Consultant Winemaker Paul Hobbs, with Well-Known German Winemaker, Launches Finger Lakes Project

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Posted January 16, 2014 by Evan Dawson in Regions
paul-hobbs finger lakes

Paul Hobbs and a high-profile German partner are creating a new winery in the Finger Lakes.

The Finger Lakes region has been abuzz with news that consulting winemaker Paul Hobbs is launching a project on the southeast side of Seneca Lake. Just as importantly, Hobbs is partnering with a German winemaker of high pedigree. Hobbs and the unconfirmed partner have chosen not to reveal that partner’s name yet, but more than a dozen Finger Lakes industry professionals tell NYCR that the partner will be Johannes Selbach of Selbach-Oster. An email to Selbach has not received a reply; official word will come on Michael Warren Thomas’Savor Life radio show later this month.

Hobbs is a high-wattage industry professional known for his work around the world, and particularly in California. He makes wine in a winery under his own name in Napa, and also makes California wine under his Crossbarn Winery label. His Vina Cobos produces malbec and other varieties in Argentina, and Hobbs also runs an importing outfit.

So why the Finger Lakes? Hobbs is from the Niagara region, and told The Drinks Business:

“We are starting from scratch, and we are preparing the land now,” he recorded, adding that he spent three years surveying the area before finding this site.

Speaking of the style of wine he plans to make with the help of his German partner, Hobbs said he would make an off-dry riesling. 

“We will definitely make some wine in the Mosel style,” he admitted, adding, “but we will be trying dry Riesling too.”

It won’t happen right away. Various reports have the Hobbs property – just north of Watkins Glen – as being more than 60 acres, and the first step was clearing the land. It will take several years before the vines can bear wine-worthy fruit.

While NYCR is still waiting for Selbach to confirm his participation, consider what he’s said in the past about the Finger Lakes region. In an interview in 2008, Selbach was asked about wine regions outside Germany that produce great riesling. Regarding the United States, Selbach said, “ I do want to point a finger to a region whose rieslings I have been following since the early eighties and that is the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Great potential there, never understood why they weren’t known by a larger crowd.”

The entire interview is worth reading. Selbach praised using older oak in riesling, saying, “Large casks of old oak – wonderful. They permit the wines to exhale some of their fermentation aromas and also permit a tiny bit of oxidation, something that the nouveau winemakers have rediscovered and now artificially induce in their stainless steel tanks –in microboullage.”

Could that be a signal for how Selbach plans to make riesling in the Finger Lakes?

“I see this as a potential watershed moment,” said August Deimel, winemaker at Keuka Spring Vineyards on Keuka Lake. “Just as the arrival of Drouhin in Oregon or the partnering of Mouton with Mondavi in Napa marked the arrival of those regions on the global wine scene, this could well have a similar effect. Hobbs and Selbach providing the imprimatur of California and Germany at once could have a powerful effect. It will undoubtedly cause some people to rethink their view of our region’s potential.”

That optimism was shared by many Finger Lakes winemakers, growers, and owners who spoke to NYCR.

“One might consider the same issues as they related to producers such as Zonin moving into Virginia (Barboursville) in the mid 70s, the Ferrers in Carnaros (Gloria Ferrer) in the early 80s or Herbert Konzelmann (and others) in Niagara in the mid 80s,” writes Bob Madill, Wine Director at Red Newt Cellars and a longtime partner at Sheldrake Point. “Hobbs and Selbach-Oster come to the Finger Lakes as complete wine business enterprises looking for growth.  Their knowledge, experience and success span the integrated production duality of vineyards and cellar with the business acumen (and organizations) to achieve sales and distribution.  Since both come with impeccable international business credentials I doubt that their primary objective is to open a tasting room on Seneca Lake.  This is a welcome addition to Finger Lakes wine growing culture.”

Morten Hallgren, owner and winemaker at Ravines Wine Cellars, saluted the project while cautioning that doors are already opening for Finger Lakes producers. “I think we should all welcome Paul Hobbs and Johannes Selbach with open arms,” Hallgren said. “Anything that brings attention to the Finger Lakes at the national or international level is advantageous for all of us. While there will be an impact, I do not believe it will be anything like it would have been five or ten years ago. By now, the various markets around the country are wide open for Finger Lakes wines.”

“Whatever helps to bring more name recognition and potential quality to the Finger lakes region is a plus,” said Lou Damiani, owner and winemaker at Damiani Wine Cellars, just a few miles from the Hobbs project. “Big names, good winemakers help to keep raising the bar.”

On the subject of raising that proverbial bar, Deimel said that the Hobbs wines will demand better winemaking across the region. “Having to compete with a winery operating at global standards in our own backyard may be a kick in the pants,” Deimel explained. “We will need to raise our game if we don’t want to be left in the dust. From the moment this project releases a wine we will all have our marching orders: make something better than they did. And when we do, I think the wine world will be that much more inclined to take notice.”

Hobbs arrives with a history of battling environmental advocates near some of his projects. The more shrill criticism is hard to take seriously; for example, read this piece as an editorial, not as news, and you’ll see how things can be skewed.

But the fact remains that at Hobbs’ most recent project, the conversion of an apple orchard into a vineyard in Sebastopol, California, the local county shut down the project. Here’s the Press Democrat newspaper’s explanation:

A group of about 50 protesters angry at what they say is an environmentally damaging vineyard conversion project demonstrated in front of Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol on Monday.

Known as the Apple Roots Group, its members want the permit revoked for Hobbs’ Watertrough Road property, where work began last month to convert the 48-acre apple orchard into a vineyard.

A week later, the county shut down the project because workers illegally removed creek-side vegetation and failed to prevent erosion.

You can read the full article here.

Privately, several Finger Lakes winery owners expressed concern about Hobbs’ environmental track record, but declined to comment on record. They told NYCR that they worry Hobbs’ problems with erosion in California could be replicated on his new land near Seneca Lake.

Still unknown is the potential Hobbs effect on prices: both regarding land value and grapes. Could a successful Hobbs project drive up the price of riesling grapes, impacting smaller wineries that purchase fruit? It’s possible, with the concomitant effect of higher prices for consumers. Finger Lakes acreage has always been remarkably cheap vis a vis other wine regions, and that could begin to change, too. But it’s way too early to conclude that any such changes are likely.

“In this case it’s hard to find any fault with the spotlight (the Hobbs project) is drawing to the Finger Lakes,” said Kelby Russell, winemaker at Red Newt Cellars. “They are not claiming that Paul Hobbs is coming to save the Finger Lakes, nor are they disparaging what the region is currently. Rather, I think the point is that the Finger Lakes has proven itself enough that anyone overlooking us would be foolish.”

“It is very exciting to have another committed riesling producer added to the set of Finger Lakes wineries,” said Dave Whiting, owner of Red Newt Cellars. “ I look forward to having them as neighbors.”

Ian Barry, winemaker at Villa Bellangelo and owner of his own small label Barry Family Cellars, offered optimism and caution.

“In the ten years since I’ve been in the Finger Lakes, we’ve come a long way in building the reputation of our wines,” he said. “Having producers with international holdings and great reputations interested in the Finger Lakes will certainly raise the profile further.”

But Barry wonders about some of the other effects of the project.

“The worry I have is that as this tide rises along with the profile of the Finger Lakes, there will be other investors who follow suit, driving up the cost of land and the cost of doing business here,” he said. “One thing that has always been appealing about the Finger Lakes to me, as a person of modest means but passionate about making wine, is that it’s possible to do business here and to have the audacity to dream of one day having my own brand. That culture could change with broader notoriety.”

Thomas, who has talked about the possibility of a Paul Hobbs Finger Lakes project since 2011, offered a take that might bolster some of Barry’s concerns.

“This is the tipping point for the Finger Lakes on the world stage,” Thomas said. “With land at $6,000 per acre, exponentially less than other key regions of the US, I believe there will be a land rush, as investors hurry to lock in vineyards and wineries within a few miles of one of the hottest and best winemakers in the world, and within a day’s drive of 60 million people.”

What also is not clear at this point is what local winemaking talent may be hired for this project. It is unlikely that Selbach will move to and live in the Finger Lakes. Will this new venture follow the Forge Cellars model, where the big-name co-owner/winemaker (Louis Barruol) visits a few times per year, with a local winemaker (Justin Boyette) handling day-to-day duties? We just don’t know yet.

The New York Cork Report has inquired with Hobbs about an interview and will report what we hear.


22 Comments


  1.  

    Nice research, Evan! Summer in a Glass has not been translated into German (yet), but rumor has it that at least one German winemaker has read it! I really liked Kelby’s comment that Paul Hobbs is not coming to “save” the Finger Lakes. His commitment to the region is validation of the incredible work and passion of the family/locally owned wineries throughout the region, over many decades. With his daughter a freshman in Cornell’s winemaking program, perhaps his FLX property will also eventually be a multi-generation operation.




    •  

      Michael -

      I’m very curious to see how the wines turn out, if Selbach is indeed the German partner. That’s because I like Selbach-Oster wines very much; I’ve never much cared for Hobbs wines. And the Hobbs wines have been, for me, poor value in relation to price. How will Hobbs and Selbach merge, stylistically? One thing that can’t be argued is just how smart Paul Hobbs is. I suspect he’ll take stock of what the region can do, and will try to make the best wine within that footprint, as opposed to trying import a style that won’t fit.




      •  
        James Biddle

        Evan,
        The more I read/think about this venture, the more confused I become. I agree with your palate on Selbach-Oster and Hobbs; and I certainly agree on quality RE price (value). So, which “style” will take the lead in their wines?????

        But I also wonder about the “style” fit of Hobbs and other FL producers. Although no one can’t argue about how smart Paul Hobbs is (and how much is knows about the FL), there’s also little debate that he doesn’t have a strong history of collaboration (a FL strength) with his neighbors. But maybe that’ll change….

        So, there may be several open questions about various “style-fits” of the new venture. My utopian wish is that Hobbs is the money/silent partner and Selbach is the vine-grower/producer. But….




  2.  

    On the environmental angle, the Hobbs investment is important enough to create a tipping point in the hydro-fracking decision by the Governor. That decision seems to be hanging in the balance, and now it is even harder to imagine the Governor deciding that the rapidly growing winemaking industry and fracking can coexist in the Finger Lakes. Now we just need more wineries in the Southern Tier (and breweries & distilleries). Wine tourism and the natural wonders of New York State have a long term future, but hydro-fracking is all about short term monetary gain and long term air, water and soil degradation. As Sam Argetsinger has asked many times, why won’t the fracking industry tell people what they are injecting into the earth? Will it really stay down there forever?




    •  
      Tina Hazlitt

      Michael, you nailed it! That has been my hope as well since hearing the Hobbs news. I am also hoping he can help us stop the LPG Storage project that will make Watkins Glen the Northeast hub for propane. Tourism and vineyards cannot coexist with gas and fracking. I do hope the Gov is taking notice!




    •  
      Yvonne Taylor

      Does Hobbs realize that his land on Seneca is directly across the lake from what is slated to be the largest fracked-gas storage and transport hub in the Northeastern United States, spewing VOC’s into the atmosphere that are very harmful to grapes? An out-of state corporation plans to use depleted salt caverns as unlined storage vessels for millions of gallons of highly flammable gas. The geology is unstable, with a strike slip fault running along the western side of the lake. He’d better go to http://www.gasfreeseneca.com to find out more, and get on board with the 182 other local businesses who are fighting this! Shovels could be in the ground by the end of this month (January 2014) to begin the largest gas industry infrastructure project in the center of the Finger Lakes. It will be a dagger in the heart of this world-class tourist destination.




      •  

        Exactly Yvonne – I meant to include the LPG issue! Inergy wants to invest $40-$50 million in gas storage infrastructure (how many trucks a day?), and we have the potential for many times that amount in winery investments. Which vision of the future do we want, because the two are not compatible. Which industry has the most potential for future jobs – gas storage or the growing wine industry? Please don’t assume the Town of Reading and NYS will make the right decision. I’ll be talking about this every week on my radio shows! While I don’t know when the interview will air yet, I will be recording an interview with Paul Hobbs tomorrow and I will had him a print out of the GasFreeSeneca.com website. This can be stopped!




        •  
          Yvonne Taylor

          Thank you, Michael- we just listened to your interview, it was phenomenal, and we would love to chat with you more about this. We just left you a voicemail, you have all of the Co-Founders of Gas Free Seneca’s numbers….




  3.  
    JRB

    “…I doubt that their primary objective is to open a tasting room on Seneca Lake.”

    Hmmmmmmmmmmmm–not a primary objective, but I’m sure Hobbs would love to have a second vineyard/tasting room on the “75 Top Vineyards” to visit in the USA. It will be interesting to see how Hobbs frames Mosel-meets-Mondavi under the watchful eye of Parker.




  4.  
    RB

    Paul Hobbs makes his wine in Sonoma County, Sebastopol to be precise, not Napa.




    •  
      JRB

      Who said anything about Napa? To be precise, Robert Mondavi was/is a key person for Hobbs–not the place of Mondavi’s vineyards.




  5.  

    I wonder what fracking holds for the future of wine development here in Texas. The fields nearest to the Texas Hill Country area, between Fredericksburg and Austin, are about 100 miles away from where the nearest fracking is taking place. San Antonio wineries are closer. Most of Texas grapes are grown up around the Lubbock/High Plains area, and I’m not sure if there is fracking going on up there or not. Texans are certainly gambling with their future. We are a state with very little water trying to “grow ourselves” out of our financial problems. Once the oil is gone, we will have the grapes and the only oil we’ll have left for investment is olive oil. Texans are very conservation minded, we love the earth, but someone, probably the voter, is not thinking straight here. As our governor, Rick Perry is so fond of reminding us, “You got to dance with the one what brung ya”” In this case, the one who “brung ya” is big oil money, too lightly taxed, and a crumbling infrastructure.




  6.  

    The Paul Hobbs interview that I recorded this afternoon will air tomorrow (Sunday) at 9am, streaming live at http://www.SavorLife.com. It will be up in my archives by noon on Sunday, under “The Grapevine” on my website. Paul’s Finger Lakes project is officially underway! How, what, why, when and who?




  7.  

    Who will be next to invest in the Finger Lakes? When a prospector finds a gold vein, a few other people usually show up – Stake your claim!

    Paul Hobbs and Johannes Selbach Announce Winery Project in New York’s Finger Lakes
    Star California and German winemakers will plant vineyards and produce Riesling
    James Molesworth Posted: January 22, 2014

    http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/49515




    •  
      Rick Rainey

      We have invested and will certainly continue to invest…the future is bright for all of us that are driven to realize all of the potential of our backyard.




    •  
      Dave

      I have been visiting the Finger Lakes every year for the past 40 years. As a teenager, I was baffled that this most extraordinary area had not been “discovered”. I remember the only decent place to eat around Watkins was the Seneca Lodge ( still a favorite). Now there are a great variety of extraordinary restaurants and wineries. Cottages being replaced by mansions…1880′s greek revival homes being restored…investment coming in from all over the world…it is amazing. I can clearly see the area on the verge of an economic explosion with downtown Watkins Glen as the village in the center of the area. This is what locals have been praying for – economic expansion, opportunity, property values rising. A boom that will follow the path of Napa and Sonoma California. Everybody wins unless Watkins Glen is inundated with gas tanker trucks, the quiet Summer nights are spoiled with the noise of gas compressors, or the milky way is dulled by the light of the burning gas flare on the hillside on the western shore of Seneca Lake.




  8.  
    Tim Martinson

    Its great that outside investors are expressing an interest in the Finger Lakes. Having been by the site where 40+ acres of woodlot have been cleared, I guess I’m not overly impressed with their attention to preventing erosion on some very steep slopes. There is local expertise about avoiding erosion, and it appears that these folks didn’t take advantage of it. I hope its not a harbinger of things to come.




    •  
      James Biddle

      Tim,
      “Hope springs eternal…” except where Paul Hobbs and the environment are concerned. He seems to have a long “record” of run-ins RE local environmental laws.




    •  
      Steve Shaw

      Tim, I’m not sure what you mean about harbingers of things to come? Could you please explain?

      Regarding the clearing project, I did notice a number of measures designed to limit erosion at the site. I see that most of the tree stumps and root systems are still intact. Many tons of large crushed stone have been strategically placed along with hundreds of feet of diversion ditches, gravel roads and buried drain tile. Most of the indigenous weeds and grasses appear to be intact as well. The steepest areas have many tree top cuttings on the ground and all of the tree stumps are still in the ground. The crew looks like they are keeping your concerns in mind.

      I am sure that efforts are being made to limit erosion on difficult and steep sites. I assume the challenge of clearing such an interesting site with perfection is very difficult indeed.

      I doubt that these highly regarded wine makers are interested in ruining their land or anything else here in our beautiful Finger Lakes Wine region.





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