“We will be relentless in our pursuit of perfection. We won’t ever be perfect – but in the process we will achieve greatness.” – Vince Lombardi. That quote from the great coach could just as easily have been said by Daniel Daou, winemaker and co-proprietor of Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles, California. Daniel, and his brother Georges, have set out to make the very best wine that can rival the best of Napa or Bordeaux, and Advinetures got to hear their fascinating story first hand when we visited with Daniel at their gorgeous hilltop winery.
Daniel and Georges grew up in France, sons of a Lebanese father and French mother. Wine was a part of family dinner and the brothers came by their love of good wine at an early age. Daniel told us that he first started to collect and cellar wine at age 23. (If only we had done that!) The brothers left France and came to study at University of California San Diego. Upon graduating with engineering degrees, the brothers created DAOU Systems, a highly successful technology company focused on the medical industry. 10 years after its founding, the brothers took the company public in the fifth largest IPO that year. This gave them the means to pursue their passion: making extraordinary wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon was to be their focus. While they do a terrific job with other varietals as well, it was Cabernet that they really wanted to excel at. We asked Daniel the obvious question: Why Paso Robles? “There is great Cabernet made in Bordeaux. They have the soil for it. It is all calcareous soil in Bordeaux which is perfect for growing Cabernet. Calcareous soil gives Bordeaux its minerality. Napa has perfect weather for growing Cabernet. Unlike Bordeaux, every vintage will fully ripen the grapes. I wanted to find a region that had a climate like Napa but also had the calcareous soils like those found in Bordeaux.”
Climate is pretty easy to identify, it can be determined closely enough by just looking around. But soil type, that cannot be so easy to find. We asked Daniel how he settled on Paso Robles. “Do you know what I did? I just went to google and typed in ‘maritime climate and calcareous soil’ and everything came up Paso Robles.” Daniel found that Paso Robles has a very similar climate to St. Helena in Napa, each offering about 2,800 – 3,000 degree days each year. And knowing that he would find his calcareous soils there, he set about finding his perfect vineyard site.
During his research he learned that the great Andre Tschelistcheff, the iconic consultant to Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyards, had many years previously discovered what he had just found out: that the top vineyard area near Paso Robles was “a jewel of ecological elements”. In 1964 Dr. Stanley Hoffman purchased 1200 acres and with the help of Tschelistcheff planted vines and created the first modern commercial winery in Paso Robles. In 2012 the Daou brothers purchased Hoffman Ranch Winery and now with 100 acres under vine are carrying on the vision as first seen by Tschelistcheff and Hoffman. Their site gives them their much desired concentrated calcareous soils with southwest and southeast exposures. At the highest elevation of any vineyard in the area, it enjoys wide diurnal temperature ranges. The vineyards are kept cool by gentle breezes coming off the Pacific and up through the Templeton Gap. These factors allow the grapes to hang longer and develop optimal phenolic ripeness.
If there was one thing we learned about Daniel Daou during our visit, it is that he loves to innovate. You will find many things at Daou that are not commonly found elsewhere, unless you tend to frequent the First Growth vineyards in Bordeaux. At Daou the vineyards are planted to a very high density, about 2400 vines/acre, two or three times the density of other vineyards. The high density planting stresses the vines increasing concentration and complexity in the fruit. Grapevines are usually trained with a trellis that has the vines arms (called cordons) extend horizontally from the stock. At Daou, the cordons are trained very low, only 18 inches above the ground. This increases the size of the canopy allowing for more photosynthesis during the growing season and putting more energy into the clusters. Cabernet clones planted at Daou include the rare, but very famous clone 31, the original low-yielding clone planted at Napa’s arguably most famous vineyard, To-Kalon. The vineyards are steep, 15 – 45 degrees, and are strictly handpicked. Irrigation is minimal, used perhaps two times in a season to prevent the vines from shutting down. Some vintages are dry farmed. Environmentally sustainable practices are employed throughout and they are SIP certified (Sustainability in Practice). No expense is spared in their relentless pursuit of perfect Cabernet.
Not satisfied with just adopting the best practices of the best vineyards and wineries across the globe, Daniel has created some practices unique to Daou. One of them is that he cultivates his own proprietary yeast strain to use during fermentation. Another is the French barrels he uses to age his wines. Rather than being made from traditional oak, he uses Bois Rosé, a slightly pink oak that imparts less tannin. Staves are also curved using a lower flame resulting in less toast, all done to Daniel’s exacting specifications.
Atop his vineyards at 2200 feet elevation sits the tasting room and winery. Done in a Spanish Mission style it is a simply stunning building and property with an incredible view. Daniel laments “People sometimes don’t take the wine seriously because we have a nice tasting room with a good view. But this place is still very much about the wine. We just want our guests to have a comfortable place to enjoy our wine at.” It is probably the most beautiful winery tasting room we have ever been to, and has two chefs on staff to create delicious lunches to pair with their wines . But as the following tasting notes will show, the beauty of their facilities takes a back seat to the extraordinary quality of their wines. Daou Vineyards is definitely a winery to watch. The Daou brothers’ relentless pursuit of perfection shows clearly in their wines; these are wines of extraordinary quality. This quality is just now being discovered by the wine community at large as recent high 90’s scores in the larger wine publications attest. Is that rare perfect score somewhere in Daou’s future? We would not be surprised.
Named as an homage to Daniel and Georges’ father this wine is aptly named! Very dark, an almost impenetrable red, it has a sensational nose of blackberries, black cherry and currant with a hint of spice. The body is medium-full with bright acidity and no harsh edges. There is terrific balance here with all the numerous components working together as a harmonious one resulting in very smooth mouthfeel. Already showing complexity, you can pick up classic Cabernet notes of cedar and forest as well as some vanilla barrel notes underneath the wealth of fruit. The very long finish begs you back to the glass for another sip. 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petite Verdot. 22 months in new French oak including Daniel’s special barrels. Age worthy, we would love to revisit this wine at age 10 and again at age 20.
Extraordinary (US$125 at their tasting room)
This is Daou’s version of a white Rhone blend with 48% Grenache Blanc, 32% Roussanne and 20% Viognier. Honey, almonds and tropical fruits form the nose of this aromatically expressive wine. A rich and full bodied mouthfeel makes this wine a perfect partner for the dinner table. Melon and stone fruits dominate the intense flavour profile that turns juicy and structured on the finish.
Very Good/Excellent (US$36 at their tasting room)
2012 Reserve AUX
71% Syrah, 24% Grenache and 5% Mouvedre make up the blend of this California version of a red Rhone. Floral and spicy on the nose. Lush red and black fruits combine with baking spices and offer a smooth sensation on the palate. Medium + body, this wine is another testament to how well the Central Coast is turning out Rhone style wines. This is the wine to drink while you are waiting for his Cabs to come around.
Excellent (US$65 at their tasting room)
100% Nebbiolo from the Valle de Guadalupe on the Baja Peninsula. Cherries, plum and spices forma an enticing nose. Medium + body, and to our great surprise from this varietal which is known for making highly tannic wines in its native Italy, this wine was smooth and polished and a pleasure to drink young! Flavours of cherry and licorice and a hint of caramel on the finish.
Excellent (US$46 at their tasting room – this is very good value, especially when compared to equivalent quality Barolo and Barbaressco)
Medium to dark red in colour, the aromas of currants and blueberries have a seductive quality to them. This wine is full bodied and is a definite candidate for the cellar as there is enough tannin to age but it is smooth and ripe enough to enjoy right now. Spicy and minerally on the long finish, there is a savoury complexity to this wine.
Excellent (US$56 at their tasting room)
This blend of 45% Syrah, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Petite Verdot has to be one of the stars of their line up. Very dark in colour, this is a big, mouth-filling wine. Despite its size, it possesses a soft and almost plush mouthfeel that makes the wine totally approachable now. Blueberry and blackberry flavours are supported by spice and notes of cedar and oak barrels. Everything comes together making the wine seamless and a joy to drink now, but no doubt one that can last and [probably improve for a decade or more.
Excellent/Extraordinary (US$85 at their tasting room)