By now, the storyline is cliché: Immigrants arrive in the United States on a shoestring, earn college degrees, flourish in high technology, make a bundle, retire early, become vintners.
The Daou brothers, however, complicate the tale with an unexpected twist. Daniel and Georges – born in Lebanon, reared in France – were in escrow to buy the requisite property in Napa Valley when they heard of another promising parcel on the market.
Here’s where their story veers from the norm. The second parcel was in far-off San Luis Obispo County, specifically Paso Robles, not exactly perceived in the same league as Napa Valley for tourist amenities, lifestyle options and fine cabernet sauvignon, the allures that beckoned the Daous to the wine trade.
“I have nothing against Napa,” says Georges Daou, “but our mountain, in my opinion, is the most perfect place in the world to make wine.”
He’s sitting on top of that mountain right now, in the resortlike tasting room of Daou Vineyards. A mullet of vines sweeps down from a calcareous crown that tops out at 2,224 feet, above the fog but within cool proximity to the Pacific Ocean (“13 miles as the bird flies,” says Georges). That’s why the Daou brothers opted out of the Napa Valley deal for Paso Robles to pursue their dream of making the kind of cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-inspired blends that generate points in the 90s and end up on the wine lists of the more highly regarded restaurants.
They’re here to make cabernet sauvignon that stands apart from the Napa model, a wine that expresses the sunshine, slopes and soils that only Paso Robles has.
“How do we get over that?” wonders Georges Daou in expressing his exasperation over the common view that California must yield just one style of cabernet sauvignon. “We want to put Paso Robles on the map for something other than zinfandel and Rhone-style wines.”
Georges, the older of the brothers by four years, oversees marketing of the brand, while Daniel is in charge of winemaking. “He looks after the liquid, I look after the liquidity,” Georges says, probably not for the first time.
It’s a line that could have come from the playbook of another pair of California winemaking brothers, Ernest and Julio Gallo. Julio made the wine, Ernest sold it.
Early on, the Daous have one advantage over the Gallos. They’re in an appellation that is better known than Modesto for cabernet sauvignon, though not by much. The region is more closely identified with zinfandel and such Rhone Valley varieties as viognier and syrah. Nevertheless, 53 percent of the area’s vineyards are planted to cabernet sauvignon, while zinfandel and syrah account for just 8 percent each.
The Daous aren’t relying alone on soil composition, cool breezes, elevation, exposure and the like to produce cabernet sauvignons they hope will help put Paso Robles on the map. Of their 212 acres, nearly 100 have been planted to vines that have been developed with highly contemporary principles and techniques, including the use of numerous clones of cabernet sauvignon, dense spacing of vines, intense pruning and deficit irrigation. They also went to Napa Valley to recruit a consulting winemaker well versed in cabernet sauvignon, Scott McCloud, formerly of Frances Ford Coppola’s Rubicon project.
Their stylistic goal with cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux-inspired blends is to balance “the elegance of France with the concentration of California.”
“We want well-structured and very complex wines, balanced beginning to end,” says Georges Daou.
Overall, the cabernet sauvignons of Paso Robles tend to be brighter, leaner and more angular than cabernets from Napa Valley, with tannins that while firm aren’t as persistently rigid.
The brothers’ flagship wine, the Daou Vineyards 2010 Paso Robles Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($56), is a big but jovial take on the varietal, its tannins dwarfed by a hearty juiciness evocative of cherries and berries. Its most striking feature is a strong herbal current that runs mostly to green olives. The wine has the complexity the Daous are so earnest to seize, thanks in part to suggestions of chocolate from the 18 months the wine spent in almost entirely new French oak barrels.
Chocolate also can be found in the smooth and gregarious Daou Vineyards 2011 Paso Robles Reserve Seventeen Forty ($56), a truly distinctive blend of 70 percent cabernet franc and 30 percent merlot, also aged in mostly new French oak barrels. This is one lean and frisky wine, which showcases cabernet franc’s uplifting herbalness with clarity and persistence.
The brothers’ entry-level take on cabernet sauvignon is the sleek, readily accessible and surprisingly long Daou Vineyards 2011 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($33), which is being succeeded by the similarly structured and equally balanced Daou Vineyards 2011 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($33). Of the two, the 2012 is more complex, its cherry and plummy fruit accented with more tar, mint and minerality, its finish no less lasting but ending with more snap.
The Daous aren’t turning their backs on the varietal for which Paso Robles historically has been recognized. Their Daou Vineyards 2011 Paso Robles Reserve Zinfandel ($56) is a muscular yet debonaire representative of the varietal, its sweet berry fruit and brown baking spices draped gracefully on a solid yet unobtrusive superstructure.
Their most imaginative wine is the Daou Vineyards 2010 Paso Robles Celestus ($46), a fresh and vital blend of 59 percent syrah, 32 percent cabernet sauvignon and 9 percent petit verdot. In their attempts to figure out what to do with all the syrah they planted over the past decade, California vintners are blending more of it with cabernet sauvignon, generally to disappointing ends. This gorgeously complex wine is an exception, capturing both the heartiness of the Rhone Valley and the courtliness of Bordeaux.
For white wines, the Daous for at least the time being are sticking with Rhone varieties. Their lineup includes an aromatic if warm and abrupt 2011 viognier ($38) and a fleshy, spicy and pleasantly lingering 2011 roussanne ($38).
The Daous bought their first parcel, a slice of the pioneering Hoffman Mountain Ranch Vineyard, in 2007. Earlier this year they announced the subsequent acquisition of a second parcel that includes the original redwood Hoffman winery, which they are restoring.
Both brothers are graduates in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California, San Diego. Upon graduation, they founded DAOU Systems, a high-tech start-up specializing in intranet technologies for the medical industry.
“At graduation we were penniless except for the last $100,000 our parents had,” says Georges Daou. “Dad gave us all he had to start our company. We were, as they say, ‘all in.’”
Beyond Paso Robles, the Daou wines most readily available are the cabernet sauvignons, which have been picked up by Ruth’s Chris Steak House and also are available in some Safeways. In addition, the two branches of Vino Volo at Sacramento International Airport carry the Daou Vineyards 2011 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) and expect to start stocking the 2012 version of the wine soon.