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Mosel and Sonoma Meet in the Finger Lakes

California-German partnership plans vineyard and winery on Seneca Lake

by Linda Jones McKee
Californian winemaker Paul Hobbs (left) and Johannes Selbach, owner of Weingut Selbach-Oster, will open a Finger Lakes winery.
Watkins Glen, N.Y.—On Feb. 4, Paul Hobbs, winemaker and owner of Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol, Calif., and Johannes Selbach, winemaker and owner of Weingut Selbach-Oster in Zeltingen, Germany, announced that they plan to establish a vineyard and start a winery on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The two winemakers have purchased approximately 65 acres on the southeastern side of the lake in an area known locally as the “banana belt” because of its microclimate with a longer growing season and more moderate temperatures than other locations in the Finger Lakes region.

The Hobbs-Selbach property straddles Route 414, the north-south road to the east of the lake, and is located in the town of Burdett. According to Christopher O’Gorman, communications manager at Paul Hobbs Winery, 38 acres of land had previously been planted with vines, but the vineyard had fallen into disrepair and “went to wild.” Land preparation has begun on the property, but there are plenty of challenges ahead. The limestone soils in that area are thin, the slopes in many places are steep, and conversion of wooded areas to vineyard under such conditions can be difficult from an environmental standpoint. Selbach’s experience with steep sloping vineyards in Germany should be a valuable asset.

When two well-known winemakers create a partnership to start a winery, it is a reflection on how far that area has come in establishing an excellent reputation for its wines. David Peterson, owner of Swedish Hill Winery in Romulus, New York, and Penguin Bay Winery in Hector, N.Y. (the next town north of Burdett), told Wines & Vines, “It’s a credibility boost to the wine industry in New York, and the region, that two well-known vintners would choose to site a winery here.”

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, agreed with Peterson’s assessment, and added “When two famous winemakers recognize that the Finger Lakes is a prime location for growing and making world-class Riesling, it’s a tribute to the growers and winemakers in the Finger Lakes who have worked so hard to produce great wine. We welcome them!”

A native of Niagara County, New York, Hobbs helped his father plant hybrid grapes on the family apple farm when he was a teenager. However, instead of returning to New York after receiving his master’s degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, in 1978, he stayed in California and took a job as enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery. He began wine consulting in 1989 in Argentina, and in 1999 became a partner with Luis Barraud and Andrea Marchiori in Viña Cobos, a winery located in Mendoza. Hobbs now has consulting clients in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Armenia, France, Canada, and California.

The Paul Hobbs Winery was founded in 1991. Hobbs purchased property in Sebastopol, California, in 1998 and planted the Katherine Lindsay vineyard on the site. The first crush at the Paul Hobbs winemaking facility took place in 2003 and the hospitality room, Lindsay House opened in Sebastopol in 2006. Hobbs now owns or controls more than 190 acres in California and produces 18,000 cases between the Paul Hobbs brand and his second label, CrossBarn.

Selbach’s family has been growing Riesling in the Mosel valley in Germany since the 1600s; currently Selbach and his wife Barbara run the Selbach-Oster estate. Their vineyards consist of 20 hectares (49 acres), most of which is Riesling planted on the steep slopes above the Mosel River. The winery produces approximately 12,000 cases per year. In 1998, Hobbs visited the Selbach-Oster estate while touring wineries along the Mosel, and the two men developed a friendship that led to this partnership in New York.

The Seneca Lake property is their first joint winemaking project. Hobbs and Selbach have not yet made the final decision concerning which varietals (other than Riesling) to plant on the site, and they also have not given a name to the project. The partners may begin to produce wine from purchased grapes in 2015 until the vineyard on the site comes into production. David Hobbs, Paul Hobbs’ brother who lives in Rochester, N.Y., will be involved in overseeing the project.

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