Putting Place in a Glass

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."

"Flying winemakers" earn their props far from home. Chile, not Argentina, was the hot country in 1988 when Hobbs set out to make a name for himself as a member of that elite band of winemaking consultants who jet around the world. That western sliver of South America, with its abundant water and fertile soils, had become a major supplier of winter fruit to North America. While its wines weren't impressing critics, they were hot sellers in European and American grocery stores.

Hobbs was making regular trips to Chile's verdant midlands around Santiago when Jorge Catena, a college friend, invited him to join him on the other side of the Andes to visit his family's estancia in the scrubland east of Mendoza. As the crow flies, it wasn't far. The two countries share South America's long southern peninsula. The invitation from Nicolas Catena's younger brother was social, not professional, and it took months of prodding before Hobbs drove a rental car over the Andes on the highway connecting Santiago with Mendoza.

"Everything I had ever heard about Argentina as a wine region was bad," says Hobbs. His viticulture professors at Davis assured him that there was no interesting work there.

The highway led directly into the heart of Argentina's wine region. And Hobbs could see from the road that things were a mess. In the vineyards, out-of-control vines trained precariously low to the ground buried the fruit in a tangle of leaves. Grape rot was everywhere. No one used the drip irrigation system common in California. Instead, they employed a network of trenches to guide Andean snowmelt along ancient canals. The wineries were a different horror. Nothing was automated. Concrete fermentation tanks, rotting wooden vats and an overall ignorance of sterilization ensured the sherry flavors and brown color of oxidation. And those were the better wineries.

The industry also was in a death spiral thanks to the hyperinflation of the 1980s, with prices escalating 2,000% a year and a glut of wine from government-subsidized overproduction. Growers were pulling up old vineyards and firing workers.

But Hobbs was smitten. "I fell in love with the land. I fell in love with the culture. From the moment I drove over the mountains and went into the first vineyard with their scraggly old vines, I just loved it. Even in the early years, it was always clear to me that Argentina was going to be great" for making wine.

After seven years as a winemaker for Mondavi, including helping launch Mondavi's Opus One, the celebrated joint venture with France's renowned Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and then a stint as the winemaker at Simi Winery, Hobbs set out to work for himself. Without the money to buy vineyards, he signed Napa Valley's Peter Michael Winery as his first marquee consulting client, following in the footsteps of legendary winemaker Helen Turley, one of the first Napa winemakers upon whom powerful American critic Robert M. Parker Jr. lavished such unreserved praise that her small-production wines became difficult to find. But in Argentina, Hobbs knew he could be the winemaker that others would follow. He would set the standards. He also knew he'd need an ally.

Nicolas Catena, the patriarch of a family winery started by his Italian grandfather in 1902, had been searching for someone just like Hobbs. Enlightened by a three-year tenure in the early 1980s as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, Catena was sure that Argentina could follow California's example. "That was the first time I understood international standards of quality," says Catena. "Napa was trying to get as close as possible to the best wines of France, imitating France and at the same time trying to be better than France."

Catena had worked with two outside consultants before Hobbs arrived in 1988, searching for someone who could teach the crew how to make good wine and to avoid the layoffs the whole industry faced, says Pedro Marchevsky, Catena's former general manager, who now operates Dominio del Plata, one of Argentina's most acclaimed boutique wineries. "We had to do something to protect our people. Catena understood this, but very few others in Argentina did."

Marchevsky and his crew tasted their wines with Hobbs. "We had a lot of ideas, but we didn't have the experience to put them into practice," says Marchevsky.

Starting slowly, working with only a handful of Catena's then-1,000 vineyard acres, Hobbs introduced California-style trellising, raising the fruit up onto waist-high cordons. He taught Marchevsky's crew how to thin the leafy vines to allow sunlight to reach the fruit. He ordered new equipment for the wineries. Speaking only high school Spanish, Hobbs struggled to communicate with a crew that spoke no English. "When Paul came here he was very humble," says Catena. "Other people came here with all of the answers."

The first year was a disaster. "Paul told us to buy oak barrels, but oak for us meant 100-year-old oak vats. No one knew about new oak barrels," says Marchevsky. It was unheard of to spend money on new barrels to allow the wood to delicately flavor wines while they aged. When the first Chardonnay vintage spoiled, Hobbs asked Marchevsky for the oxygen measurements so he could analyze what had gone wrong. "We didn't know what he was talking about," says Marchevsky. "He didn't know what we didn't know."

Hobbs' solution: Send Marchevsky and the whole winemaking crew to California to relearn how to make wine. "The American people are the best," says Marchevsky. "They teach you everything they know."

By the mid-1990s, Hobbs had caught the attention of Parker, the influential American wine critic, after Parker tasted the Catena Malbecs. "Then I tasted his California wines and I started visiting him on a regular basis," says Parker. "Hobbs is like a good truffle hunting dog when it comes to finding great vineyards."

During a long winter dinner last August at La Vendimia, the family's Mendoza estancia where Catena grew up, Hobbs and his former boss pieced together their memories of those early days. It had been seven years since they had seen each other, says Hobbs, as they had pursued separate ambitions to create singularly acclaimed Argentine wine.

Catena, now 66, lives across the pampas in Buenos Aires, on the country's east coast, and regularly visits the family's western estates. During their years working together, Hobbs says he spent most of his time with Marchevsky and Jose Galante, Catena's winemaker. Galante joined the two men for dinner, but not Marchevsky.

His absence wasn't an oversight. He and Catena had parted ways years earlier over wine industry politics. The issue is how closely wineries should work together and how deeply involved the government should be in establishing quality controls and promoting Argentina's wines.

Catena is concerned about any official government involvement in private industry. The corruption that has dominated so much of Argentina's history, he says, would be unavoidable. Catena's distrust of other Argentines isn't new. When he hired Hobbs, Catena kept the project quiet. Hobbs ate with the crew and slept at the family estancia. For entertainment in the evenings, the crew brought out their guitars, and Hobbs would show off his training as a competitive ballroom dancer. "We didn't try to explain what we were doing to anyone," says Catena. "And no one asked."

After Catena introduced his new wines in Argentina several years after they were introduced in the United States, the tepid local response was infuriating.

When a neighbor, Enzo Bianchi, asked if he could hire Hobbs to help him modernize, Catena was so thrilled he abandoned his isolationist approach and gave Hobbs permission to moonlight. The arrangement didn't last. "There was such a reaction against Paul," Catena says with a shake of his head. "They didn't like a foreigner coming here to teach them. Now, of course, Bianchi is doing all of the things Paul told them to do years ago."

In truth, it didn't matter what other Argentines thought. Catena introduced his new wines just as the government opened the country to international trade for the first time since World War II. Suddenly, it was easy to export wines. And each year, as the wines improved, the international demand increased. By 1997, the Mendoza countryside was crawling with oenological carpetbaggers.

Michel Rolland, the internationally renowned consultant from Bordeaux, planted his flag in Argentina at roughly the same time as Hobbs started to work with Catena. But Rolland believed that Salta, a region in Argentina's far northern mountains, would be the center of excitement. He didn't correct that mistake until 1998, when he bought 2,100 acres in Mendoza to create an exclusively French-owned cooperative, Clos de los Siete, in an experimental high-altitude region a two-hour drive west of Mendoza.

Hobbs left Catena in 1997, rejecting several offers to consult with other wineries, and set out to make his own wine in Argentina. During his ill-fated stint at Bianchi, Hobbs met and married a Mendoza woman. Together they had a daughter, Augustina. The marriage didn't last, but Hobbs was now a part of the fabric of Mendoza's Italian immigrant culture. His trips south were longer. His ties to the country included Augustina, who lived with her mother in Mendoza.

Through family connections, Hobbs met winemaker Luis Barraud and his wife, Andrea Marchiori, a viticulturist. Just out of college, they had little professional experience but were willing to follow Hobbs' instructions to the letter. More importantly, they brought to their new partnership with Hobbs the Marchiori family's 80-year-old Malbec vineyard. A fan of wines made with grapes from older Malbec vines, Hobbs believed that the Marchiori vineyard, located on the highway he had first taken into Mendoza, was particularly well-preserved. The partners named their new venture Vina Cobos, after a neighboring road.

"It's not wise to go it alone in Argentina," says Hobbs. "I'm an outsider. It takes local skills and perspective along with the outsider's eyes."

The first vintage for Hobbs and his young partners in Vina Cobos was 1998, a disastrous year for the whole region, with spring rains washing away the flowers. Intent on making up for the lost year, Hobbs contracted with an outside vineyard in 1999 to buy grapes that Vina Cobos could use along with the grapes from the Marchiori vineyard. After Hobbs painstakingly pruned and managed the vineyard all year, the owner sold that year's crop to someone else the week before the harvest, never saying a word to Hobbs or his partners. "What are you going to do?" asks Hobbs. "Contracts in Argentina mean nothing."

Hail took the best of the 2000 vintage. The western desert of Argentina is a violent place when it rains. With horrific and specific force, hail can be thrown down from the sky as if a vengeful God is intent on shredding every leaf and smashing every grape. The devastation is random; one vineyard may be wiped out while the vines across the road are merely kissed by the rain.

Hobbs was in California as the storm clouds gathered that summer. Marchiori and Barraud watched the sky darken above her family's vineyard. The vineyard nets designed to protect the fruit from hailstorms weren't scheduled to be delivered until the following week. From where they left their truck on the trans-Andean highway, they could see that the prized Malbec vines had been stripped clean. "It looked like winter; not one leaf survived," says Marchiori.

"I didn't cry then, such desperation," she says. "A couple of days later, when I walked the vineyard, I cried. And then I cried again the next spring, when I saw the first buds break and knew, despite all of that damage, we had survived."

Sort of. In December 2001, Hobbs' frontier spirit ran smack into Argentina's matchless instability. Argentines say their country suffers a major crisis every six or seven years. When the country defaulted on the bulk of its $140 billion in foreign debt in 2001, it was the most spectacular national financial crash in modern history. Jess Jackson, owner of Kendall-Jackson, who had joined the Argentine wine boom, cut and ran. (So eager was he to put Argentina in his rearview mirror, according to sources close to his Argentina operations, that he sold his investment for a considerable loss about a year after the economic fiasco.)

When Argentine banks reopened three months after the crash, Vina Cobos' accounts were among many that stood empty. "The money was just gone," says Hobbs.

To make ends meet, Hobbs hired himself out as a consultant to Pascual Toso, an old-style Argentine vintner eager to get into the export business. Later, Hobbs added a project in northern Patagonia, a daylong drive south of Mendoza.

Oddly, the crash fueled the wine boom. During the 1990s, when the government opened the country to international trade, Argentina had locked the exchange rate for the peso to the American dollar--one peso equaled $1. In those days, Catena and those who followed him had access to the cutting-edge technology of Europe and the U.S. And it was affordable. But after the 2001 crash, the exchange rate plunged to three pesos to each dollar. Operating costs plummeted while the dollars from exports remained unchanged.

"Wine exports took off partly because of the devaluation," says Diego Bigongiari, editorial director of the Austral Spectator, a directory of the South American wine industry. As each vintage improved on the last, "they reached $150 million a year in 2000. Last year, they were $315 million." In another two years, he says, industry sales will exceed $500 million.

Back in California, where Hobbs is increasingly busy, his reputation rests on his skill for spotting unappreciated properties, places he can develop without shouldering the cost of ownership. After he finds a site and determines that it has the soils he wants, Hobbs says, "it's the opportunity to work with the fruit from that site. Do I need to own it to work with it? Not at all."

Unable to afford land until recently, Hobbs owns only one of the seven Napa Valley and Sonoma vineyards where he cultivates grapes. This year he bought a hilltop where he plans to build a home to share with 11-year-old Augustina. He says he'll plant 15 of its 177 acres with Chardonnay grapes.

It's a pity Hobbs doesn't own the vineyards he's making famous, says wine critic Parker. "People see what he does and follow him. [And] there is always someone willing to pay more [for those grapes] than he can pay."

Hobbs prefers that risk to stretching himself too thin financially. The second oldest in a family of 11 children, Hobbs grew up working the fruit orchards near Lake Ontario. When money was tight, the family would rent out the farmhouse and live in the barn. It's a memory filled with nostalgia, but not a history he wants to repeat. One night when Hobbs was a teenager, his strict Catholic father came home with a bottle of his latest discovery, pouring every child at the table a taste. "It was a revelation. I couldn't believe what I was tasting," recalls Hobbs. It was Chateau d'Yquem, an exalted French Sauterne.

Hobbs' mother threw him and his father out into the cold, one for bringing alcohol into her home and the other for enjoying it. Around a bonfire they built to stay warm, they planned how they would make a wine that was even better than the French. Hobbs' father died in early 2002--before his son finished his Sonoma winery, before Argentine wines became famous, and before he released his pricey Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet.

"Since 2001, Hobbs has really showcased his talent in California," says Parker. "He is very consistent across varietals. I think that's difficult. The ability to make a great Chardonnay is different than making a great Pinot Noir or a Cab or Merlot. And he's dealing with different sites for each one." He adds: "For me, great wine is purity, balance and texture. Paul does a great job with texture, and you can't cheat that one. It's the impression of layers without heaviness. That's hard to do with the big, rich wines he produces."

Jancis Robinson, a leading British critic who makes a sport of opposing some of Parker's most strongly held opinions, doesn't disagree with Parker's assessment of Hobbs. Well-known for favoring finesse over strength, she counts Hobbs' wines among her favorites.

Hobbs, though, looks to the marketplace for validation, pricing his wines at the very top end of their categories. As long as they sell out when they are released, he's satisfied.

Since the crisis of 2001, economists have predicted that Argentina's economy would go from bad to worse. Paul Blustein, whose book "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)" chronicles that crisis, says, "That's not what's happening. They're healthy in the near term."

The Chileans are among the strongest believers in the future of Argentina's wine industry. The dominant Chilean wine company, Concha y Toro, has been buying up vineyard land around Mendoza to make Argentine wine for the international market. A top Chilean artisanal producer, Aurelio Montes, has launched a line of Argentine wines.

"Argentina has huge potential," says Montes. "It has a bigger international image than Chile, the Tango, 'Evita,' beef, Malbecs. I have to admit it is more fun than Chile." And the wines? They are more exciting as well, he says. "They can charge more for their wines because they are worth it."

Someone is going to hit the bull's-eye in Argentina, insists Catena. "We are in the process of discovering the potential of Argentina," he says. "It took the French 500 years to discover their terroir. We've only been at it for 16 years."

True, says Hobbs. Argentina's wines will continue to improve. Promising new regions will be found within the country. But the story already has been told. He's certain his Cabernet wines, maybe even the 2005 vintage, will be dazzling. If you want to see a world-class region that no one knows about, says Hobbs, go to Hungary. On some rocky hillsides, he recently found scraggly old Furmint vines (which make incredible, sweet Tokaji wines) that had been neglected for decades. Hobbs has his first Hungarian client, and he's starting to wonder what other wines he might make there.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°