Friday Feature – Austin Hope: Chance Encounters and Serendipity
Last week I was working our social media when a message came through that a fellow Winetraveler from Italy was passing through Chicago. Within a matter of hours, we met for the first time in person and slipped easily into talking all things wine, travel and life. Despite having only ever “met” on Instagram, wine and food worked its magic, brining together cultures, people and stories.
As for that wine, we chose a Mourvèdre – a one hundred percent Mourvèdre. For two wine geeks, this was a fun treat and something neither of us had experienced. Of course, we had both had Mourvèdre before, but typically in blends (GSM anyone?), and never from Paso Robles, California. The producer, Austin Hope, was also new to us, but came highly recommended by the wine director. He was not wrong. The wine itself was like velvet, and so we of course had to share it with our other wine-loving friends on Instagram.
Fast forward a week, and all because of a spontaneous wine dinner with a relative stranger (now a great friend) and Instagram, I found myself in another incredible conversation. This time, I was talking wine, winemaking and travel with none other than Austin Hope. And although a week prior I had not heard of Austin Hope, I can tell you I will not soon forget the wines or Austin Hope himself.
Like each of the aforementioned serendipitous encounters, Austin came into making wine by happenstance. Now he’s not just making wine, he’s making highly regarded, 97-point wine (Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon 2015). And the best part, he’s making them approachable and accessible. Although these wines could easily match, or out match, some of Napa’s best wines, Austin keeps them priced for all wine lovers. It’s all part of his winemaking philosophy, to make an honest product for all to enjoy and to do it from the region for which he is most passionate, Paso Robles, California.
In 1978, Austin’s parents moved the family from Bakersfield, California to Paso Robles to become farmers. At the time, the region had less than 1000 acres of grape vines planted. The Hope family planted grape vines and apple trees and fast became one of the region’s largest growers for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Initially the family had no designs to make wine, rather they were selling the grapes to other winemakers, including Chuck Wagner for Caymus in Napa.
Then, in 1988, the Hopes opened a small tasting room, growing the collaboration with Caymus to include making and bottling the Liberty School wines coming from the Hope family’s Paso Robles vineyards. A farmer at heart, Austin’s father remained in the vines while his uncle took on the new winemaking side of the business. Together they planted the Hope Family Vineyards just 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean in what is now known as the Templeton Gap District of Paso Robles. The rocky terrain of clay and limestone made it ideal for the Rhône varieties which were planted. However, soon after starting the winery, Austin’s uncle unexpectedly passed away. It was a tragic time for the closely-knit family and it threw the plans in the air. Austin who had worked alongside his father in farming and spent time working for Chuck at Caymus was then asked, at the age of 22, to take on the winery. Always taking on new opportunities and challenges, Austin jumped at the chance.
In 1996, Austin and his small team, including a winemaker and sales person, released the first red blend under the Hope family Treana label. It was the first red blend in Paso Robles to combine Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The following year, the winery’s new building was constructed and the family took Liberty School under the Hope Family umbrella. As the winery operations grew and new labels and wines were added, including the Austin Hope label in 2000, the family turned focus from farming to winemaking.
The Growth of Paso Robles Wine Country
As it became evident that the Paso Robles region was well-suited to growing grapes, it also became clear that within the region the conditions for growing grapes differed from farm to farm. As farmers, the Hope family was very familiar with the land from the soil to the neighboring growers, and so they set out to help create the sub-AVAs of Paso Robles, of which there are 11 today. In fact, the Paso Robles American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) overall is now home to more than 200 wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres focusing on premium wine production.
More than 40 wine varietals are grown including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Viognier, Roussanne and Zinfandel, owing to the diverse microclimates, soils, and warm days and cool nights of the region.
Today the Hope family leases much of the farmland from which they source their grapes. Coming from 55 different farming families, 75% of the grapes are grown sustainably with the goal of being 100% sustainable in the next few years. Although most of the grapes come from other farms, the Hopes remain focused on the farming, supervising farm teams and monitoring the vines from which they source the grapes. This close attention to detail comes through in the wines, but it’s not all viticulture. The quality of Hope Family Wines also owes to the innovation and cellar practices at the winery.
Winemaking Through Experimentation
In a conscious effort to set the standard for luxury wine in Paso Robles, Austin experiments with winemaking, often pushing it to the extreme to find what works. He has constant trials with a small winemaking team of three where they try different blends, winemaking methods, and various aging practices. Sometimes the experiments fail, but not always. And when they do land on a winning idea they then figure out how to take it to scale and bring the resulting wine to the consumer. The Liberty School wines as an example are 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and are racked via the Bulldog pup, so pumping equipment never touches the wine. The result is a remarkably supple Cab known for its consistent quality.
Today, the Hope Family Wines consists of five individual brands: Liberty School, Treana, Quest, Austin Hope, and Troublemaker. Each of the wines expresses the richness of Paso Robles from award-winning Cabs and Syrahs to that velvety Mourvèdre I enjoyed last week. While some of the wines can be found in various markets throughout North America, all the wines can be found through the Hope Family Wines’ online wine shops or by becoming a member of the wine club, which is often treated to exclusive varietals and member-only events at the winery.
Or if you’re feeling adventurous, you could also travel to Paso Robles for a tasting at the winery where you’ll be warmly greeted and treated individually throughout the entire experience. Hope Family Wines, as well as the Paso Robles region overall, are known for their welcoming sense of community and hospitality. It’s a winetasting experience every Winetraveler should have the pleasure of knowing. (Winetraveler tip: Head out for the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend in October to experience Hope Family Wines firsthand as well as many of the other amazing Paso Robles wines and absolute beauty of the region.)
The Fellowship of Wine
From chance meetings in wineries, to spontaneous meet-ups with other Winetravelers, to the conversations with the passionate people behind the wines, wine and travel have a remarkable way of bringing people together. Had I not met my Instagram wine traveling friend, I might never have had the opportunity to taste an Austin Hope wine or to get to know Austin himself. And had the Hopes not left Bakersfield in 1978 to farm in Paso Robles, it’s hard to imagine where the AVA would be today. It’s all part of the magic of wine, and wine travel. And what’s more, it’s also what makes that wine in your glass all the more nuanced.