackened crispy skin red snapper. Strong backbone, floral nose, silky texture with a hint of tea and Eastern spices.
2012 Napa Cabernet with slow-roasted pork shoulder. Chocolate, graphite, cassis, currant, and medium tannins.
2012 Bramare Malbec Lujan de Cuyo (from Hobbs’ Viña Cobos in Argentina) with local red plum and bing cherry pot pie: Hints of berries, chocolate, walnuts. Deep and nuanced, with firm tannins.
A brief Q&A with Paul Hobbs:
Orange County Register: You were raised in a farming family, and your first experience with grape-growing was with your father in upstate New York where you grew up. What was that experience like?
Paul Hobbs: I always focused on attention to detail and quality. And we had countless discussions, maybe arguments from time to time, about quantity vs. quality. For me there was no point in undercutting quality. That was the only thing I really wanted to strive for. So we always butted heads.
Register: You have a passion for both Burgundy and Bordeaux. Do you have a favorite?
Hobbs: I was inspired by both areas of France in my early years as a winemaker. They are very different. I just feel fortunate that
I can pursue both interests. I suppose if I lived in France I would have been forced to work in one region or the other and I would have been just as happy about that.
Register: Early in your career you spent some time at Mondavi’s Opus One in Napa. How did that influence you?
Hobbs: I got out of Davis and went right into Robert Mondavi’s company. I knew where I wanted to go; there was no doubt. I knew I had to do that because I really knew nothing about wine. Some of my colleagues went out and started running wineries. There’s no way I could do that. So Mondavi was the perfect seven years of education, working in every department. It was an apprenticeship in every area: in the cellar, the laboratory, in research, sometimes working double shifts — until they found out that was illegal.
Register: What did you learn from Mr. Mondavi himself?
Hobbs: I would say one of the things I appreciated most about Mr. Mondavi was his graciousness. He was a people person, and he was a great taster. And he was a “no b.s.” kind of guy. I mean, there was no politics when he was around the table. I was allowed to speak my mind, and I was a junior winemaker. If not for him, I would never have been appointed.
Register: What’s the secret to success and longevity in the wine business?
Hobbs: That’s a question I don’t really have a good answer for. In some ways the market does it for you. They evaluate. I know what people like, and that helps. And I know what I like in wine. I have the knowledge and the discipline from Davis, and what I learned from Mondavi, where there was a strong culture for understanding the whys. I learned that the artistic side of wine was hugely important, and I love that side of it as much as the science.