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When we recently went in pursuit of the next great Napa Valley cult wines, the experts, producers, and retailers we spoke to distilled the magic behind the labels we’ll soon be coveting: vineyard sourcing and winemaking talent. And while we often expect the latest sensation to arrive in the form of a young upstart taking center stage, that’s not the case here. With 45 years of making wine under his belt, Paul Hobbs has just dropped what he calls his “pinnacle” bottling, Hobbs 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, the first cult wine he has created with his own name on the bottle.
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Hobbs’s Napa Valley bona fides run deep; after just a year working at Robert Mondavi, Hobbs was tapped to join the inaugural team at Opus One thanks to his expertise in oak aging. Founded by Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1978, Opus One remains a reference point for cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to this day. Hobbs remained at Opus until 1984 and in the interim has had a hand in legendary Napa releases from the likes of Larkmead, Diamond Mountain Vineyard, Peter Michael Winery, Merus, Gemstone, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, earning numerous accolades and at least 10 100-point scores along the way.
Speaking with Hobbs via Zoom while tasting his 2015, we noted that he is the rare American winemaking consultant toiling alongside the likes of French greats such as Michel Rolland, Philippe Melka, and Stéphane Derenoncourt, who all have a deep footprint in Napa. A native of Buffalo, New York, Hobbs is a third-generation farmer, although he’s the first in his family whose main crop is grapes. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from Notre Dame in 1975 and an M.S. in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, in 1978. He began an internship at Robert Mondavi while still attending UC Davis, where his research included the comparison of French and American oak under the tutelage of Professor Vernon Singleton, whose exploration of the science of oxidation led to some of the greatest improvements of winemaking practices of the 20th century.
In addition to his eponymous brand, Hobbs is also the owner and vintner at seven other wineries around the world: Paul Hobbs Winery and Crossbarn in California; Hillock & Hobbs in New York’s Finger Lakes; Crocus in Cahors, France; Armenia’s Yacoubian-Hobbs; Alvaredos-Hobbs in Galicia, Spain; and Viña Cobos, which Hobbs cofounded in 1999, in Mendoza, Argentina. It is not hyperbole to say that Hobbs’s involvement in many of these regions has brought renewed interest in them from the press and consumers. Although Armenia is one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, it’s hard to have a conversation about the current industry there without someone mentioning Hobbs’s name.
In addition to personal provenance, Hobbs is also an expert in vineyard sites and grape procurement, having worked for 45 years in Napa Valley. Despite our numerous attempts to uncover the exact vineyard sources for Hobbs, he would only admit to one of the components, stating that the Nathan Coombs vineyard in Coombsville, which he has owned since 2012, is “a core player in the blend.” Named for the founder of the city of Napa, the vineyard is in an AVA that’s been planted with grapes for over 175 years but only received official recognition in 2011. Hobbs told Robb Report he has been familiar with Coombsville since his days at Robert Mondavi in the late 1970s.
Other than his own estate vineyards, Hobbs simply reveals that his grapes are from “scattered” sites throughout Napa Valley, with parcels in Oakville, St. Helena, and elsewhere. “They may not always appear in a given vintage for the Hobbs bottling, so it will vary from vintage to vintage,” he says. “Without giving away too much, a significant part of this is volcanic soils and there are also some alluvial soils.” All the vineyards are located either directly on the valley floor or on low-lying foothills.“There is no quintessential mountain fruit like Howell Mountain or Diamond Mountain,” Hobbs says. He also won’t drop hints as to who else buys from these vineyards, teasing, “They are all named, pedigreed vineyards. The wine has pedigree; it comes from known sites that have performed at the highest level for many, many decades.”
Made with mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and a very small percentage of Cabernet Franc, Hobbs 2015 finished its fermentation in 225-liter French oak barrels, where it then aged for about 18 months, and was not filtered before bottling. Hobbs is fastidious about his oak regime and points out, “Oak is the second most important ingredient after grapes.” He sources barrels from slow-growing trees; once built, the barrels receive a “long, slow, deep and penetrating toast,” which he states adds stability to the finished wine, eliminating the need for filtration.
“The finish is the fermentation in barrel, not in the tank, which is one of the reasons I don’t break all the berries,” he says. “When we press it, some of those unbroken berries release sugar into the wine and there’s a little bit of sugar there for it to ferment in barrel. There’s sugar in new oak. And I want the yeast to consume those as well. That’s one of the reasons I put it down sweet. It’s not very sweet but it’s just enough to have the yeast consume all the sugars rather than have a cold ferment; then you have problems and have to filter.”
While he is also reticent to pinpoint an exact ideal drinking window for his bottle, Hobbs says it will drink well for at least 30 years, lamenting that it will “long outlive its cork.” He refers to the idea of the 2015 giving different “snapshots” depending on when it is opened and consumed. “You get the opportunity to experience more rides with a wine like this,” he says. “A well-put-together individual is interesting in their youth as well as in their young adulthood all the way through to the very end of their life cycle, so I think this wine will offer something great for the next 30 years.” Asked point blank what makes the 2,196 bottles of Hobbs 2015 worth $800, Hobbs says, “To be direct about it, I think the experience, the history, and my experience with Napa Valley. This is the culmination of all those. It feels a little arrogant to say these things, but it’s really 40 or 45 years of experience working in Napa Valley with some of the best properties and this is a wine at the pinnacle of my career.” We can’t help but agree.
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