“It gives me great pride to see our region be successful.” – Austin Hope
While California’s Central Coast may not have the same namesake as Napa Valley, it does happen to produce some of California’s most intriguing, up-and-coming wines. Top vintners have transformed the Central Coast into one of the state’s premier wine regions, with hundreds of wineries popping up in its sunny valleys, with special interest in an area known as Paso Robles.
Paso Robles is an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) located in the San Luis Obispo County, within California’s Central Coast region. It has approximately 26,000 vineyard acres planted with wine grapes, and is well known for its heritage varietal zinfandel, Rhône-style wines, cabernet and red blends and styles that are unique to the area.
One of California’s most pastoral domains, Paso Robles is flush with rolling hills and manicured vineyards. It’s a place where ideal soil exists for vineyard farming. In fact, grapes were first introduced into the Paso Robles area in 1797. Commercial wine growing, however, didn’t begin until the 1880s. Dry, warm conditions are typical, yet evenings are chilled by a breeze from the Pacific coast just 18 miles to the west, allowing fruit to richly ripen. At nearly 1,000 feet, soils are elevated seabeds where shell fossils are often found.
Since 1990, when there were fewer than 20 wineries in Paso Robles, a large expansion of activity has seen the number rise to more than 200 wineries today, with none more celebrated than the Hope Family Wines label, which accounts for more than 300,000 cases of production per year under various brand names.
Austin Hope, a third-generation farmer, and the man responsible for growing his family brand, is more than just a terrific businessman. He’s also chief winemaker and oversees all of the Hope Family Wine labels, including one that carries his own name – his ultra-premium brand of wines that are designed to reflect the best of Paso Robles. Other brands include Liberty School, Treana, Troublemaker and Quest.
Austin Hope grew up working alongside his father, Chuck Hope, inheriting his love and respect for the region. He led the family’s move into winemaking in 1995, and further exploration of Paso began. In 2000, Austin created the Austin Hope label, making very small productions of Rhône varietals. These wines are produced from vines grown at the family’s estate property, where soils and climate have similarities with Rhône Valley vineyards. They remain small yet extraordinary productions. Each bottling holds onto a unique intensity and softness, expressing a special side of Paso.
A perfect combination of soil, sun and sea can certainly be credited as a major reason why the wines of Paso Robles are as good as they are and Austin knows it. That’s why he created the Treana label. Spanish for trio of natural elements, the Treana brand pays specific homage to the land and its immediate environment.
“I absolutely think we are artisanal. But I’m also a big believer in giving consumers a fair price.” – Austin Hope
“You can sum up Paso with one word and that’s diversity”, says Austin. “We’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years understanding the region and its soils, which not exactly the most fertile, but they drain well. We have 11 sub AVAs now within the Paso appellation and we’ve come to determine that our estate vineyard can be compared to northern Rhone (syrah), whereas our far eastern appellation is more like the dry and hot parts of Australia (shiraz).”
He adds: “Our proximity to the ocean is a big benefit to us. We don’t typically see rain until November or December and that carries through to March or April. So we’re super lucky in that we don’t have to worry about rain interfering with our harvest.”
Since the 2015 vintage, Austin has been showcasing an even greater sweep of the Paso region and expressing a similar richness with his style of cabernet sauvignon. The source of the wine is far-reaching within the appellation – a most discerning group of vineyards located on gently sloping hillsides and hidden pockets across the domain, providing dimension to the cabernet varietal.
The goal is to show consumers that quality cabernet can be made in parts outside of Napa and Sonoma. And Austin and his various versions of cabernet sauvignon make a strong case for it. “We get more physiological ripeness here in Paso vs. Napa,” says Austin. “We have much longer hang time – whereas Napa is picking their grapes in September, we don’t even start looking at cab until October.”
“There’s certain flavour profiles I am trying to create and understand. Cabs made with aggressive, hard and drying tannins are just not favourable for me. We’ve learned how to massage our tannins here. We get massive tannins but they’re not harsh. So, the profiles are different.”
As a result, the cabs from Paso are more approachable, despite also being quite ageworthy. “You feel that weight across your palate all the way to the finish,” says Austin. “Smooth and not so aggressive. Very drinkable now, but they’ll age 20 years.”
It’s an artisan’s approach to winemaking, despite all the naysayers who think artisanal wineries should be much smaller, “garage-style operations”. “I absolutely think we are artisanal,” says Austin. “But I’m also a big believer in giving consumers a fair price. Critics love to gravitate to someone who makes 100 cases of something – that no one can find in a store anywhere – and therefore needs to charge $150 a bottle. We’ve been overlooked by many (including the media) for reasons that include this very hot-button definition of what is artisanal and what isn’t.”
“If we can make something in quantity that is kick-ass and we’re able to keep costs down at the same time, isn’t that a win-win?” With the Austin Hope brand cabernet sauvignon, for example, “consumers are drinking the equivalent to a $100-$150 bottle of wine but paying $70 for it!”
Another hot-button issue that Hope Family Wines has been centred around is the practice of sustainable winemaking. Sustainability has become the watchword of the wine and grape industry in the United States, and particularly in California. Winegrowers up and down the state are looking at how they do things, finding ways to lessen the environmental impact of their operations, becoming better stewards of the land— and justifiably letting the world know what they’re doing.
When Austin and his team review the details of what goes on in the vineyards and winery, their main concerns are making better wine, making it more efficiently, and sometimes just making life easier for the staff. How to make the operation “greener” is only one of many things to consider. “There is no single hard and fast rule for deciding things,” says Austin, “except one: think before you act.” Action gets taken only for a good reason. And more often than not, “changing a method in order to save resources—time, energy, labour, water—not only helps the bottom line: it benefits the environment as well.”
“If we can make something in quantity that is kick-ass and we’re able to keep costs down at the same time, isn’t that a win-win?”
Continues Austin: “For us, it’s almost a lifestyle—being a good steward to the land and to the people who live and work on it. It helps us be better and that translates to the wine being better too. We are 100 percent better winemakers than we were 20 years ago.” And it shows with the quality product that Austin and his family label continue to release.
“Create a great product, one that people enjoy – that is success to me. When you meet someone that can’t stop talking about the wine, that is super gratifying.”
Liberty School 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
Beginning in the 1980s, the Hope family sold cabernet sauvignon grapes to Caymus for its Liberty School label, and Austin Hope followed his father’s advice to seek out an opportunity to work with Caymus, both inside the winery and the administrative offices, learning the nuts and bolts of the wine business from one of California’s most respected producers. “That was probably my a-ha moment,” says Austin. “I realized that I not only wanted to grow grapes, but to manage our own label to bring our fruit directly to the market.” The Hope family took over producing Liberty School wines in 1996 and Liberty School now makes 200,000 cases of wine per year. This cabernet is a versatile wine with a deep crimson colour. Aromas of warm vanilla, fresh red fruit and hints of baking spices evolve into flavours of savory herbs, black pepper, dark cherry and sweet oak. The tannins are approachable and silky smooth with a touch of bright acidity that balances this wine, making it extremely food friendly. Consumer appealing and tastes like a wine that should cost more. ($22.95)
Treana 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
The interplay of sun, soil, and sea is what makes the microclimates of California’s Central Coast so unique, and it’s these trinity of elements that inspired the Hope family to move to Paso Robles nearly four decades ago. It’s also the inspiration for their Treana label, created in 1996. These are wines that capture the unique essence of California’s Central Coast – representing world-class wine made in a world-class wine region. At first glance, this dark crimson wine sets the stage for inviting beautiful aromas of warm chocolate, roasted coffee and toasty cedar. On the palate, intense dark fruit and sweet vanilla combine with smoky oak to give a long rich mouth feel that finishes with balanced acidity and moderate, velvety tannins. Quality wine from a quality label. ($39.95)
Austin Hope 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
Wine Enthusiast proclaimed this the 10th best wine of 2019 – a monumental achievement for Paso Robles and for Austin Hope. “We want to set the standard for luxury cabernet in Paso Robles,” says Hope. “We have extreme goals we want to achieve and for Wine Enthusiast to give us this highest score for the region, that’s a big deal.” Dark ruby in colour, this wine expresses aromas of freshly picked blueberries, ripe black cherries, subtle notes of milk chocolate and dried spices. On the palate, the luscious supple tannins are powerful yet modern in style with layered flavours of juicy blackberry and red fruit, nuances of black pepper, clove and vanilla bean round out the long smooth finish. It’s full-bodied, round and rich. A chewy, hearty wine with polished tannins. Will age for decades, but one need not wait that long. “Do our wines get better with age? That’s a bit of a loaded question,” says Austin somewhat jokingly. ($69.95)
Austin Hope 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
“Some vintages just start showing better early,” says Austin Hope on the subject of comparing this 2018 cabernet vs. the 2017. “We didn’t age ’18 as long as we did ’17 in barrel.” In fact, the difference was two full months and perhaps that has something to do with this wine seeming a bit more focused and precise. It’s incredible, actually, that this wine could be even better than the 2017 – a wine that made many major top 10 lists. And if you ask Austin, he completely agrees. “This 2018 will prove to be one of the better wines we’ve ever made,” he says. “I love this wine. It’s just damn good.” There’s layers upon layers of flavour and structure here. Rich and ripe cherry, smoke, dark chocolate, peppercorn spice. There’s even hints of smoked meat and bacon fat – usually something you tend to find in a well made syrah. Tannins are noticeable, but are smoothened, as if by a rolling pin. It doesn’t have that over-extracted flavour feeling, despite using a lot of new and once used French oak. This is next level cabernet and although it will cellar beautifully, this is wonderful to experience right now. Should be double the price, but I’m not complaining. ($69.95)