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mixed case: opinion and advice

How to Stay Relevant: Hahn Family Wines

In an age of "brand allergic" wine lovers, how can a legacy brand stay fresh?
The Hahn family has a long history up in the Santa Lucia Highlands, but they have recently sharpened their focus on the area's best grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Posted: Nov 3, 2016 2:00pm ET

By Ben O'Donnell

As the world of wine continues to balloon, swelling with ever more regions, brands and demographics, the wine producer must be like the proverbial shark: Keep swimming or die. But these iconic brands have gotten it right in their own ways. Previously: Silver Oak and Caymus.

Few pathbreakers take on the daunting challenge of making wine in unproven lands with a dream of someday churning out prefab quaffs with six-figure case productions.

When he put down vines in 1979 in the not-yet Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Swiss businessman Nicky Hahn didn't envision he'd one day be peddling 500,000 cases a year of HRM Rex Goliath rooster-label wine. ("It started creating its own life," he admitted to columnist Matt Kramer in 2012.) When Hahn sold the bird brand, he launched Cycles Gladiator, at $10 a pop, to appease distributors.

But in 2014, with drinkers inching upmarket, the Hahn family unloaded Cycles and two other brands sourced from around the Central Coast to focus their energies on the home ranch. Thanks to Nicky Hahn's foresight, the family is the largest vineyard owner and producer in the SLH appellation; now, they've set their sights on making wines "meant to be the flag carrier for the region," says Philip Hahn, Nicky's son and the current chairman.

Of the early cowboy years when Nicky was starting out, says Philip, "if you were in California, it had to be Bordeaux [styles]. It took us a long time to realize, no, you don't have to." While Hahn focused on muscling up in case count aggressively, starting in the '90s, cool-climate-curious vintners like those at Testarossa, Patz & Hall, Siduri and Loring began moving into single-vineyard expressions of Pinot and Chardonnay in the foggy, windy hills south of Monterey, some buying grapes from Hahn vineyards.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, "we really did bet the farm," grafting most of Hahn's 650 SLH acres over to Pinot and Chardonnay. Now Philip's going all-in. No longer content to solder Pinot onto old Merlot rootstocks, Hahn is ripping up and replanting its SLH vines, five to 10 percent every year. The vines are being planted closer together, to stress them. Partnering with Verizon, Hahn has been installing data-gathering stations to measure temperature, humidity and wind within individual vine canopies, taking the guesswork out of irrigation, as well as helping monitor disease pressure.

Shortly before Philip came aboard in 2007, Hahn launched the Lucienne label of high-end Pinot ($50), which it soon broke out into single-vineyard cuvées: Hook, Smith, Doctor's and Lone Oak.

Even more ambitious is the line branded "SLH" two years ago: two estate wines, a $25 Chardonnay and a $30 Pinot. It's growing 25 to 30 percent per year, and Philip thinks Hahn's vine land can support 100,000 cases. The goal, he explains, is "to get the Santa Lucia Highlands in front of more and more people as the next great Burgundian region that's special because of this unique weather condition that we have." To that end, Hahn is targeting restaurant by-the-glass programs for "SLH." It is also on track to open a second tasting room in Carmel in early 2017.

Veteran area vineyard managers like Steve McIntyre and Mark Pisoni have helped Hahn come along in the vineyards, but what Hahn brings to the table are scale and national sales relationships. "I think the more people see it, the more people equate the region with the wines that we and our friends are making," says Philip.

The results of Hahn's pivot are already encouraging: The seven Lucienne and "SLH" Pinots rated from the 2012 to 2014 vintages all notched 90 to 93 points—a tier Hahn had never previously cracked in Wine Spectator's reviews.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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