Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon. He recently returned to Napa Valley for more visits with top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.
I've been following Paul Hobbs' efforts for over a decade now, from his projects in South America to upstate New York, from Canada to Cahors, Hungary and Spain. He earned his chops with Napa Cabernet, though, and so while he grew up on an apple orchard in upstate New York, it was fun to finally catch up with him on his adopted home turf.
Hobbs has made Cabernet from some of Napa's most revered terroirs, including To Kalon, Stagecoach and other top-shelf sites. His most recent venture is into Coombsville, which only earned AVA status in 2011. He purchased a 90-acre site in late 2012, replanted a fair share of the existing vineyards and now has 65 acres of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon along with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot. He renamed the site Nathan Coombs in honor of the founding father of Napa whose name has also been put on the AVA.
"I was consulting at Merus, which was drawing fruit from this area and was working with a few growers around here," says Hobbs of how he came to know what was an off-the-beaten-track area prior to it gaining AVA status in 2011.
What makes the wines from Coombsville different according to Hobbs is the area's cooler climate—"cooler" by Napa Valley standards, at least. "It's gotten buzz for being cooler, but people who come in here thinking this is just a cool spot are in for a surprise. It gets the same temperature peaks as up-valley, and it can cook," Hobbs says. "The difference is those peaks are for a shorter duration, and it cools off quicker. In the end, there's no shortage of ripeness, but for comparison, the picking here is usually 10 to 12 days after, say, To Kalon in Oakville."
Coombsville is situated on rocky, well-drained volcanic soils, which leave their mark on the wines, giving them tannic muscle and drive. "The cool weather and all the rock in the soil allows you to get a lot of color and a lot of extract in the wines," he says. "What I've had to learn to deal with is the tannin. That's been the main challenge so far."
Hobbs seems to be up to the challenge as the 2013, '14 and '15 Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville Nathan Coombs Estate bottlings show polish and freshness, despite being well-structured. The fruit profile is decidedly dark, landing squarely on the blue and black side of the spectrum. There are hints of sage and bay as well, giving them a different feel than up-valley Cabernets, in which the fruit is redder and there is less herb nuance in the background. The Nathan Coombs Estate Cabernets seem to combine characteristics of both valley floor and mountain fruit.
Hobbs is clearly pleased with the new site, which was in excellent health when he bought it. Hobbs' replanting was mostly budding over, rather than tearing out, in order to change the percentage of varieties in the vineyard. Merlot was reduced, with Cabernet Sauvignon the clear lead dog.
The only hiccup so far has been with 2017, when Hobbs picked half his Cabernet grapes after the wildfires started, and it was all sold off to bulk. "Without question," he says flatly of the decision. "You could smell it in the air. You could see a cloudy layer on the grapes. That was a tough one, because 2017 was a really strong growing season."
"But other than that and Merlot not producing as well as I thought it would here, there have been no disappointments," Hobbs says. "I really couldn't be happier with Coombsville."