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Breaking all the right rules

Modified: Thursday, May 17th, 2012

Austin Hope was named Winemaker of the Year at the 2009 California Mid-State Fair, and is currently vice-chairman of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

Austin Hope has spent his entire life breaking the rules. As a child, that meant getting into trouble a lot.

“I was always in trouble at school, getting in trouble with the teachers,” Hope says now. “Nothing criminal, just a little too ADD, I guess. Or maybe it was ADHD,” he adds with a smile.

Today, as one of the most influential winemakers on the Central Coast, breaking the rules means charting a new course in the making and marketing of premium wine. While most winemakers follow the rule of making each wine with grapes from a single year, Hope likes to blend vintages for deeper flavors. While most wineries have ten or twelve wines under a single label, Hope has five different labels, each with only two wines each. And while most premium wineries market their wines with images of luxury and privilege, Hope tries to demystify wine and strip away the pretentiousness with humorous online videos on YouTube.

Over the past 15 years, Austin Hope has been quietly growing his family’s winery business into one of the largest producers in Paso Robles. Along the way, he has broken with many of the conventional industry rules by always keeping his focus on what consumers really want in a bottle of wine.

“They simply want a great bottle of wine that looks good, tastes good, and is priced right,” he explains.

That basic philosophy has led to the development of five distinct brands of wine, each targeted to a distinct niche in terms of price and style. Liberty School, Treana, Austin Hope, Candor and most recently Troublemaker, are all under the company name of Hope Family Wines. Yet with all these brands, the company only makes 11 different wines.

Candor, the brand he introduced three years ago, is a prime example of Hope’s irreverence when it comes to rules. Rather than having a vintage year on the bottle, this year’s release is simply labeled “Lot 3” to identify it as the third year of its release. Rather than containing fruit from a single vineyard, or a single AVA, the Candor Merlot is a blend of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages from both Paso Robles and Santa Barbara counties. By blending merlot grapes together from different vintages and regions, Hope explains, he makes “a wine that is spot-on California merlot.” It’s also priced at a reasonable $20 a bottle.

“It’s opened the door for us as really being known as a true premium, multi-vintage winemaker,” Hope says of Candor’s acceptance in the market. The brand has grown from zero to 15,000 cases annually in just three years.

The workhorse of Hope Family Wines is Liberty School, a value-priced brand that has distribution in all 50 states, as well as Canada, Germany and Japan. It is usually priced under $15 a bottle, and generates sales in excess of 250,000 cases a year. And the Treana and Austin Hope labels are the premium names in the Hope Family line-up, with only estate grown fruit from the Hope’s small west side vineyard creating the artisan style Austin Hope wines.

Hope’s latest brand, Troublemaker (you can guess where the name came from), not only blends four different varieties together (syrah, grenache, mourvedre and petite sirah), it also selects lots of wine from two different vintages (2009 and 2010). All of the grapes for the blend were grown in Paso Robles, and it too sells for just $20. The recently released Blend 3 just received a Gold Medal at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Beyond making the wine, Hope is also creating new ways to market it. One of his most successful programs has been the company’s keg program. In the same way beer distributors provide large aluminum kegs to restaurants for by-the-glass beer sales, Hope has introduced the idea in fine wine to restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. The 48-gallon kegs are fitted with internal bladders, and are returned to be refilled once emptied by the restaurant. The wine stays fresh, and there is no wasted energy in the production of bottles and cases.

“The carbon footprint is zero,” Hope explains. “We were the first premium winemaker in the world to do it.” One restaurant in Dallas alone went through 40 kegs in three weeks.

Just shy of 40-years-old, Hope came to Paso Robles with his family in 1978, when his parents bought a ranch and planted both vineyards and apple orchards here. He was just 8-years-old when the grapes came on line, and began playing and learning in the vineyards alongside his father, Chuck. After following his father’s advice and seeking out an opportunity to learn about both winemaking and the wine business in Napa from Caymus founder Chuck Wagner, Austin completed his degree in viticulture from Cal Poly. By the age of 28, he was head winemaker at his family’s winery.

Throughout his career, his goal has been simple: “One of the biggest things we’ve always tried to downplay in the wine industry is the pretentiousness, because to me it’s a beverage that complements food, and we’re just trying to have fun with it.”

For the complete article see the 05-18-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 05-18-2012 paper.

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