Hillick & Hobbs: Great FLXpectations

Renowned winemaker releases first Finger Lakes Riesling

By Martha Gioumousis
Photos by Heather Ainsworth

When visionary winemaker Paul Hobbs opened his first winery in California in 1991, it was only the beginning of what would become a global enterprise, with wineries in four additional countries around the world, producing a portfolio of wines as diverse as Malbec in Argentina and Spain and indigenous varieties such as Voskehat in Armenia.

His latest venture, Hillick & Hobbs, is right here in the Finger Lakes. Purchased in 2013, the 78-acre vineyard property is located in Hector on the southeast side of Seneca Lake, on land many would consider too steep for grape growing. The venture is a return to Hobbs’ roots in a way, as he grew up on his family’s farm in nearby Niagara County. Hillick & Hobbs is a further tribute to his family as it is named for his parents Joan Hillick and Edward Hobbs, who met while attending Cornell University.

Paul Hobbs went west to study enology and viticulture at UC Davis after graduating from Notre Dame University with a degree in chemistry. He was invited to intern at Robert Mondavi Winery, was hired full time and then was asked to be part of the inaugural winemaking team for Opus One.

He went on to found Paul Hobbs Winery and then branched out with partnerships around the world, starting in Argentina with Vina Cobos, established in 1999, followed by Yacoubian-Hobbs in Vayots Dzor, Armenia, in 2003; Crocus in Cahors, France, in 2011; and Alvaredos-Hobbs in Galicia, Spain, in 2015.

In each of his far-reaching global ventures, Hobbs has partnered with a local winemaker to form a winery that focuses on local indigenous varietals to produce wines that express the region’s terroir and he utilizes modern as well as traditional winemaking techniques.

In between these ventures, Hobbs also founded Crossbarn in Sebastopol, California, in 2000, to honor his family’s farming heritage as well as focus on sustainability in farming. Crossbarn started with Cabernet Sauvignon, and now includes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

In New York, Hobbs looked to his own family to form a winery partnership, joining up with his younger brother, David, a landscaper in Syracuse, as well as outside investors. He confesses that he had sort of forgotten about Riesling production until consulting nearby in Niagara-on-the-Lake, when the subject came up again and his interest was rekindled.

“I love Riesling,” he says. “It is the grape variety that first drew me to wine,” back in his early years in New York and even while doing graduate studies at UC Davis.

Paul Hobbs, photo provided
David Hobbs

After two years of scouting, they purchased the vineyard site in 2013 and began the hard task of converting what had been a native grape vineyard dating back to the 1800s—long overgrown and abandoned in the 1930s, with old cedar posts and trellising wires—into a modern high-density vineyard. The steep 55° gradient of the vineyard makes the site particularly challenging due to the danger of erosion, plus requiring many vineyard operations to be done by hand rather than mechanical means. Hobbs further chose to plant the vines in rows running up and down the sloping hillside, rather than across as is commonly seen here in the Finger Lakes.

“We followed the time-tested model seen in the German region of the Mosel, with air and water drainage flowing down the hillside,” he says. This allows for earlier harvests, use of fewer pesticides and cleaner fruit.

They found initial opposition to their plan from local officials but went ahead with a carefully engineered planting plan and planted blocks of Riesling each year starting in 2014 and now totaling 21 acres. The vines include several clones of Riesling and utilize several rootstocks. Hobbs believes that steep hillside and vertical rows of vines are actually beneficial to the vines and grape crop.

Earlier this year, Hillick & Hobbs released its inaugural vintage of 2019 Estate Vineyard Dry Riesling. The grapes were hand-picked, hand-sorted, whole-cluster pressed and aged in stainless steel. At 5.2 grams per liter residual sugar and low total acidity of 6.3 grams per liter, it’s dry and described as presenting a “delicate bouquet of spring white flowers and tangerine peel mingled with accents of wet slate … crisp pear and lime zest highlights … bright acidity and lingering mineral notes …”

Despite being priced higher than many Finger Lakes Rieslings at $35/bottle, this inaugural vintage of 1,847 cases is almost sold out. Future plans call for higher production levels, with 4,000 cases being the goal. The wine is available online as well as select local retailers.

Hillick & Hobbs used space in another winery to produce this current vintage, as well as the upcoming 2020 offering, but is currently building a production facility in Ovid. Local production crew are now on board to join David Hobbs in day-to-day operations of the winery.

Future plans also include a tasting room on the vineyard site and the potential for other varieties of grapes and wines. In addition, they plan to participate in more industry events in the coming years. Given Hobbs’ track record around the world, the local community of winemakers, winery owners and consumers all look forward to seeing what comes next.

Says Hobbs, “My vision for the Finger Lakes is to perfect and refine what we are doing.”

Martha Gioumousis is a former award-winning FLX winemaker, former editor of Finger Lakes Wine Gazette and recent retiree from Community Beautification at Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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