Food & Drink
Two Brothers Lead California's Next Great Wine Experiment
From childhood in Lebanon to France’s château country to California’s hottest new terroir, Daniel and Georges Daou epitomize the globalization of the wine industry.
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When Daniel and Georges Daou sold their software company and used the money to create a winery, they weren’t exactly inventing a new narrative. That’s the story behind most of the famous cabernet labels in Napa Valley. What makes theirs different is the location: the West Paso Robles region of California’s Central Coast.

Although they were far from the first to plant there—Justin, Tablas Creek, L’Aventure, and Saxum were already established—they were among the first to bet big on cabernet in an area best known for Rhône-style blends and Zinfandel. That was 10 years ago, so I thought it was time to check in.

Paso Robles is hot, literally and figuratively, with more than 300 wineries—up from about 20 in 1990—turning out an increasingly impressive array of wines. One thing that makes the area special is the subsoil’s high proportion of limestone, great chunks of which are piled up along Vineyard Road, where some of the top wineries are located. Many of France’s most renowned wine regions have the same sort of calcareous clay soil on limestone bedrock, but in California, it’s a rarity.


The Daou brothers looked for land in Napa and elsewhere before deciding that West Paso’s combination of climate and soil better suited their ambitions. “What we found here,” Daniel says, sitting on a patio overlooking vineyards, “were French soils and a Napa climate, which we think give us the potential to make the best cabernet in the world.”

These guys are nothing if not ambitious.

Daniel is the winemaker, and he was the prime mover, while brother Georges, Polo magazine’s player of the year in 1996, is the vineyard’s tireless promoter. Self-described best friends, they field questions like a champion doubles team, alternately lobbing answers across the table on a patio outside the winery.

“In Bordeaux,” Daniel begins, “you don’t always achieve ripeness. You’re tasting 80 percent soil and 20 percent climate. California cabernets lack minerality—you’re tasting 20 percent soil and 80 percent climate.”

Georges picks up the story: “With our alcareous soils and a climate like Saint Helena, you are tasting 50 percent soil and 50 percent climate.” It’s a vivid if unverifiable, conceit.

The Lebanese-born brothers immigrated with their family to France when they were 10 and 14 to escape their homeland’s civil war, eventually settling in the south, where they became enamored of the culture of wine. They came to the U.S. in the early ’80s, attending the University of California San Diego before founding a networking technology company, which they sold after 10 years.

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The Daou brothers as young boys.

For their winery, they chose a historic site, the Hoffman Mountain Ranch, which was first planted in 1964 under the supervision of André Tchelistcheff, one of the pioneers of California viticulture, who predicted that Paso Robles would eventually produce some of the state’s best wines.

After just eight vintages they have made impressive progress. Their inky, silky cabs are winning fans and very high scores from the critics. The 2014s, which I tasted last spring, are surprisingly accessible, with plush, silky tannins and very ripe fruit framed by just enough natural acidity to keep them from being cloying—probably a result of the high elevation and proximity to the Pacific. They are quite possibly the darkest, densest cabs ever I’ve seen.


Daou’s first vintage was 2010, a year after Saxum’s 2007 James Berry Vineyard red, from a winery founded just five years earlier, was named wine of the year by Wine Spectator, with a 100-point score from Robert Parker. Saxum is a small, artisanal operation, and the James Berry Vineyard is planted on a steep hillside that was once an ancient seabed, as evidenced by the fossilized whale vertebrae that crop up out of the soil.

The land was bought in 1980 by the parents of winemaker Justin Smith, who was the first to plant chardonnay there. One day John Alban of Alban Vineyards in San Luis Obispo—one of the original “Rhône Rangers”—was driving by, and he stopped to admire the steep vineyards and strike up a conversation, eventually persuading the Smiths to plant Rhône varietals, including syrah, mourvèdre, and grenache. The area had a long history with zinfandel, but Rhône varieties became increasingly popular after the Perrin family (of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and the Robert Haas family bought a former alfalfa farm in 1989 and established the Tablas Creek winery.

Many California wine regions are associated with a particular grape: Napa with cabernet, and Santa Barbara, especially since Sideways, with pinot noir. Paso, with its clement climate and complex soils, seems good at everything if a little warm for many white varietals, which may be a liability from a marketing perspective.

Most Paso wineries are relatively small operations making fewer than 5,000 cases, which they often sell directly from their tasting rooms. The wine community is tight-knit and collegial—people share grapes, equipment, and know-how.

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Daniel (left) and Georges Daou

Which is why it was not entirely welcome news when, in 2010, the Wonderful Company, parent of Fiji water, bought Justin Vineyards, after which it proceeded to clear-cut a hillside, wiping out thousands of old Spanish oaks.

The Daou brothers are also big, well-heeled players, but they’re hoping to become ambassadors for the region, citing Robert Mondavi, Napa’s great promoter, as their role model. Daniel founded the Paso Robles Cab collective to promote the region’s cabernet sauvignon–based wines, the best of which are comparable to the finest from Napa and Sonoma.

I suspect that Daniel and Georges, aided by three of Daniel’s daughters and Georges’s fiancée Melissa Hess, won't rest until they have made the term "Paso cab" famous.

This story appeared in the August 2017 issue of Town & Country.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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