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Hahn Wines – Sustainability in the Highlands

March 11, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks, Monterey County 8 Comments

Born out of the decrepit and vile heart of Los Angeles near Hollywood, where stars are born and even occasionally meet their destruction, the 101 marches north, passing through some of the most fantastic regions of California, Oregon, and Washington. Away from The City of Angel’s congestion, violence, and vanity. Along sun bathed beaches and into the rolling hills of the Central Coast it roams. Through vineyards and ranches, farm towns, and military bases. Through the land of John Steinbeck novels and across the Golden Gate Bridge. It winds through the rugged coastline and massive redwoods before it leads you away from its birth state, imploring you to discover the unknown that lies ahead in Oregon and later Washington.

On drives to the Bay Area, there is a stretch of the 101 freeway that always catches my attention; it is about an hour north of Paso Robles. Here the landscape is open and desolate. Although desolate really isn’t the right word, since it is a vibrant farming region. None-the-less, I have always been intimidated and enticed by desolate places, whether they are actual or imaginary. As I drove through here a few weeks ago, it felt particularly desolate and enchanting. I watched rays of sunshine burst through the patchwork of somber clouds, illuminating the green of the hills with vibrant bursts of color. It was a perfect day, the sky was unsettled and moody and there were little man-made distractions around to take away from its beauty.

We exited the freeway, which at this point is little more than a two-lane road in each direction, and headed west across barren farmland towards the Santa Lucia Mountains. We were just a few miles from Hahn Winery, outside of Soledad, in Monterey County. We drove for some time along the country road, long enough to make me question my directions. Finally, after ascending a long driveway, we arrived. This was the second day of my recent wine tasting trip with my friend Jordan. Having interviewed Wolff Vineyards and Tablas Creek the day before, and having just left a tasting in the members area and barrel room at Justin Vineyards (I am not a member, they had a promotion!), we were ready to be impressed, we demanded to be impressed! But then, as we exited our car and turned around for the first time, we saw what made Hahn’s location so unique. Before us was a gorgeous view of the Salinas Valley. We were at a higher altitude than I thought and the view was amazing. I was impressed. Hahn: 1, Wayne: 0.

Hahn was built on an old horse ranch, which explains why it looks like an old horse ranch. Imagine that! Jordan and I were there to interview Paul Clifton, the winemaker for Hahn Family Wines. I got in touch with Paul through David Royal, who provided photography for my first winery profile. In addition to being a really nice guy, David is a friend of Paul’s. David was kind enough to put me in contact with Paul and Paul was stupid enough to say yes. Looks like trying to open a bottle against a tree wasn’t the dumbest thing Paul had ever done (he can only stretch one of his fingers out about ¾ of the way, as he cut the tendons in his hand trying to open a wine bottle against a tree many years ago). Actually, I think Paul’s staff, which includes some avid social media-ites, encouraged him to meet us. Whatever the case, he invited us up, so we went.

Paul is what you would call handsome. He is also incredibly “Californian”. He mountain bikes, rock climbs, surfs (he appeared shocked when he learned Jordan and I didn’t, considering where we live; we were artsy growing up). The kind of guy who prefers jeans and a t-shirt in most settings. He is a Californian winemaker. We met in his office, a trailer just outside the winery, but it wasn’t long before we were touring the winery and sampling his many wines. I was impressed by everything he poured. Hahn: 2, Wayne: 0. We tried a lot of wine, including one of the few Californian Malbecs I’ve had. As we drank, we all loosened up. After a game of M.A.S.H (I got the Mansion!), two bags of popcorn, and sharing our deepest secrets, we sat down in his office to talk about his theory on sustainability, how he got into wine, and the lessons you learn from cutting the tendons in your hand with a wine bottle.

Hahn manages several labels in different price ranges. What trends have you seen in the current economy?

“Our lower end brands like Cycles [Gladiator] and Hahn, sales are actually up, so things are flying off the shelves. So we are doing really well… On the higher end, like the Santa Lucia Estate wines…we’re getting hits, but everyone wants a deal.”

You are SIP (Sustainability In Practice) Certified. What does sustainability mean at Hahn, how do you implement it?

“We do it through the Central Coast Vineyard Team. It’s basically a program that they’ve put together that you have to abide by a whole series of different methods out in the vineyard…using certain sprays on certain target pests. It’s all fairly audited, very closely by this organization. Now there is another organization called The Wine Institute that is coming out with their own SIP program…they actually have it out now. We’ll be going through that SIP as well because its broad stroke….it will probably be more noticed by the media then just the Central Coast Vineyard Team….The nice thing about the Central Coast Vineyard Team…is it focuses on this area, so sustainability towards this particular growing region…It includes Paso and Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo…in that note, it focuses on…a very small area…where this other broader stroke one [The Wine Institute] may not be exactly what you may want to be doing in your vineyard…but on the other hand, I think consumers may notice it even more, a program through The Wine Institute, more than they would through the Central Coast Vineyard Team”.

Do you think people really care if you are sustainable?

“Well we do. To me it doesn’t really matter one way or another what people think, it’s what we feel we’re doing is right…Although it is a marketing tool, besides being a marketing tool, it makes everyone who works here feel good about what they are doing. We are being more conscience versus not giving a damn…I’ve been on both sides of the boat…and it makes you not sleep as good at night and I’d rather sleep good”.

Do the classifications still need work?

“Yeah. For example, going purely organic or biodynamic…we looked into that too and we were actually considering doing that on a small block here. But the more we started looking into it the more we realized what you have to do organic wise, [well] here’s an example: you can pretty much only spray a certain sulfur to prevent mildew…but you gotta make ten times the passes on a tractor to keep your grapes clean, especially in a cool climate like this… In the end, all these different passes with the tractors, is that really better for the environment than one pass?… So it just started not making sense…there’s some parts of organic that I like and some that I don’t. To me, it’s like pull from what you believe is right and do it that way. Then you have these certifications programs coming out and although we don’t completely agree with everything, if we want to be certified we are doing it”.

What are the benefits of taking the added steps and cost of sustainability in a down economy?

“There are a lot of methods within the sustainability approach that can actually increase your efficiency…A perfect example is…Biological Systems Management. It basically has to do with soil management…getting more life into your soil by using fish emulsions and different types of natural fertilizer…they create more bacteria in your soil, more growth in your soil, so your root systems, your soils can hold more water, so you’re more efficient using water, you don’t have to use as much…it’s this whole new realm that is opening up…Another is…your canopy management, easy thing to fix. In a cool climate like this, if you had California Sprawl (a trellis style), well you would have a lot more shading in that canopy, a lot more moisture in that canopy. Well you would have a lot more pressure to mildew and mold, so you would have to spray a lot more…[but] getting that canopy up into a vertical plain…pulling leaves along the fruit zone, doing a little bit more hand labor, you get the wind blowing in there a little sunlight in there, it dries it out a lot quicker…so you don’t have the pressure of the powdery mildew and mold that would otherwise rot… Then when you do need to spray, you go into spray in this vertical  plain canopy, so you penetrate much better with your spray so you don’t have to use as much spray otherwise…There are a lot of things within these sustainable programs that are actually beneficial to keeping your cost down”.

Do they make better wines?

“Yeah so far. I mean we’ve only been doing it two years, but I can’t see how it wouldn’t at least make as good if not better than what we were doing before.”

Has social networking changed the way you do business?

“I don’t think it’s changed the way we’ve done business, but it has added to the way we do business…There’s a whole younger generation out there, this is how they’re connected, this is the way they’re going to learn about things. Our president of the company, Bill Leigon, saw that a few years back, so he implemented a whole team [to work] towards that. Even myself, even I have to Twitter (insert Paul laughing incredulously)”.

So are you forced to Tweet and Blog?

I do it when I have time. They want me to do it every day, I maybe do it once a month (laughs again)”.

Do you have a favorite aspect of making wine?

“There’s a lot of them but probably…the biggest thing I’ve learned over the past 17, 16 years, even though I have the “winemaker” title, it’s not just me. I rely on a whole group of people in the vineyards, in the winery, and on the marketing side to help me out, and that kind of humbles me I think. I really like being able to help organize and help people in each of their roles wherever I can, teach them to be better in whatever they are doing, and that’s what kind of has kept me going all along the way. I think a lot of people are kind of blindsided by a winemaker being this celebrity type of role, but man, there is a whole lot of people helping you out. Being able to help them do what they do better helps you in the end…. So yeah, it’s working with the people”.

How did you get into winemaking?

“I was more on the firefighter track. It was Forest Service seasonal, so I only worked during the summer. So in the winters I needed a job. Actually, My Grandparents came here from Switzerland and settled in Salinas here, my grandfather during prohibition made wine and booze down in his cellar in the old Victorian in Salinas…So I was down in the cellar and saw this old hand press and equipment down there…so I took it home and started making wine at home. So that was kind of a segway between not having a job in the winter and being interested in wine. And then I had a friend that worked over at Chalone, went and visited her…I saw pumps and hoses…and thought it was a lot like firefighting…except I was pumping wine instead water…So I applied for a job in a newspaper at a winery called Bernardus over here in Carmel…was just a cellar rat for a couple of years there and the winemaker kind of took me under his wing and trained me from there”.

Who has inspired you in your winemaking?

“Yeah, a guy by the name of Don Blackburn, he’s the guy who took me under his wing at Bernardus. He actually passed away from cancer a year and a half ago. But he taught me. I worked with him for about five years in the vineyards and the winery. Then I went back to school, I got a second degree, a post-graduate degree in viticulture, my undergraduate was in business. When I came back, I did that down in New Zealand, and when I came back I started with Don right away”.

As for Paul and Hahn, I was incredibly impressed by both him as a person and as a winemaker. His wines were rich and dark, but nuanced and deep. On top of this, the majority of Hahn’s wines are very reasonably priced and lack any sense of snobbery and pretentiousness, a reflection of the winemaker. And was he ever able to successfully open a bottle using only a tree? See for yourself.

Hahn Family Wines

37700 Foothill Road
Soledad, CA 93960

Phone (831) 678-4555

Twitter

Facebook

Dedicated to Don Blackburn and to people who inspire others all over the world.

Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Google Alert picked up the “Shallon” reference.
    You must have meant “Chalone” ?

  2. Wayne says:

    I did, thank you for the catch! I corrected it.

  3. Jim Caudill says:

    Very nice profile, congratulations. And that’s one good lookin’ German Short Haired Pointer in the photo.

    A few things to note: learn more about the SIP (Sustainability In Practice) program at http://www.sipthegoodlife.org
    Well worth the time spent there.

    Once there, a couple of things to note:

    * the SIP program is available to any vineyard in California interested in an outstanding, third-party certified sustainability program that carries weight with growers, the trade and consumers. Though it grew out of the work of the Central Coast Vineyard Team, and naturally enough has members who are from that region, growing interest has taken the staff to growing regions like Mendocino to discuss potential program efforts. Even when organizations decide to embrace both, it’s likely the SIP program will ultimately be the more noticeable, because the communications effort is directed more to consumers, with a goal of spreading the gospel of sustainability and helping consumers find those wineries, like Hahn, who are doing things in a way that makes sense with the way we all want to live in today’s world.

    * the media will pay attention to the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance certification program because the organization, in partnership with the Wine Institute, is a much larger organization, but there are key differences in programming that will bring continued positive attention to the SIP effort, and ultimately, a higher level of recognition.

    * among those differences are that wineries can put the SIP certification seal on their labels, while the CSWA effort does not allow that (it does allow for use of logos and supporting materials on websites and other marketing areas). Consumers are noticing the seal and reporting on the SIP Facebook site their positive experiences in having such a seal of approval that they can depend on to point them to sustainable wine.

    Most importantly is the observation that sustainability is a duty, not a virtue. “We do it because it’s right, and I sleep better at night. That says it all.”

  4. Wayne says:

    Thank you Jim for the insight. I had planned to do a more in depth explanation of the CCVT SIP program, but I decided to save that for a later date. The SIP program is a really good thing for wine and nature lovers alike and both Paul Clifton and Jean-Pierre Wolff sum it up well as you said, it is the right thing to do. And not just for grapes either. I will be in touch Jim, I want to keep promoting what your team does.

    Paul’s dog was the best. Really cool personality too.

  5. Great job Wayne! Once again finding the prettiest places on the planet with the tastiest of wines and the coolest of people. The folks at Hahn are doing a great job in many ways, and are fairly humble about their work – they do it because they care and its the right thing to do. And about 30 seconds in their SLH vineyard proves the point – it is gorgeous beyond words.

    We are proud of having them as part of the first group to get SIP Certified – and they were part of a select group of pilot participants. Before there was a seal or a press release, they were on board & have been the whole way.

    Thanks to everyone from the Hahn team for your ongoing commitment to environmental & community causes!

  6. WineDineTv says:

    Now have to go and buy some Hahn wines to try and all because of your Great article!
    Cheers,
    Judit & Corina

  7. Wayne says:

    Kris, they really are a great group of people and the location is so dramatic too!

  8. Wayne says:

    Judit and Corina, I highly recommend you pick up some Hahn wines. Keep in mind they have several brands all under the Hahn Family Wines. I was especially impressed with Paul’s Pinots, but I liked everything he pour. To be honest, I was a bit reluctant at first as I did not know much about their wines. But Paul is crafting subtle yet flavorful and rewarding wines. A lot of fruit, but they don’t bust your teeth out with in your face aggressiveness either. A nice balance.

    I like your site by the way. http://www.winedinetv.com/ I have seen it before. Good article on Sanford. I love visiting the Sta. Rita Hills, in fact I will be there Friday for an interview with a friend of Paul Clifton’s. I am a fan of Lafond out that way too. Well I am a member there actually.

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