Hahn Family Wines - Smith & Hook Winery
Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
Hahn Estates an Oasis of Quality and Value
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 helps block the wind and prevents frost from forming. The vineyard had been planted in 1974, mostly to 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. The winery’s first actual release however was a 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon under the Smith & Hook label. After five years of producing just one wine 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. Nicky felt too, it was imperative that he 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. He purchased additional vineyard property in the county, with plans of adding Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer and a bit of Viognier. For the next five years though the winery continued to concentrate and strengthen their reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Once the Smith & Hook label was firmly established, Nicky launched an additional line of wines in 1991 that he appropriately named Hahn Estates. Strategically, these wines would be distinguished by their suppleness and drinkability at a younger age. The Hahn Estates red wines however would still show the complexity and balance to allow for additional aging.
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.
The family Hahn Estates wine production has grown to over 40,000 cases in just five years—an obvious reflection of their quick success in the market. This line consists mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and just a small amount of Cabernet Franc. Duane Deboer, Winemaster, President and General Manager, runs the day to day winery business at both Hahn Estates and Smith & Hook. Duane has a enology and viticulture background and has been involved with the vineyard management since 1977. Winemaker and vice-president, Art Nathan, hails previously from Scharfenberger and Parducci and arrived at Smith & Hook/Hahn Estates 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.
The Hahn Estates Cabernet Franc is one of our featured wines this month. Just 2,700 cases were made of this delicious wine and one in which Hahn Estates clearly excels. Year after year their Cabernet Franc pulls in numerous medals and high ratings.
Surprisingly, many wine drinkers are not yet familiar with Cabernet Franc. It is perhaps the world’s most diverse grape and always a popular choice among Gold Medal Wine Club members. Cabernet Franc has the cherry/cassis flavors of its cousin Cabernet Sauvignon, peppery/spicy aromas like Zinfandel and the silky, supple and soft mouthfeel of a Merlot. And since its a variety that is relatively undiscovered by the mass market the cost /quality ratio is astounding.
Nicholaus Hahn - Proprietor
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.
Nicky and his wife, Gaby, have three children—Caroline, Nicholaus and Philip. They reside in Monterey County not far from the winery property.