Friday, August 27, 2010

The Friday Lineup: Austin Hope's Terroir

One of the topics wine people often discuss is how certain grape varieties thrive in particular settings or terroirs and how, over time, the wines made from these grapes grow to reflect these respective terroirs.

This week, I spent a few days with Austin Hope, his family and his colleagues at Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles, and it gradually occured to me that wineries and the people who work there often reflect the terroir as surely as their wines. Those who know Austin, his crew, and his wines would probably agree that no person, no winery better reflects the spirit of California's Central Coast in general, and Paso Robles in particular, than do Austin and his multi-faceted winery.

I love the sophistication of the Medoc and Napa Valley, but I also enjoy the more-rural pace of the Central Coast. Things don't move any slower in the country - a tired myth - but things are more deliberate, and there are fewer distractions. Similarly, everything seems less ostentatious and more utilitarian.

Austin Hope and his family moved to Paso Robles in 1978 from the Central Valley to grow apples and grapes (the apples made a quick exit), and Austin started working in the vineyard when he was eight. Today, Hope Family Wines is a very large, though not huge enterprise. Many of us have drunk their Treana red and white for over a decade and their Liberty School everyday wines, especally the Cab, even longer - from the days when the Hopes were selling grapes to Caymus before they bought the brand outright.

In recent years, as Austin began to take over the day-to-day from his father, Chuck, the line and the marketing have expanded. First, there was the prestige Austin Hope varietals that have proven to be a steady brand. More recently, we have seen the introduction of the ground-breaking, multi-vintage Candor line and the relaunching of Westside Red.

Hope is a complex and very likable guy who still has a touch of shy boyishness about him. Although he loves farming and winemaking, he is also a shrewd at business planning, something his father admits was not his first love. Hope understands tradition, but he doesn't get mired down in it. He enjoys thinking radical thoughts - such as betting on multi-vintage wines at higher price and quality levels rather than just sticking to the handcuffs of straight vintages - and acting on many of these thoughts. The people whom he has gathered around him - winemakers JC Diefendorfer and Soren Christenson and grower relations head Kristen Lane - reflect his spirit and intellectual restlessness. It was refreshing not to hear this week the routine, if well-meaning, cliches that often go with winemaking. And there is also some good ol' boy in Hope. He likes cars and bars and hunting as well as the next guy.

Of course, there are the wines. There is a preference for Cabernet and the Rhone varietals - what grows well here - especially at the high levels. If there is a house style, it is fruitiness up front, full body on the palate, and a lean finish with food-loving acidity. Fortunately, I got to taste the wines with a lot of good food provided by Thomas Hill Organics, Il Cortile, Artisan, and Bistro Laurent. You may not find many designer clothing stores in downtown Paso, but you certainly can eat well.

Over the next few weeks and months, I will be writing more about Hope Family Wines, and I will let you know as those articles start to appear as the grape are harvested, the leaves turn, and the snow flies. In the meantime, search out some of the newer Hope wines such as Candor and Westside Red and even Austin Hope wines if you haven't tried them.

When I returned from California, a friend had sent me a Hamilton cartoon that showed a sophisticated woman and a laid-back man chatting across a table with a bottle of wine. She asks him as he looks rather smug, "Do wine writers suffer and all that?" Sometimes, when you're stuck at Charles de Gaulle or it's past midnight in Spain and you haven't ordered the first course or on those long bus rides back to the hotel, we do suffer - a little. But this week, being a wine writer in Paso Robles and hanging out with the Hope folks was pure pleasure.

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Until next time....
Roger Morris

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