Meet Winemaker Paul Hobbs
After four decades as one of the globe’s premier winemakers, Paul Hobbs shows no signs of slowing down.
Top to bottom: Mitch Tobias; Paul Hobbs;
Paul Hobbs walks into a private tasting room at his stunning Howard Backen–designed Sebastopol winery, where a 20-foot-long white oak table is set for two. Multiple wine glasses surround the place settings. He’s interviewing someone for a new chef position, he explains. “We’re going to have a few nibbles today,” the 64-year-old winemaker says gleefully.
It has been more than a decade since Paul Hobbs Winery first opened, and it is still evolving. One big upcoming addition, as the search for a chef suggests, is the winery’s first tasting menu. Working with local culinary partners like Sonoma County Poultry and Green Star Farm, the chef will be tasked with crafting delicious bites that will help elevate the wine experience.
“If a chef is really great, he or she is going to show me something I’ve never seen before,” Hobbs says. “He or she has got to understand our wines.”
Hobbs’ ambition may intimidate some hopeful applicants, but it gets to the heart of what drives this globe-trotting, world-renowned winemaker: It’s not enough just to impress. You have to amaze.
Pushing the Envelope
The slender, bespectacled Hobbs looks and sounds more like a scientist than a distinguished wine aficionado. His self-admitted fierce independence has spurred an incredible string of successes dating back to the late 1970s, when he took his first steps into the world of wine. He still speaks with the energy of an up-and-coming industry upstart. He’s as thrilled discussing his new projects in Coombsville, Sebastopol Hills, and the Sonoma Coast as he is talking about his first vineyard, the Katherine Lindsay Estate, which he started in 1998.
That youthful exuberance led Forbes to call Hobbs the Steve Jobs of wine in 2013. It’s a fitting comparison. Since landing his first full-time wine gig with the late Robert Mondavi in 1978, Hobbs has made one big splash after another. One of his first wine-making jobs was working on the first Opus One project, the high-profile collaboration between the Mondavis and the Rothschild family of Bordeaux, France, that focused on producing ultrapremium wines.
“That convinced me that wine was the way to go, and I never looked back,” Hobbs says.
That early wine-making experience set up a career of innovations. One of his biggest came at the start of the new century, when he fundamentally changed the look of wineries.
In the early 2000s, wineries were built like malls, with all rooms under a single roof. Hobbs, who grew up on his family’s orchard in upstate New York, decided he could do better for his eponymous winery.
“I wanted something more like our farm, where each barn has a defined purpose,” he says.
To realize his vision, Hobbs enlisted Howard Backen, one of the top architects in the world. Backen designed a villagelike structure that seems to unfold across the landscape, from the cozy and stylish Lindsay House to a nearly 12,000-square-foot winery.
Of course, it’s the wines that make a winery, and Hobbs is no slouch when it comes to his vinos. Not only are his estate wines prized by collectors, they regularly earn some of the highest accolades. In 2005, his Paul Hobbs 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer to Kalon Vineyard scored the coveted 100 points from Wine Advocate; the 2013 vintage also notched a perfect score, as did the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard.
Hobbs’ influence stretches well beyond the United States, too. He’s credited with being the only American on the wine-making team to motivate the Catenas, one of Argentina’s most acclaimed wine-producing families, to rethink Malbec as a varietal. Throughout the 1990s, Hobbs busily reengineered the Catenas’ planting techniques to produce significantly lower yields from their vines. Malbec soon became the grape of distinction for Argentina, putting the country on the global wine map.
Argentina was just the beginning for Hobbs. He now works on three continents: Europe as well as South and North America, with projects in Armenia, France, and Spain, along with the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. “Different cultures view things so differently, and that’s what’s fun,” he says. “It’s really just a different theater and is very stimulating to me.”
Many of the wines produced by these international vineyards, including his Argentine label Viña Cobos, his French Malbec label Crocus, and his Armenian label Yacoubian-Hobbs, are regularly imported by the United States—and the company doing the importing, Paul Hobbs Selections, is also owned by Hobbs.
This Land Is His Land…
One of 11 kids, Hobbs grew up on the family farm in New York, near Lake Ontario.
“Land has always been in my blood,” says Hobbs. “I started driving a tractor at age six or seven.”
That connection to the land influenced some of his biggest decisions.
In 1990, while taking part in the Wildflower Century bike ride through Sonoma’s West County, he fell in love with the Sebastopol area. It reminded him of the farm back in New York. He purchased a parcel of land and named it after his great-grandmother Katherine Lindsay, who founded the family farm.
Rejuvenating the once-fallow acreage brought back more memories—and more lessons—from his youth. He and his older brother regularly accompanied their dad to assess new property for expansion of the family’s fruit operation. Hobbs’ dad would consider every aspect of the land, from the slopes to the quality of the soil to sun exposure, relying more on intuition than any scientific measurement, instilling his son with insights in the process.
Clearly, those insights have paid off for Hobbs, who has since purchased several properties across Wine Country. When prospecting potential purchases, he looks for an area with unique qualities, something that sets it apart.
Most recently, he bought the 42-acre Goldrock Ridge Vineyard in the northwest corner of Sonoma County, just a few miles off the coast. “I like the crispness and focus of the fruit that comes from this supercool area,” he says.
The Journey Continues at Home
With his global wine-consulting business expanding, Hobbs spends only half of his time in California; nevertheless, he still calls it his favorite place. Sebastopol is where he’s most personally motivated and invigorated. “There are so many beautiful places around the world, but you can’t say there’s anyplace more beautiful than here,” he says, calling his winery the mothership of his operations. His wife and two young children also live here.
“A lot of people around here have helped educate me over the years,” Hobbs says of the local vintners and winemakers.
And for his part, Hobbs has returned the favor. His longest business relationship has been with Larry Hyde, a veteran Carneros vintner and winemaker at Hyde Vineyards. “Paul has an eye for quality and always seems to find the best blocks in the vineyard,” says Hyde, who recalls a visit by Hobbs in the late 1980s “to observe a block of chardonnay that was riddled with botrytis. I expected that he would reject the fruit but was surprised when Paul asked me to harvest [it]; Paul made a wonderful sweet wine with it.”
Hobbs is proud to count Hyde as one of his many longtime partners in the wine business. “You build a relationship and learn so much together,” Hobbs says.
Hobbs continues to take on new projects with a passion that belies his age. Currently, he is excited about an initiative to produce mostly estate wines for his Paul Hobbs label over the next two years. “Each estate is jewel quality, so we can make a vineyard designate wine,” he says.
Hobbs credits his career path to a few basic principles: hard work, dedication to the craft, attention to detail, and patience. This is a modest perspective from decades of success, but it’s clear that he takes nothing for granted.
As for his nonstop work—will he ever consider changing his pace? “My work is far too exciting and rewarding to ever think about stepping away or slowing down,” he says.
Discover for yourself just why the world considers Paul Hobbs a wine-making superstar. Check out the following tastings available at Katherine Lindsay Estate:
Tour the winery, then sit down for a tasting of four selected wines; $65 per person.
Vineyard Designate Experience
Walk the vineyards and winery, then enjoy a seated tasting of six highly limited vineyard designate wines. $135 per person.