Growing & Winemaking

 

The Hyde-Hobbs Partnership

July 2016
 
by Thomas Ulrich
 
 
Larry Hyde and Paul Hobbs
 
Larry Hyde (left) and Paul Hobbs

A quarter-century ago, vineyard owner Larry Hyde and winemaker Paul Hobbs launched a partnership that inspired them to farm one of the first blocks of Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir collaboratively. Hobbs agreed to pay Hyde for the grapes based on expected yield, not how much fruit he harvested. “If the crop looked too big and Paul wanted to drop fruit,” Hyde says, “he took the risk.”

But before the growing season began, Hobbs walked the vineyard in the Carneros district of Napa Valley with Hyde to determine which varieties and vineyard blocks he wanted to farm. According to Hyde, the agreement gave Hobbs and 40 other winemakers who signed similar contracts “leeway to grow exactly what they want.”

Together, Hyde and Hobbs carved a path to explore the character of the 152-acre vineyard that the Hyde family cleared in 1978 and planted in 1979. “I experiment with climate, soil and farming practices with every vintage,” Hyde says. “I learn something new from every producer, every variety, every year.”

For winemakers like Hobbs, Hyde returned the favor. “I was hungry for knowledge,” Hobbs says, “and sitting at Larry’s table was the place to be.”

    KEY POINTS
     

     
  • Grapegrower Larry Hyde in the Carneros district of Napa Valley and Sonoma County-based winemaker Paul Hobbs started their collaboration 25 years ago.
     
  • Hyde gave unusual authority to Hobbs to choose how the blocks of Hyde vineyard from which he would buy the grapes were planted and farmed. In turn Hyde learned much about winemaking from Hobbs that he could apply to his own winemaking ventures.
     
  • Hobbs joined a half-dozen winemakers working with Hyde in the vineyard in 1991. Today, more than 40 winemakers partner with Hyde.
     

Lay of the land
Hyde and family have replaced nearly half the vineyard since they began. They have cultivated Cabernet Hill for 30 years and established the block of Pinot Noir that Hyde and Hobbs farm 25 years ago.

With peak summer temperatures 5º to 20º F cooler than other Napa Valley sub-appellations, Carneros grapes can lag behind in ripening by seven to 14 days. Fog, afternoon breezes and narrower daily temperature swings lengthen the growing season and favor cool-climate grapes.

Two varieties dominate the Carneros district, which overlaps the Napa-Sonoma county border within sight of San Pablo Bay. Similar percentages of the sub-appellation’s vineyards are planted in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, totaling about 90%. Hyde Vineyards is about two-thirds Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but a cool climate with growing parameters reminiscent of Burgundy did not discourage Hyde and Hobbs from also growing an assortment of grapes that thrive in warmer regions.

With a heat summation of 2,345 degree-days, many growers and viticulturists believed that Carneros was too cool to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon. Hyde planted and Hobbs tended several blocks of a cool-climate clone.

“I am surprised that they can ripen Cab in this climate,” Glenn McGourty tells Wines & Vines. “However, I do support the notion that on the edge of adaptation, there is brilliance—and occasional unmitigated disasters.”

Tending the vines
The vineyard team’s choice of rootstocks and clones helped shape the character of the vineyard. Hyde grafted Cabernet Sauvignon clones to St. George rootstock initially, but after some research he added less-vigorous 101-14 to the mix.

But the team decided that grafting FPS 30 “See clone” Cabernet Sauvignon scions onto St. George rootstock could counter the rootstock’s vigor and reduce yields. According to Hobbs, “Shatter was often a problem, but rarely pervasive. On average,” he adds, “we dropped 40% to 60% of the crop at early to mid-enlargement phase. Occasionally, we would drop fruit a second time during lag phase.”

The vineyard team routinely drops green fruit when the grapes reach 90% of véraison. Hyde Vineyards general manager Chris Hyde (son of owner Larry Hyde) says, “We handle canopy work at different times, as varieties are on different schedules.” The vineyard team opens up the Cabernet Sauvignon canopy later than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir canopies because bud break and physiological maturity occur later in the season.

“Less vigor is beneficial for Bordelaise here,” he says. “We try to achieve balance in the canopy and the right yield with the least amount of manipulation. Achieving balance is key.”

But for Larry Hyde, who has planted two-thirds of the vineyard with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, cool-climate grapes reflect the character of the region. “If you wish to produce Pinot Noir in the Napa Valley, you need to find the coolest climate,” he says. “In a word: Carneros.”

Education in the vineyard
Assistant winemaker at Robert Mondavi and a vice president at Simi before he launched his own label in 1991, Hobbs returned to Hyde Vineyard dozens of times each year to learn more about the grower’s craft. “At the time, I was focused on the winery,” Hobbs recalls. “So he accelerated my education in the vineyard.”

These days, Hobbs walks the vineyard every seven to 10 days during the height of the growing season and meets with Larry and Chris Hyde to select shoots, drop fruit and thin the canopy. “Timing is paramount,” Hobbs says. “So there is no substitute for walking the vineyard frequently.”

For its part, the vineyard team prunes, cultivates, fertilizes, applies insecticides and irrigates the vines. “In these areas, I weigh in if I see something outside the norm,” Hobbs says.

“By now, the field crew knows what Paul is looking for,” Chri s Hyde says. “We farm the blocks according to his wishes.” Hobbs decides when the grapes are ready to harvest, but only after a discussion with the vineyard team.

“At first, Larry accused me of letting the fruit hang so long that I was going to kill the vineyard,” Chris Hyde says. “But with the sun low in the sky during the first three weeks of October, we are able to burn off the pyrazines.” And if the temperature remains cool, the grapes can deliver intense fruit flavor, lighter body, brighter acidity and a moderate amount of alcohol.

Clues in the canopy
As a vineyard manager, Hyde must strike the perfect balance of temperature, sunlight, shade and airflow around each cluster of grapes. Each variety demands its own mix of field conditions to satisfy winemakers who, like Hobbs, harvest to taste. But for Hyde and Hobbs, it’s more art than science, more intuitive than analytical.

“Initially, I picked by the numbers,” Hobbs says. “But for Pinot Noir, I threw out the refractometer years ago.”

Walking between rows of Pinot Noir on a misty afternoon, he stops to examine the canopy. “Are the basal leaves senescent? Are the stems turning from green to lignified?” he asks.

Brushing aside the canopy, he cradles a cluster of grapes to determine if it weighs enough to be ripe. “Are the grapes softening or dimpling?” he adds.

Splitting a grape in half, he explains: “I’m looking for tannins in the seeds and whether the pulp is clear with red veins running through it.”

Dislodging a seed from the grape and then chewing it, he asks: “Has the acidity in the pulp nearest the seed given way to creaminess? Are the seeds crunchy like a dried nut?”

Hobbs is searching for physiological maturity, an idea that reaches beyond pH, Brix and titratable acidity to the ripeness of tannins and other phenolic compounds that add color and taste to the wine. Grapes can deliver textbook concentrations of sugars and acids but lack mature tannins that add complexity to wine.

“Physiologically flavors could be there,” he says, “but the tannins are not ready.”

“It’s a complicated puzzle,” Larry Hyde adds. “I never really thought about it until I started making wine for myself.”

The Hydes joined with their cousin Pamela (née Fairbanks) and her husband Aubert de Villaine, co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, to found HdV Wines in Napa. HdV began using Hyde Vineyard fruit in 2000 to make California wine with French winemaking expertise. The Hyde family also began marketing Hyde Vineyard wines with the 2009 vintage, now labeled as Hyde & Sons.

To elevate the craft
A generation in the making, Paul Hobbs describes his partnership with Larry Hyde as a dance. “After 25 years of collaboration, we’ve worked out our dance steps to a high degree.” Their choreography has yielded full-bodied yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir that is lighter in body, yet full of complex aromas and flavors.

“We learned from one another,” Hobbs says. “I was fastidious about how I like my grapes grown, so there was a back and forth. It could have been contentious, but Larry always put quality first.”

Both vineyard manager and winemaker are artisans who relentlessly search for ways to elevate the craft. “Paul is willing to take chances,” Hyde says. “A lot of winemakers would have said: ‘Cabernet in Carneros? Forget it.’”

“Larry is one of the true farmers of the Napa Valley,” Hobbs concludes. “His soul is in the vineyard.”

 
SHARE »
Close
 
Currently no comments posted for this article.
 
 
SEE OTHER EDITIONS OF THIS COLUMN » CURRENT COLUMN ARTICLES ยป