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Stratus Quo

Chris Waters, Vines Magazine

Making better wine by blending ideas and personalities.

Since its inception, Stratus Vineyards has been an ambitious effort to make truly world-class wine in Niagara-on-the-Lake. High-powered experts such as winemaker Peter Gamble and grape grower Donna Lailey were called in to consult from the beginning with the winemaking team assembled by French native Jean-Laurent (J-L) Groux.

The project increased its global profile two years ago when trail-blazing vintner and vineyard consultant Paul Hobbs signed on. Hobbs made his name in California, working at Robert Mondavi Winery and its sister project Opus One, where he was among the first to focus on single-vineyard wines and elevate Cabernet from Napa Valley to international recognition. Likewise, his efforts in Argentina helped make its Malbecs an international sensation.

Niagara joined a list of places where Hobbs is active, including California, Argentina, Chile, Hungary, Armenia and the Cahors region of France.

Born and raised on an apple farm in nearby upstate New York, Hobbs said he has a keen understanding of the climate Niagara faces, but isn’t as well-versed about grape growing in such conditions. As such, he considers Stratus to present the biggest challenge of his extensive winemaking partnerships.

“It is a little bit outside my comfort zone in terms of climate,” Hobbs explained during a recent visit to the Niagara- on-the-Lake winery. “I had much to learn.”

Over the past two years, Hobbs and Groux have investigated the operation at Stratus from all angles, looking for ways to improve the flagship Stratus White and Stratus Red blends that are the focus, as well as the individual lots of wines that turn up in other Stratus or proprietary labels.

“It is very intense,” Hobbs said, of the exploratory process in the early days of any consultancy. “There are so many nuances and so many subtle changes and one change builds incrementally on another; little things that appear to be insignificant… It doesn’t take long before a couple of those together make a major movement forward in some direction.”

Of course, not every experiment is a success, Hobbs commented. “There’s no guarantee that we are going to strike gold on every try.”

Wine lovers will get their first taste of the wines that benefited from Hobbs’ expertise next spring. Winemaker J-L Groux sees the most marked influence in the 2009 and 2010 Chardonnay that he has in bottle as well as the 2009 Malbec and 2009 Syrah that are still works in progress.

“Paul certainly has huge knowledge about Malbec and how to take care of it,” said Groux. “His ideas have changed my opinion from ‘We will never replant Malbec…’ to ‘Maybe we have the variety of the future here for Niagara.’”

While others might see having to work with an outside winemaker as a blow to their ego, Groux said he enjoys the collaborative process.

“For me, it’s always important to evolve,” explained the veteran winemaker who has been working in Niagara since 1988. “The way that I made Chardonnay 20 years ago, 10 years ago, is different. It’s going to be like that forever. There is no right way to make wine. There are ways to improve and make better wine.”

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