Very few winemakers have the stamina of globe-trotting vintner Paul Hobbs. Growing up as the second of 11 children on an orchard farm along the shores of Lake Ontario, Hobbs learned the value of hard work from a young age. He was originally focused on following in his great-grandfather's footsteps to become a doctor, but that all changed when he took his first sip of wine from a Dixie cup at the age of 16. That wine happened to be a 1962 Château d'Yquem.
Since then, Hobbs has become one of the world's most coveted wine consultants, working on both sides of the equator and the Atlantic. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, senior editor Bruce Sanderson spoke with Hobbs about his start in the business, how the pandemic is bringing positive changes to his winery, and a new Riesling project on his home turf.
When Hobbs was growing up, wine wasn't a big part of his life, and his parents even made a pact that alcohol wouldn't be served at the dinner table. Hobbs' father slowly became more open to the idea of making wine, as the family had converted the apple orchards to grapes for financial reasons, and he signed off on Hobbs taking a wine-appreciation course while at Notre Dame, hoping his son would return to make wine on the farm. That plan never bore fruit.
Instead, Hobbs enrolled at U.C. Davis and took an apprenticeship at Robert Mondavi Winery while studying oak extracts in 1977. A year later, Hobbs joined the Mondavi organization full-time. At that time Opus One, the collaboration between Mondavi and Mouton-Rothschild, was just getting off the ground.
"Mondavi was the turning point," Hobbs said. "When Opus One occurred and it became international, I couldn’t resist and I went headlong into it."
Later on, Hobbs left Mondavi to help author the Cabernet program at Simi Winery, but once it was acquired by luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, Hobbs felt more distant from the vineyards than he wanted to be in a new executive role. He packed his bags and left for Argentina in 1988 to pursue his dream of starting a winery.
Argentina wasn’t then considered a great region for wine, but Hobbs' bet paid off as he partnered with Nicolas Catena of Bodega Catena Zapata, and helped pioneer the renaissance of the country's signature grape, Malbec. In 1999, Hobbs made the first vintage of Viña Cobos.
Since then, Hobbs has made wine in Spain, Armenia, Canada, New York’s Finger Lakes and the Cahors region of France, and developed his own winemaking consulting firm that has worked with up to 35 clients at a time.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, has presented new obstacles. With restaurants closing again amid spiking COVID-19 cases, Hobbs has had to pivot his energy to direct-to-consumer and on-premise sales, which he admits are not the strengths of his California winery. "Fortunately, those areas have grown for us," he said. "That’s the benefit of [the pandemic]; it’s helped accelerate a new way of working."
Toward the end of the Hobbs’s chat with Sanderson, the veteran international winemaker was swirling a new wine in his glass, a yet-to-be released 2019 Finger Lakes Riesling which he plans to bottle later this year. The new project has become the most expensive wine enterprise he's undertaken to date. "It’s been a labor of love and passion," Hobbs said. "It’s a big risk, but we’re already beginning to see the fruits of our labor, and I’m quite happy with it so far."
Watch the full episode with Hobbs on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET.