July 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

On Top of Daou Mountain

Brothers grow and bottle premium Bordeaux-style wines in Paso Robles

by Andrew Adams
Daniel Daou can’t stop talking about the dirt.

He’s spent millions acquiring a ranch in Paso Robles, Calif., building a showcase winery atop a mountain and even securing the neighboring wine estate to expand his total production.

But as he recently toured the grounds of Daou Vineyards & Winery, which he owns with his brother Georges, Daou kept coming back to the soil. It’s a major reason why the Daous, who had the resources to purchase land anywhere in California—or even France, picked the Central Coast.

Daou said he and his brother came close to buying land in Napa Valley as well as a prime site in Knights Valley near the Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County, Calif. They mulled purchasing an estate in Bordeaux but decided there were just “too many barriers to entry.”

Drawn by the soil
Ultimately, in 2007, the Daous chose the 600-acre ranch on a hilltop off Adelaida Road because the soil and climate presented excellent terroir. The property also has some legacy in the region, as it is part of what was once the 1,200-acre ranch owned by Dr. Stanley Hoffman. Hoffman consulted with famed Napa Valley enologist André Tchelistcheff before becoming one of the first pioneers to plant Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Paso Robles during the 1960s.

Situated at 2,200 feet elevation, the estate is one of the highest vineyards in Paso Robles. Daou said a near-constant breeze blowing through the Templeton Gap from the Pacific Ocean, which is less than 20 miles away from the winery, moderates the site’s average high temperatures.

The elevation also provides natural frost protection. Unlike many growers in the Central Coast, Daou said he dodged the devastating frosts of 2011, though he did have to manage some mildew issues that year.

Perched above the coastal fog, away from the heat of east Paso Robles and with roots digging into calcareous soils, Daou said the grapes reach ideal ripeness without losing their natural acidity. “I detest to add tartaric acid. I really think it screws around with the balance of the wine,” he says. Daou is so adverse to acid additions that he only uses free-run wine.

After growing up in Lebanon and France, Georges and Daniel Daou came to the United States to attend college; both earned degrees from the University of California, San Diego.

After graduation, Georges launched Daou Systems Inc., which manufactured and managed computer programs for hospitals. Daniel joined the company later, and the two helped lead it to achieve one of the largest IPOs in the late-1990s. After retiring at age 31, Daou decided winemaking would be one of his next pursuits.

Daou insists that he’s no weekend winemaker pursuing the lifestyle rather than the hard work of building an estate and crafting fine wine. “I work seven days a week,” he told Wines & Vines. “I love what I do.”

That passion is evident as Daou navigates a Ford truck up and down steep grades, checking on a large planting project that will expand the estate. He stops occasionally to check in with workers and answer their questions. The winery employs 30 full-time staffers with five year-round cellar workers and two people in the vineyard. All work orders for winemaking and vineyard operations come from Daou. “It’s a pretty simple operation, and it allows me to keep my finger on the pulse,” he said.

Expanding estate
The entire winery and its expansive tasting area, with views of the estate vineyards and surrounding hills, were designed by John Jensen.

The property is bustling with activity—and not just because of the vineyard preparation. In February, the Daous purchased an estate winery located at the base of the hill that is topped with Daou Vineyards & Winery. That winery, Twilight Cellars, moved to a new location in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and still operates under the same name. In addition to expanding their vineyards, the Daous are also renovating the old building for a new, gravity-fed winery and storage space for 1,600 barrels. Daou said he intends to plant about an acre of Sauvignon Blanc on the site.

Building a winery, establishing hillside vineyards or buying and renovating an old winery would be relatively ambitious projects on their own. Daou is reticent about divulging the total cost but said he and his brother had budgeted for around $10 million and have now gone “well north of that.” Even as he continues his Paso Robles project, Daou said he and his brother are still intrigued by opportunities in Argentina.

As Daou honed his vision of a winery, he studied viticulture and clone performance to find the best match for the estate terroir. In past years, Daou maintains, growers in Paso and large wine companies outside of the area planted for yield rather than quality, and he’s looking to change that. Working with material primarily from Mercier California nursery as well as Sunridge Nurseries Inc., NovaVine and Guillaume Grapevine Nursery, Daou planted a variety of Cabernet clones he says are a better fit for the soil and growing conditions of the area. Daou recently helped form the Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux) Collective that includes Justin Vineyards & Winery, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines and others to promote the wineries making “classic” and age-worthy wines from Bordeaux grape varieties.

Yet despite his focus on making premium Cabernet and Bordeaux-style blends, Daou also sells a Zinfandel and some Rhone variety wines. One of his most expensive offerings is the Mayote blend of 53% Syrah, 37% Cabernet and 10% Petit Verdot. He says the sprawling Paso Robles appellation is far too diverse to be pigeonholed for producing just one variety. “To say Paso is this and that is absurd. There’s home and room for everyone.”

Focused on low yields
Daou says he was the first to plant Cabernet clone 31, the heritage “To Kalon” clone that was developed with material from the iconic vineyard in Napa Valley. He picked clone 191 for its low yields and unique flavor profile and is waiting to plant an imported Cabernet Franc clone that he says is the same used by Chateau Cheval Blanc.

The goal is reduced yields and concentrated flavors. Vines are planted with 6.5- x 3-foot spacing, and density per acre is between 2,200 and 2,500 vines. While laid out with drip lines, Daou said the estate receives more rainfall than is typical for Paso Robles, and some years he has been able to dry farm the vines. Cordon height is 18 inches to produce 4-foot canopies that fuel limited fruit production. During the spring and summer, crews drop ripening fruit to limit the vines to just 10 to 12 clusters for concentrated flavors. Viticultural practices are backed up by analysis of the grapes’ phenolics and anthocyanins. Daou works with consulting winemaker Scott McLeod and uses McLeod’s Wine XRay assay for grapes and must analysis at the winery’s in-house lab. The numbers help assure him the tannins are there, which is what Daou wants. “The key is perfect ripeness,” he said. “I always try to achieve perfect ripeness.”

To determine ripeness, Daou trusts his taste and waits for when the seeds turn brown, separate easily from the grape pulp and there is no bitterness when he bites them. “For Cabernet, I wait for that magical moment when the skin becomes like velvet—something we are able to achieve on our mountain every year. I find that to be the best way to know we are ready to pick on Cabernet.”

Daou said he’s very selective about picking because he wants to avoid over ripeness. “I truly believe that over 15 (percent alcohol) you lose varietal characteristics.”

Harvest and processing
Once he’s called a pick, Daou said he aims to “treat grapes like food.” The grapes are all picked by hand and loaded into bins that have been cleaned and rinsed with filtered water. Any clusters that don’t appear ripe are tossed.

Bins are hauled to a crush pad at the hilltop winery. Once unloaded, the grapes are destemmed by a Diemme Kappa 15 and receive another round of hand sorting along a custom sorting table built by Burgstahler Machine Works. The sorted and destemmed grapes are sent via Francesca must pumps to fermentation tanks. Daou said the processing gives the berries a slight crack to their skins, but the gentle pumps deliver most of the grapes into the tank intact. About 20% of the grape juice is pulled off the grape skins.

Daou uses phenolic analysis to determine the length of cold soak for each lot. “I try to customize every fermentation,” he says. Once fermentation begins, Daou described his management philosophy as taking a “slow and steady” approach.

The cellar is a straightforward work area with rows of tanks and a sanitary sloped floor. Roll-up doors provide access to the cellar from the outside crush pad and processing area.

The must is inoculated with a custom yeast strain Daou developed with Enartis Vinquiry. Once fermentation begins, Daou said he runs about three pump overs per day while it’s active. As the must ferments down to 8°-10° Brix, Daou said he will adjust how he manages the cap. “If the tannins are very hard, we minimize the pump overs and wet the cap to reduce the tannins in the mouthfeel,” he said.

After reaching dryness, the wine undergoes extended, warm maceration for about three weeks at 89°F. “I like to sit on the skins for a while,” Daou said, adding he finds it balances the wine’s tannin structure and integrates fruit flavors. The winery is equipped with custom-made tanks with conical bottoms to help facilitate removing seeds during maceration. The cellar houses 40 tanks that range in size from 5 tons to 10 tons for fermentation, plus a few larger tanks for blending.

Embracing the free run
None of the red wines under the Daou label undergo pressing. Daou is adamant that the free-run wine (or vin de gout) is a truer expression of the grapes. The tannins are better integrated and “soft and silky.” He said press wine can lack balance, and he suspects it’s because pressing extracts more potassium into the wine. Daou said he finds press lots exhibit higher pH than free-run wine. “And because we do not acidulate any of our wines from our mountain, we do not use press,” he said.

After the free run is drained off, the must is pressed with a Diemme Velvet 80, but the press wine is kept separate and is destined for a second label. The press is also used for the Chardonnay and Viognier wines the Daous make with fruit purchased from Paso Robles growers. The whites receive a standard treatment of whole-cluster pressing, cold settling and barrel aging in a mix of new and neutral barrels. Coopers include Tonnellerie Sylvain, Taransaud, Francois Freres, Tonnellerie Boutes, Leroi and Ana Sélection.

For red élevage, Daou said he keeps the barrel room chilled to 50°F because he wants to minimize his sulfur use. The wine ages in mostly new, French oak barrels. For the first four to six months, Daou keeps the barrel room cold and the wine at just 10 ppm of free SO2. He said he gives the barrels an occasional stir to help build mouthfeel. Before bottling with the local mobile bottling company Bella Vina, Daou bumps up the free sulfur to 25-30 ppm. None of his red wines are fined or filtered.

Sales and recognition
The winery currently produces about 10,000 cases wholesale, sold in 49 states and in a few international markets. The reserve production is limited to 2,000 cases and sold through the winery’s tasting room, which is open seven days a week. At the very top of Daou’s production pyramid are the Mayote and Soul of a Lion blends, which are listed at $85 and $100, respectively. The two wines are named for the Daou brothers’ parents and represent Daou’s best efforts in the vineyard and winery.

So far, Daou said recognition is lagging for his wines and those of Paso Robles in general. He’s been disappointed with some of the scores his best wines have received but sees it more as a reflection on the region. “We get downgraded because we’re Paso,” he said.

The scores will come, Daou said, after he demonstrates his estate can produce consistent, balanced wines. If the critics don’t see that now, Daou said he’s fine with waiting. “I’m willing to take a beating for a couple of years,” he said.

Wrapping up his tour of the estate, Daou pulls to the top of a hill with sweeping views of the mountains and Paso Robles. He remarks again on the wonderful benefits of the soil before talking about his vision for adding luxury accommodations to the estate.

The planned “five-star bed and breakfast” would feature eight casitas for wine club members and other visitors and would crown the hill planted with “Cabernet all the way to the top.” Daou expects to build the lodgings by 2015.

From his hilltop estate, Daou already enjoys an elevated position, but he is focused on raising the reputation of his wine as well as that of the region. “I want to elevate the bar for everybody, not just for myself.”  

Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.