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Putting Place in a Glass

A true believer in terroir, California winemaker Paul Hobbs roams the world searching for just the right combination of soil, weather, vines and expertise. He proved himself in Argentina. Like any great prospector, though, he's still looking.

January 08, 2006|Corie Brown | Corie Brown is a Times staff writer.

The California winemaker who sparked the revolution in Argentina's wine industry siphons up a bit of his best 2005 Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon from a French oak barrel. He swirls the wine in a glass, breathes in its meaty aromas, swishes it in his mouth, feels its weight and savors its dark currant and black cherry flavors. Everything that Paul Hobbs has worked 16 years to accomplish in Argentina's desert vineyards, half a world away from his home in Sonoma, comes down to the wine in his glass.

Hobbs is hoping it will finally prove his faith in Argentina.

In the 1970s, when Hobbs was studying winemaking at UC Davis, California's modern wine industry was being launched on the notion that places other than the celebrated chateaux and domaines of France could make world-class wines. In the early 1980s, when he was just getting started at Robert Mondavi Winery, that same notion sparked wine fever in Australia and then Chile. By 1988, when Hobbs stepped onto Argentina's western deserts around Mendoza, he knew that, this time, he was reaching a new wine frontier first.

From the moment he crumbled those thin, gravelly soils between his fingers, Hobbs believed that Argentina could produce world-class wine. Grapevines as skinny and old as anything he had seen in the great regions of France were struggling to survive on Andean snowmelt during summer days of relentless sun that flashed to frigid nights as the cold air rushed down from the mountains. Argentina seemed designed to grow the small, intense grapes he knew were capable of producing highly concentrated, complex wines.

There were plenty of reasons, though, that no one had ever done it. Politically isolated and economically crippled by its tumultuous history of erratic despots, Argentina and its wine industry were frozen in their last hopeful decade, the 1930s. As for the wines, they were pure plonk--oxidized elixirs made in decrepit wineries and sold by the jug for a few pesos. Argentines drank them by the barrel, unaware that wine could taste different, much less better.

Hobbs didn't care. Just 34 years old, he wanted to quit his full-time winemaking job at Sonoma's Simi Winery to strike out on his own as a consultant. He was ready to explore the world, and he trusted his gut. As a boy sitting next to his father on the front seat of their old pickup truck, Hobbs had been taught that what comes out of the ground tastes like that ground. One Winesap apple has different flavors than another because they were grown in different soils and climates. Hobbs' father had considered this common sense as he farmed his upstate New York apple orchards. When the younger Hobbs went to college, he learned the French term for it: terroir. As a winemaker, Hobbs turned the practice of matching grapes with soils to his advantage as a poor man's son eager to make wines that could dazzle kings and tycoons.

Nicolas Catena, the only Argentine vintner with any sense of his country's possibilities, latched onto Hobbs in 1989. Flying the young man in from California for weeks at a time, Catena had him teach his staff how to make wine that the rest of the world would crave. In return, they taught Hobbs about Argentina. When Catena showcased his new wines to the world in the spring of 1993, Argentina's modern wine industry was born. International consultants, including Michel Rolland from Bordeaux and Tuscany's Alberto Antonini, arrived in Mendoza eager to capitalize on what Catena and Hobbs had revealed.

But just as his star was rising, Hobbs changed directions. There was no glory in a race to make $15 Malbecs. Argentina's old Malbec vines were capable of producing rich, fruity wines with enough complexity to satisfy picky wine snobs. But it is not one of France's "noble" grapes. Hobbs wanted to prove that Argentina had wine royalty in its soils, but he knew that the country--along with the American who recognized its potential--would be dismissed as second-class until it produced a Cabernet Sauvignon that rivaled the best from Napa Valley and France. "You have to make a great Cabernet to be taken seriously," he says.

Back home in California, Hobbs is a critical darling. At $265 per bottle, Paul Hobbs' Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet--made with grapes he buys from that legendary Napa Valley vineyard--has entered the elite club known as the "Cult" Cabs, highly sought Cabernet wines known for their outstanding quality. Every year, he hopes that his vines in Argentina have matured enough to make a blended wine he plans to call Nico. It will sell for more than the $150 a bottle he asks for Cobos Malbec, his most expensive Argentine wine. (In fact, it's one of the country's most expensive wines.)

So there Hobbs stands in his frigid Argentine wine cellar, sniffing and swirling his 2005 vintage. He closes his eyes to think. Finally, his judgment comes:

"Almost."

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