Wines from a charmed life

WAG wine columnist Doug Paulding has sipped with the industry’s movers and shakers. But he writes, “I got downright giddy when I was invited to a one-on-one tasting in Manhattan with Paul Hobbs of Paul Hobbs Winery and Hillick & Hobbs.”

Everyone knows that guy, or woman, who saunters through life and wonderful opportunities just seem to fall in place, day after day, year after year. 

I have met any number of famous wine people. Georges Duboeuf (Beaujolais), Michel Rolland (wine consultant), Adrian Bridge (Fonseca Port), Kevin Zraly (“Windows on the World Complete Wine Course”) and Ed McCarthy (“Wine for Dummies”) are but a few of the industry leaders I have had the opportunity to meet and taste wines with and discuss what they are promoting. But I got downright giddy when I was invited to a one-on-one tasting in Manhattan with Paul Hobbs of Paul Hobbs Winery and Hillick & Hobbs.

Paul’s parents, Joan Hillick and Edward Hobbs, were from Niagara County outside of Buffalo, New York, where they had 600 acres of farmland planted to fruit trees. A tight labor market didn’t deter them and as their plantings grew, so did their family. Soon enough, after bringing 11 children into the world, they had created their own work force. At some point in 1970, as second-born Paul was coming of age, Edward asked Paul to plant some grape vines. The vines and Paul’s interest in wine grew as his college career flourished. He was accepted into medical school, but Edward urged him to go to the University of California at Davis to learn about wine. At the time, mother Joan was not happy with that decision. 

Paul received his master’s degree with an emphasis on comparing French to American oak barrel-extracted flavors in wine. Robert Mondavi heard of this and immediately put him on the Mondavi oenological team. Paul admits he knew very little at the time but in a short while was asked to partner in the winery with Michael Mondavi to create Opus One, a collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Château Mouton Rothschild, one of the five first-growth wines of Bordeaux.

As Opus One took off, Paul found himself moving toward management and corporate board rooms, but he wanted to pursue his passion for working in the vineyards and creating wine in the cellars. So he bought some grapes and found a facility that would allow him to create a wine on its equipment when it was available. And with that, in 1991 Paul Hobbs had a label and some wine to sell. Soon enough he bought some land and planted vines. Then some more. And more, until today Paul Hobbs Winery has 300 acres in California’s Napa and Sonoma counties planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. The region’s Pinot Noir at the time was mostly planted with clippings that had been heat-treated to protect against viruses. Paul is certain this heat treatment essentially killed the “heart” of the vine, akin to Randle McMurphy’s lobotomy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” None of the Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir vines have been subjected to this heat abuse, resulting in a wine much smoother with pronounced nuance. 

Through all of this, wineries in many different countries and a few different continents have asked Paul to come and consult with them on how to improve their wines. He says he has never sought out a client, yet new ones keep calling him. He can never guarantee results, but he insists, “I can contribute in a meaningful way.” Consultant Rolland, a colleague and friend, calls Paul the “world’s second-most important wine consultant” — after himself, of course. 

Paul has always had a fascination with German wines of the Mosel River region, notably Riesling. He has visited the Mosel region many times, learning about the river, the mineral-driven soil and Riesling styles. In 2011, Paul returned to upstate New York and began researching ideal planting sites. Two years later, he found the perfect setting on the southeast edge of Seneca Lake on a steep parcel facing the lake with lots of slate and glacial shale to contribute that mineral backbone to the wine. He went on to plant 21 acres of Riesling vines and named the winery for his parents, Hillick & Hobbs. Vines are planted perpendicular to the lake on a western exposure. This allows for less direct sunlight throughout the day — creating longer hang time for the grapes, which always brings more flavor. 

We tasted three of his wines. Our first was the Hillick & Hobbs 2019 Riesling, its first vintage. Showing pure Riesling expression and tasting dry, it had flavors of fresh fruit, lemon zest, hints of pineapple and orange flowers. At $35, this wine is a brilliant lakeside-picnic wine, a perfect welcome wine and will pair with any lighter dinner fair, notably fish and ceviche. Our next wine was the 2019 Paul Hobbs Pinot Noir from Sonoma County. Made of grapes strictly hand-harvested at night, this wine presented red cherry notes with strawberry accents and a pleasant, textured spiciness. At $65, this wine way overdelivers. And finally, we tasted the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was an ideal vintage for Napa wines. Showing rich, dark fruit flavors of black cherry with hints of balsamic and a pleasant tannic textural mouthfeel, this $120 Cab will notably anchor any meal. 

At 68 years of age, Paul appears a decade or so younger. He clearly hasn’t slowed down a bit and his contributions to the wine world as a winemaker or as a consultant should continue for a long time. I don’t mean to suggest Paul’s direction in life was all luck-driven. He told me his passionate work ethic and attention to detail were instilled in him by his parents and fully embraced. These played a great part in his success. 

Any or all of his wines will impress the wine lover. These wines are available nationwide or by direct purchase. Paul’s seemingly charmed, effortless life is reflected in his wines. They are honest and unmanipulated, from ideal locations. Open some soon. Happy times.

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