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Trailblazing Winemaker Drawn to Niagara Region vineyards

Christopher Waters, The St. Catharines Standard

Superstar vintner and vineyard consultant Paul Hobbs makes wines in California, Argentina, Chile, Hungary, Armenia and the Cahors region of France.

The trailblazing winemaker who was one of the first to focus on single-vineyard wines and elevate Cabernet from Napa Valley and Malbec from Argentina to world-class wines, ranks Ontario’s Niagara region as the most challenging place he has worked.

“It’s so different from what I’ve done before,” Hobbs explained during his fourth visit to Stratus Vineyards, the Niagara-on-the-Lake winery he started working with last year.  “This challenge is unique to the others I’ve taken on.”

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 it isn’t as well-versed about grape growing in such conditions.

“I have a lot to learn in the vineyard,” Hobbs said.

Despite what he sees as possible challenges, Hobbs said he loves the premium winemaking philosophy and innovation at work at Stratus.

“This project reminds me somewhat of my Mondavi days,” says Hobbs, who worked at Robert Mondavi Winery and its sister property, Opus One.  In California’s Napa Valley for seven years, starting in1977.  In 1981, Hobbs was named chief winemaker at Opus One, the joint-venture between the Mondavi family and the Rothschild family, owners of Bordeaux first-growth, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

Hobb’s recalled how Robert Mondavi was always experimenting and looking to innovate.  “It drove the French crazy,” he said.  “They didn’t understand his ideas.”

“That’s why I came here,” interjected Stratus winemaker J.L. (Jean-Laurent) Groux, a Bordeaux trained winemaker who moved to Niagara in the 1980’s and has never looked back.  “If you suggested planting Pinot Noir beside Cabernet Sauvignon they would crucify you.”

Eighteen different varieties are planted in Stratus’s 22-hectare vineyard.

Groux has been in charge of winemaking operations at Stratus since 2003, after a long stint at Hillebrand Winery where he rose to fame along with that winery’s Trius Red, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

“J.L. is one of the most research-oriented experimental winemakers I’ve come across, which is exactly what this project needs to succeed,” Hobbs said.

Groux is enjoying the support.  “He brings a different perspective, a different eye, a different nose,” said Groux.  “Working with Paul is a pleasure.”

Stratus Vineyards portfolio revolves around Stratus White and Stratus Red, so-called “assemblage wines” that blend together numerous grape varieties in a bid to build more complexity and  character than what’s possible with single varietal wines.  Its top wines retail for $42 a bottle at the winery.

The first wines produced under the collaboration between Hobbs and Groux will be released in 2012.

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