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Paul Hobbs’ Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer To Kalon: 1999-2016
BY STEPHEN TANZER | JULY 10, 2019
One of the greatest pleasures of having been a wine critic over a period of decades has been the chance to follow dozens of winemakers from their tentative early days to international stardom. While I did not meet Paul Hobbs during his initial years in Napa Valley, I tasted with him more than 25 years ago as he was releasing the first wines under his eponymous label. I’ve watched as he has achieved winemaking fame in Argentina, created a major operation in northern California focusing on both high-end, mostly single-vineyard wines and considerably less expensive (and less-oaked) appellation wines, and established himself as a much-in-demand international consultant. Hobbs has been a very busy world traveler.
The vines that go into Paul Hobbs's Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon
A Constant Search for New Experiences
Paul Hobbs grew up on his family’s farm in upstate New York.
He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry at the University of Notre
Dame, then moved to California, where he completed an M.S. degree in
Viticulture and Enology at UC/Davis. He had originally planned to go to medical
school; his father, meanwhile, had hoped Paul would return to New York to help
him develop his own grape-growing operation (Hobbs’s dad had already begun
converting orchards to vineyards). Instead, Hobbs chose a third path. He signed
on as a lab technician at Robert Mondavi Winery and was quickly promoted to
enologist, working for Mondavi and as part of the fledgling Opus One winemaking
team through 1984. He then joined Simi as assistant winemaker to Zelma Long at
the beginning of 1985 and a year later took over as winemaker (Long eventually became
President and CEO of Simi), where he remained for another five years. But under
the ownership of LVMH (Moët-Hennessey had purchased Simi in 1981) Hobbs was
feeling “tapped out,” as he was devoting more and more of his time to
administration rather than to hands-on work in the vineyards and winery.
Hobbs went abroad for more experience, planning to work in Chile. But when he visited Argentina for the first time in 1988, Nicolas Catena made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: essentially, to help him build a wine program suitable for export, mostly to the U.S. market. Hobbs was quickly promoted to head of the Catena wine program, where he remained until 1997—technically as an outside contractor since he was still spending at least half of his time working in California. Along with Bordeaux enologist Michel Rolland, who began to work in Argentina’s Salta region in ’88—and joined in the mid-‘90s by Italian super-consultants Attilio Pagli and Alberto Antonini—Hobbs was one of the first so-called flying winemakers who helped Argentina clean up and adapt their wines for an international market.
Hobbs left Catena after ’97 and established Viña Cobos in Agrelo with partners Luis Barraud and Andrea Marchiori in 1998. (Hobbs subsequently constructed a large, state-of-the-art winery in Perdriel in time to vinify the 2006 harvest and his original partners sold their shares to new partners three years ago). Since then, Hobbs has also had a host of consulting gigs in Argentina, as well as in California, Chile, France, Uruguay, New York, Canada and Armenia. For a couple years in the mid-‘90s, his Paul Hobbs Imports brought Catena’s Alamos Ridge wines (today, these wines are simply called Alamos) to the U.S. market, but he shut the company down after the Catena family decided to send both their high-end Catena Zapata and Alamos wines to the U.S. through another importer. As the Cobos venture grew (annual production is now around 100,000 cases), Hobbs relaunched his import company and today he brings in the Cobos wines as well as wines from his consulting clients in Argentina, Armenia and France.
The colorful Katherine Lindsay Pinot Noir vineyard behind Paul Hobb's winery in Sebastopol
Hobbs Launches His Own Venture in California
Think of a home-grown baseball player who goes to Japan to develop patience at the plate, see a wider variety of pitches and perfect his swing, then returns to the major leagues in the States as a multi-tool star. Hobbs was a fast learner and he’s quick to credit his time in Argentina for expanding his repertoire as a winemaker. For starters, he told me, there was something freeing about working in Argentina that allowed him to develop his own style. And so, during his early years in Argentina, Hobbs established his own operation in California in 1991, in that first vintage making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from grapes purchased from Larry Hyde on the Napa side of Carneros and Richard Dinner in Sonoma. From ’91 through ’98 he made his wines at Kunde Winery in Sonoma, which was where I first tasted with him in the early ‘90s. As his production grew, he moved over to the Laird Family Estate facility in Napa for the next four vintages.
Hobbs then constructed a modern gravity-flow winery on the north side of Sebastopol in 2003, where he had planted his Katherine Lindsay vineyard to Pinot Noir in 1998. Since then he has steadily purchased and planted vineyards, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Sonoma County, and has contracted to buy fruit from a range of top sites in Sonoma and Napa Valley. To date, the only Cabernet vineyard he owns is the 67-acre cool-climate Nathan Coombs Estate in Coombsville, which is planted to all five red Bordeaux varieties. He buys Cabernet from other sites in Napa Valley, including three choice vineyards owned by the Beckstoffer family: To Kalon (in Oakville), Georges III (Rutherford) and Dr. Crane (St. Helena).
Hobbs also established CrossBarn in 2000, converting an old apple-processing facility located about a mile south of Paul Hobbs Winery to make a new set of wines. CrossBarn began essentially as a second label based on declassified wines, labeled by appellation rather than vineyard, but today Hobbs also farms certain of his vineyard blocks specifically for the CrossBarn label. Annual production at CrossBarn is now around 70,000 cases (vs. about 25,000 cases under the Paul Hobbs Winery label). And Hobbs shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon—as witnessed by his purchase in 2016 of the 42-acre Goldrock Vineyard (38 acres planted to Pinot Noir and the other 4 to Chardonnay) in the far northwest corner of Sonoma County near Annapolis, just five miles from the Pacific.
Meanwhile, over the years Hobbs has served as consulting winemaker for more than 20 California wineries, including Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards, Constant Diamond Mountain Vineyard, DuMol, Fisher Vineyards, Gemstone Vineyards, Larkmead Vineyards, Merus Wines and Peter Michael Winery.
The barrel room at the Paul Hobbs winery
A Fast Learning Curve
During his early days at his own winery in Sebastopol, the only Cabernet fruit Hobbs worked with was from the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros, a property in a relatively cool area that’s now far better known for the quality of its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Thus he started in California with Cabernet grapes of modest ripeness. I recall a couple of his earliest Cabernets being a bit green and short on texture, and perhaps too influenced by the UC/Davis fruit-preservation mentality. (In fact, I thought at the time that they were over-acidified, as were many wines of that era, but Hobbs assured me that he has never been fond of making any more than minimal acid adjustments to his wines.)
During his first decade in Argentina, in contrast, his Cabernets and Malbecs were often extravagantly rich and port-like, high in alcohol and often chocolatey-ripe; some wines struck me as a bit over the top—or even flaccid. “Back then we didn’t know where the limits of ripeness were,” he told me recently. But since the turn of the century, and especially in the last seven or eight years, Hobbs’s style has evolved. His Cabernets (and Malbecs) are no less dense now but they are better-balanced, fresher and more delineated—a bit lower in octane but still heady—and his top reds boast remarkably refined tannins while also possessing more structure for aging. “There was a learning curve in both countries,” said Hobbs.
The To Kalon vineyards as seen in the Vinous Map: The Vineyards of Oakville, by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © Vinous Media 2019
The Intersection of a Talented Winemaker and a Proven Terroir
Of the Cabernet vineyards that Hobbs works with in Napa Valley, Beckstoffer To Kalon is arguably the best, although Hobbs noted that his wines from Dr. Crane have garnered more high ratings from the wine press. The To Kalon grapes are certainly the most expensive. Beckstoffer’s To Kalon parcel is classic benchland on an alluvial fan sloping down from the Mayacamas mountains. The soils close to the base of the hills are light, gravelly and especially fast-draining, while finer alluvial deposits, including varying amounts of clay, have accumulated over the eons as To Kalon slopes gently toward Highway 29. This vineyard, situated directly across Highway 29 from the Opus One winery in Oakville and part of the historic original To Kalon Vineyard, was first planted in 1868; it had been purchased in 1943 by the widow of Georges de Latour and was a key component (called BV #4) of Beaulieu’s flagship Private Reserve Cabernet in the 1960s and 1970s. Andy Beckstoffer then purchased nearly 90 acres from Heublein, Beaulieu’s owner at the time, in 1993 and quickly replanted it to multiple clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, adopting modern trellising and closer vine spacing.
After buying fruit from the recently replanted vines at To Kalon in ’97 and ’98, Hobbs made his first wine from this fruit in 1999 (the wine was not labeled as To Kalon until the 2000 bottling). As Hobbs was one of the first to buy fruit from the Beckstoffer holding, he was able to select five sections of vines, one of which he eliminated after 2000 because part of the fruit was shaded by a row of walnut trees (along Walnut Drive). Through 2009, Hobbs made his To Kalon Cabernet primarily from clone 4 (the Mendoza clone, originally imported from Argentina), plus about 20% clone 337. But as of 2010, he has made his wine entirely from a single block of clone 4, planted on thin, well-drained Bale gravelly loam and fractured rock far back from Highway 29. This “C2” block was planted in 1994 at a density of six by seven feet, on naturally vigorous rootstock that is resistant to fan leaf virus. Hobbs’s To Kalon bottling has always been 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and vine yields have typically been in the range of three to four tons per acre.
Interestingly, many growers and winemakers in Napa Valley view clone 4 as varietally typical—that is, often showing the herbal side of Cabernet, which some of today’s consumers seem allergic to—as well as normally producing structured wines, while they view clone 337 as more fruit-driven and often more floral. But Hobbs believes that 337 yields more structured wines at the To Kalon site. Beckstoffer To Kalon fruit, incidentally, is also sold to a number of other top Napa Valley producers, including Carter Cellars, Cliff Lede Vineyards, Morlet Family Vineyards, Realm Cellars, Schrader Cellars and Tor Kenward Family Wines, some of which make single-clone bottlings. That’s one of those wine experiences best left to millionaires: comparing To Kalon Vineyard clone 4 and clone 337 bottlings.
Perhaps even more important than the clone, says Hobbs, To Kalon fruit is low in malates (the sodium salt of malic acidity), which Hobbs says is a hallmark of quality—an indicator of fuller phenolic maturity, especially of the seeds. Hobbs told me that he rarely picks Cabernet based on sugar levels in the grapes; rather, he walks his parcels and tastes the fruit. He described himself as one of the later pickers during his first years working with To Kalon fruit (even his first bottlings from To Kalon finished with at least 14.5% alcohol), but because his early vintages received high scores from some critics, he became the early benchmark for the vineyard, with Beckstoffer’s other clients often waiting for Hobbs to pick before bringing in their own fruit. Nowadays, Hobbs told me, “we seem to be picking earlier, and we’re not the only ones who do.” Hobbs also pointed out that his C2 block is situated in an earlier-ripening part of the Beckstoffer property, where the soil is thinner. Still, recent vintages have weighed in at—or just under—15% alcohol, or slightly lower than the vintages between 2005 and 2009. But the pHs have consistently been in the range of 3.65 to 3.8, moderate for fully ripe Napa Valley Cabernet.
In addition to the clonal variable, Hobbs has had to deal with a succession of different vineyard managers over time, and the repeated necessity to train the new ones. The current manager, happily, has been there for several years, and Hobbs told me that the work in the vineyard is much more precise today. Of particular importance has been a more flexible approach to water management, particularly the recognition that irrigation is critical in the days before predicted heat spikes in order to protect the grapes against dehydration. But, he added, that’s hardly unique to the Beckstoffer vineyards. “Now everybody understands this,” he said.
A comprehensive tasting of Paul Hobbs's Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Traditional Vinification for Long-Aging Wines
"I don't make Napa Cabernets for early drinking," Hobbs told me during our vertical tasting. If he feels that some acidification is necessary, he makes light additions to the must just prior to the fermentation. Since moving to his own facility in Sebastopol, he has vinified the To Kalon entirely with indigenous yeasts, with the exception of the ’03 and ’04 vintages, both growing seasons in which September heat waves drove potential alcohol levels high and Hobbs felt that the wild yeasts might not be able to finish the fermentations on their own. He carries out what he describes as a traditional maceration, beginning by chilling the small, closed-top stainless steel tanks to get a cold soak lasting five to seven days. Fermentation temperatures tend to be warmer earlier (up to 94 or 95 degrees F.), then cooler later on. Hobbs does three pumpovers per day during the fermentation, with the number of days of pumpovers varying widely depending on the needs of each vintage. (He does punchdowns for Petit Verdot and Merlot—“and especially for Pinot Noir”—but not for Cabernet Sauvignon due to its “more beefy and therefore less lignified [woody] and frequently greener stems.”) Total cuvaison, including substantial post-fermentation maceration, has normally ranged from 30 to 45 days but nowadays is normally no longer than 35 days, as Hobbs is less likely to subject any of his lots to long post-fermentation maceration.
Through 2001, Hobbs aged his To Kalon Cabernet in Taransaud and Seguin Moreau barrels, between 75% and 85% of them new. Since then he has used 100% new oak, with thin-staved Taransaud barrels his top choice, but joined in recent years by a small percentage of Darnajou, Marcel Cadet and Radoux (today he uses mostly Taransaud plus some Darnajou). Hobbs, who keeps his cellar cold during the winter, racks his wine at least four times, then again for the assemblage, then bottles it during the second June.
A Few Notes on the Tasting
Hobbs presented his wines beginning with the oldest vintage, the ’99. The first couple of vintages were underwhelming, both of them showing a distinct greenness. Hobbs warned me that his earlier vintages had been stored initially in a warehouse with too much temperature variation, but it was the modest ripeness of these wines that bothered me. (Of course, 1999 was a late, cool, rather European-style growing season, while 2000 brought its own ripening challenges.) The 2001 was splendid, though—a major step up in aromatic complexity, ripeness and class.
Since 2007, the wine has been consistently superb, in virtually every case displaying both vintage and varietal character without any impression of exaggeration. Most striking, the wines showcase the complexity of their site in their claret-like combination of dark fruits, flowers, spices, tobacco and dark chocolate along with subtle mint and herb qualities. Recent vintages appear to need a minimum of ten years to approach maturity and have the stuffing and balance for extended aging.
See the Wines From Youngest to Oldest
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