Stalk the Winemaker: The Great Paul Hobbs.

A feature presentation! A visit and barrel tasting at Laird Family Estate, whose wines are fathered by the great Paul Hobbs. Little would you know it, though, if you only looked at the labels. Sometimes, you have to stalk the winemaker before you can find all of his wines.

Contents of the video are as follows:

Today we’re starting a new feature. It’s called Stalk the Winemaker.

Have you ever gone to a restaurant and had the absolute-best calzone you’ve ever had in your life, or the absolute-best jager schnitzel, or the absolute-best chile relleno, only to go back to that restaurant six months later and find out that that dish is no longer as amazing as it once was? Well. In many cases, the problem there is that the chef has left. The exact same thing happens in wine. Except the chef is the winemaker. And when the winemaker of one of your favorite wines leaves, a lot of times the next bottle you get is a little bit of a disappointment.

We here at are totally against these rogue winemakers getting away without leaving a trace. So we’re going to be stalking them. And today, we’re going to be stalking the great Paul Hobbs. He’s responsible for all the wines at Laird Family Estate.

Paul Hobbs, stalking victim. Trace his work and you'll trace fine wines.

Oh, the great Paul Hobbs. He’s worked at Opus One, he’s consulted for premium California wineries for years, and now he oversees the making of wines in several countries, especially Argentina, where he made a 2006 Malbec that Robert Parker scored 99 points. (Other Hobbs wines have received the uber-rare 100 from Parker — like his 2002 To Kalon Cabernet.) In this case he’s not so much a winemaker who’s left a winery and needs to be stalked as he is the winemaker for many wineries — and anybody who stalks him to whatever winery he’s making wine for will automatically find great wines.

Prime example: Laird Family Estate in the Napa Valley. It’s an outfit that sells its grapes to dozens of wineries in the area, but keeps a few tons for itself, for wines under its own label — wines made under Paul Hobbs. You would never know, looking at a bottle, that one of the most famous winemakers of our time had anything to do with what was inside.

I visited Laird the other day to talk about the Hobbs connection, just as some of its Chardonnay vines were coming to life. I talked with Terra Fessler, who described how Ken Laird — the fellow on the right here — started buying Napa vineyards 40 years ago and in the ’90s built the winery we were at. It didn’t take long for Paul Hobbs to notice.

Terra: We started our work on our winemaking facility and the buzz kinda got out there in the industry for winemakers and Paul Hobbs came knocking, and said, “Can I make my wine here?” And we said, “Well, if you help us with our label.” And so he kind of helped with the direction. As I’m told we were initially maybe looking at possibly doing a bulk-wine label instead. But Paul Hobbs convinced Ken to focus more on some of the more nice vineyards and creating single-vineyard wines and nice blends of vineyards as well, and so they kind of did a trade: Paul made his wine here and helped us with our winemaking style.

Me: And in the beginning it was Cabernet and Chardonnay, and that was it?

Terra: Correct. Yes. So a lot of people who are big Paul Hobbs fans will see the similar characteristcs between our Chardonnay and Cab to his Chardonnay and Cab.

I’m always all for tasting those characteristics, so we went into the winery for a barrel tasting of 2009 Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. After my first sip, the signature sweet Laird ripeness had burst forth.

Every Laird wine, in fact, is rich with the signature flavors of the grape variety that constitutes it. But the rich, bright, juicy, pure fruit never seems too rich in tannins. It’s like every Laird wine is candy-apple-red and makes your mouth water but not pucker.

The reds produced by Laird Family Estate, crafted under Paul Hobbs.

And if Paul Hobbs can produce that kinda wine, Laird can definitely produce those kinda grapes — the grapes are, after all, mostly grown for high-profile wineries in the area.

Terra: Some of the wineries that purchase our grapes are Domaine Chandon, which is up the road. You’ll also see some similar characteristics in the Rombauer Chardonnay, as they use the same vineyard as our Cold Creek. In addition, we have Merryvale, Nickel & Nickel, you know, Joseph Phelps. We’ve got some big names out there.

Me: How many acres, though, out there under Laird control?

Terra: So, under the Ken Laird name, there’s 2,500 acres. He got started in the ’70s, came here from Virginia with a tobacco-farming background. Did a pre-stop at Georgia Tech, got a degree in engineering and worked in that field but missed his farming roots and brought his family out here and purchased his first plot of land. And Robert Mondavi asked him to grow Gamay, and said he’d purchase all of it if he did. So that was his first establishing relationship in the industry — in the ’70s. So over the next several decades he collected more and more vineyards. So now he has about 5% of the lands that are by grape here in Napa. He’s the largest land owner, so, 2,500 acres total. So, 1 to 2% of that only is used for our Laird label, a 12- to 13,000-case production a year.

Which translates to roughly 30,000 gallons of wines of stylistic finesse that won’t cut your bank account in half. And it looks like the 2010 vintage isn’t going to be lacking any of that finesse, as much panic as there was among Napa winemakers during that year’s cold growing season.

(Talking with Robert Vargas, the Laird barrel foreman.)

Robert: They turned out a little different than the ’09s because the weather didn’t — [they] just didn’t get ripe. The acid stayed a little higher. So.

Me: But do you think they’re gonna be——

Robert: They’ll all be fine. They’ll all be fine.

Me: They were not grown at much elevation, then?

Robert: They were all pretty much grown here in the Valley. Yountville area, over here on Big Ranch Road, is [among] the other vineyards we’ve got. Also Carneros area.

Me: Cuz that’s the word. If it was at elevation, then it was at risk for not ripening at all.

Robert: Exactly.

Me: I don’t think it’s going to be a bad vintage at all.

Robert: No, I don’t think it is at all. I mean, it’s going to be different. But every year is different. There’s not one year that’s exactly like the other. Like this year. We’re expecting it to be a higher yield, because you can see the weather’s cooperating right now. We’ve got sun. We’ve got rain. It’s starting to bud. It’s starting to turn. So——

2011 Napa Chardonnay budding at the Red Hen Ranch of Laird Family Estate.

Me: So, when 2010 Laird Cabernet comes out, one hopes, it’ll still be a way to experience Paul Hobbs’s work without shelling out $150 a bottle for it. And for now, current releases can still be found at San Francisco’s Laird retailers, like the Jug Shop & Wines of California.

Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment