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Smith & Hook Winery - Sant Lucia Highland Monterey

Smith & Hook Reveals The Secrets of Santa Lucia Highlands

Nicholaus “Nicky” Hahn wanted to create something lasting for his children. In the late 1970s he and his family were living in England. He was searching for a business opportunity which would need to make sense financially, and at the same time create an enduring legacy for his children. It was a search that would eventually lead him to the California wine country.

Nicky had appreciated and enjoyed fine European wine for many years. One of his thoughts was to start a vineyard and winery somewhere in Europe. What better way to enjoy a nice lifestyle, provide a decent return on investment and create a family enterprise? But because of the less-than-desirable business and political climate throughout much of Europe at the time, his search turned abroad. His quest overseas took him straight to California where the wine industry was enjoying a period of exponential growth.

Once his focus narrowed to California, Nicky searched for two years before finding a location in Monterey county, south of San Francisco. Although less established than Napa and Sonoma, his research revealed Monterey county had ideal growing conditions with every bit as much potential as the more famous northern counties. A big bonus was that land prices were a fraction of the cost!

In 1980 Nicky purchased 252 acres of vineyard land in the hills of Monterey county. Prior to its conversion to vineyard land, the property had been two separate parcels. Both were long time family ranches, one a horse ranch owned by the Smith family, the other a cattle ranch belonging to the Hook family. The location is situated at 1,200 feet above sea level, sheltered by the Coastal Range which help block the winds and prevent frost from forming. The vineyard had been planted in 1974, to mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of Merlot—ideal varietals for the area.

Though still in England, his first order of business was to have a winery built and hire a management team to run the California operation. This was quickly accomplished in time for the 1980 harvest. Nicky’s original intent was to create a world class Cabernet Sauvignon—period. A few thousand cases of great Cabernet and he’d be satisfied. After all, with over 200 acres of quality Cabernet Sauvignon vines to choose from, he could have the pick of the crop and sell the rest to other wineries.

The winery’s first actual release was 600 cases of 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon that had been harvested by the previous property owners. After five years of operation it became obvious to Nicky that it was too difficult to live on Cabernet alone. He was convinced that in order to achieve financial success, he would need to broaden his varietal offerings. And with over 650 Cabernet Sauvignon producers in California, he needed to elevate his wine from a commodity-like product to a high quality, proprietary one. It was imperative that Nicky get closer to his operation both literally and figuratively.

In 1986 Nicky and his family emigrated to the U.S. to take charge of the winery. Immediately he began to shift the varietal mix in the vineyards to scale down Cabernet, emphasize Merlot and add a bit of Cabernet Franc for blending. He then purchased additional vineyard property in the county, with plans of adding Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and a bit of Viognier. For the next five years Smith & Hook winery continued to concentrate and strengthen their reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Only the best grapes from select spots in the vineyard are used to make the small amount of Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Winemaker, Art Nathan, actually hand picks the grapes he wants to use. “I know the exact areas of the vineyard I want to use,” he says. “I can say I want the first 30 rows from the oak tree up,” he adds. The remaining grapes are then sold to other wineries.

In 1991, once the Smith & Hook label was firmly established, Nicky launched an additional brand of wines which he named Hahn Estates. These wines would further utilize the crop each year and allow entry into the so-called “fighting varietal” arena. Strategically, they would be more accessible both in quantity and price, and give another leg for the operation to stand on.

Nicky’s next strategy was to officially differentiate his Santa Lucia Highlands location from the other parts of Monterey county. The soil and climate conditions are substantially different from his grape-growing neighbors, he argued to the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). By 1992 he was successful in his efforts to designate Santa Lucia Highlands as its own viticultural appellation.

Today Smith & Hook’s reputation and stature for top quality Cabernet and Merlot continue to grow. The 1990 vintage produced 10,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 2,000 cases of Merlot. Recognizing the advancing importance of Merlot, the winery’s shift towards that varietal is evident. At one point producing almost exclusively Cabernet, Smith & Hook is now turning out Merlot almost 2 to 1 over Cabernet. These are the only two varietals offered in the Smith & Hook ultra-premium line.

The family Hahn Estates wine production has grown to over 30,000 cases in just three years—an obvious reflection of their quick success in the market. This line consists of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and a small amount of Cabernet Franc.

Nicky continues to expand his vineyard holdings. Today’s total stands at 960 acres, producing at least nine different varietals. “We’ll continue to sell about 85% of our grapes to other wineries,” says Nicky. “And we’ll continue to expand our Merlot program as long as the market is there. The Cabernet Sauvignon will stay at about 10,000 cases or below, depending on the quality of the crop,” he reveals. “The 1990 harvest was outstanding. The 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon is the best we’ve produced. It fully reflects where we want our Cabernet to be.” Winemaker, Art Nathan, agrees, “The 1990 vintage was a winemaker’s dream. It was more a matter of just baby-sitting the wine because the grapes had so much flavor and ripened so evenly,” he adds.

We believe the 1990 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best Cabernets to come around in a long while—we think you will agree.

Nicholaus Hahn

When Nicholaus Hahn was 4 years old he took a journey that covered more ground than most of us travel in a lifetime. He was born in Switzerland in 1936. At the age of four he and his family emigrated to England. They didn’t stop there though, moving on to Spain then to Portugal. From Portugal they literally hopped onto a banana boat and shipped themselves to Cuba. From Cuba they traveled to Los Angeles (still 4 years old, mind you) and finally set down on New York’s Long Island!

Nicky’s boyhood was spent in New York before moving back to Switzerland to attend high school. As a young man, Nicky was fascinated with animals and their behavior. He wanted one day to be a zoologist and maybe a zoo director. He also had a keen interest in photography. His father was a professor of Economics however, and over the years a steady diet of the laws of supply and demand eventually turned Nicholaus towards Economics too.

After obtaining a degree in Economics at the University of Munich, Nicky worked in a Paris brokerage house as an arbitrageur. His success dictated numerous transfers, first to London then to New York. In New York he was wooed by Chase Manhattan Bank who hired him over to work as a credit analyst. ‘Chase Manhattan gave me the best training I’ve ever had,” says Nicky. But in spite of his success there, after one year he jumped at a chance to return to his home-land, Switzerland, to work for an American brokerage house.

After several years, Nicky decided it was time to do something on his own. He found such an opportunity in a small struggling computer software company there in Switzerland. The company specialized in developing software for IBM computer systems. This was during the pre-Microsoft era. He bought the company, Computer Associates, and built it up to what became the largest independent software company in the world.

Not one to stand still, he sold his company in 1979 and moved back to England where he and his family lived until moving to California in 1986.

‘My job now is basically to understand the business aspect of the vineyard and winery operation and allow the other experts to do what they do best,” says Nicky. Winemaster, President and General Manager, Duane Deboer runs the day to day business. Duane has a enology and viticulture background and has been involved with the Smith & Hook vineyard management since 1977, prior to when Nicky Hahn bought the property. Winemaker and vice-president, Art Nathan, hails previously from Scharfenberger and Parducci and arrived at Smith & Hook in 1989. Vineyard Manager, Gary Robinson has a background of twenty-two years in production agriculture. Seventeen of those years have been in Monterey county. Gary was involved with the original planting of the Smith & Hook vineyard in 1974.

Nicky and his wife, Gaby, have three children—Caroline, Nicholaus and Philip. They reside in Monterey county not far from the winery property.