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Nicolaus Hahn, Founder of Hahn Family Wines, Dies at 81

The international businessman and Santa Lucia Highlands vintner helped put his California wine region on the map
Nicky Hahn was a passionate believer in Santa Lucia Highlands wine.
Photo by: Courtesy Hahn Family Wines
Nicky Hahn was a passionate believer in Santa Lucia Highlands wine.

Aaron Romano
Posted: March 8, 2018

Nicolaus Hahn, the founder of California's Hahn Family Wines and a pioneer of Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands wine region, died March 2 at his home in Zurich, Switzerland. He was 81.

You can't tell the story of Santa Lucia Highlands without Hahn. In 1979, Nicolaus, or Nicky as he liked to be called, and his wife Gaby purchased a former horse and cattle ranch in the hills above California's Salinas Valley, an area that was known for its agriculture but not its grapegrowing.

Both the winery and region's reputation swelled over the next four decades, thanks in part to Hahn, who championed the area as a unique winemaking region. During the 1980s and '90s, growers like Caymus Vineyards' Wagner family, the Talbotts and the McIntyres recognized the potential, and were followed by resident farming families like the Pisonis and the Franscionis, whose vineyards have garnered much of the acclaim Santa Lucia Highlands has seen in recent years.

Hahn was instrumental in gathering his growing group of vintner neighbors and achieving appellation status for the region in 1991. The family business has grown to owning and farming 650 vineyards within Santa Lucia Highlands—10 percent of the total planted acreage in the region. The Hahns also own and farm two vineyards in Arroyo Seco in southern Monterey County.

Hahn was born in 1936 in Switzerland. His father, a Jewish banker from Frankfurt, Germany, had moved there to escape the Nazis. Nicky spent his childhood moving through England, Spain, Portugal, Cuba and Los Angeles. He attended grade school in New York, high school in Switzerland and university in Munich, where he studied economics and met Gaby.

"I like to say that he's lived 10 lifetimes in the span of one," said Hahn's son Philip. Nicky was a successful businessman in Paris and New York, as well as chairman of an international computer software company in London, before his travels led him to Monterey County.

"He went searching for land with the intent of pioneering," said Philip. "He was trying to find something that had never been done before." Included on the property Hahn purchased was a vineyard that was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Over the next few years, he began buying farmland and converting it to vineyards.

After several years of making just Cabernet, Hahn concluded that the grape was not well suited for the cool and windy region. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he risked it all, replanting their 650 acres to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The tall and lanky Hahn was ambitious beyond his foray in wine. Hahn split his time between Monterey and Switzerland, as well as at a 50,000-acre wildlife preserve in Kenya he owned, where he worked on saving wildlife and strengthening the local economy.

"My father left me with one indelible lesson: There are many dreamers, but it is not enough to dream. We must also do," said Philip. "He built something truly meaningful, and I'm proud to carry on his legacy." Philip has been the chairman of the family business since 2007.

Hahn is survived by his wife, Gaby Hahn, and his two children, Philip Hahn and Caroline Hahn.

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