Wine & Beer

From Cal Poly to cabernet sauvignon: How Austin Hope became a Paso Robles wine pioneer

Paso Robles winemaker Austin Hope was named 2018 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
Paso Robles winemaker Austin Hope was named 2018 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

2018 was a very good year for Austin Hope.

The San Luis Obispo County vintner was named Paso Robles Wine Person of the Year, launched a new wine label and earned a 97 for his Austin Hope cabernet sauvignon from Wine Enthusiast — the magazine’s highest score ever for a Paso cab.

As you’d expect from a steadfast advocate of the region, Hope sees the score as a boost to Paso Robles wine country as much as to his winery.

“We didn’t get where we are with scores,” Hope says. “But it’s a big statement for this region, that Paso is the real deal. It validates the region.”

As remarkable as the score itself, though, is the wine’s price. On a list littered with wines topping $200, the Austin Hope 2015 cabernet sauvignon retails for just $50.

Small lots and high prices are the hallmark of most luxury cabs. Consider the Daou brothers’ Patrimony label, which has since joined Hope with its own 97 score from Wine Enthusiast, correct — customers must join a waitlist for the chance to buy a bottle at $275.

Hope contends the hard part isn’t making a delicious cab, it’s scaling to make larger quantities and keep quality consistent.

“We’re aiming to be the best at a suitable size so anyone can try it,” he says.

That notion — producing reasonably priced wines that people can enjoy on a consistent basis — has fueled the Central Coast-based family business, spawning two large national brands, Liberty School and Troublemaker.

A family business

Chuck Hope, Austin’s father, was among the first in Paso Robles to start farming grapes instead of grain 40 years ago, when there were only three wineries and less than a thousand acres under vine. The senior Hope teamed up with other early players in 1983 to form the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, where Austin Hope sits on the board and has served as president.

Young Austin grew up working in the vineyards, earning the nickname “troublemaker,” which he later gave to the commercial red blend.

Liberty School, started by Chuck Wagner of Napa’s renowned Caymus Vineyard, came under the Hope family in 1997 after a pheasant hunting trip to Mexico. The Hopes sold Wagner fruit for the label and eventually made the wine, on Creston property owned by “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek. On the trip, the two parties hatched a plan for the Hopes to take over the label, now an affordable national brand known for its quality and value.

After graduating from Cal Poly, Hope cut his teeth working for Chuck Wagner in Napa and around the state. But in more recent years, he’s turned more attention to the higher-end Treana and Austin Hope labels, wines that he says define Paso and what the region is capable of.

The high-scoring 2015 cab, he says, was not just a stroke of luck but the result of a seven-year mission experimenting with vineyard practices, fermentation methods and tannins — the furtive compounds that build texture, structure and help a wine age but can also contribute a bitterness and mouth-drying sensation not everyone enjoys.

“Tannins are the most important part of wine, in my opinion,” says Hope, who aims for big but supple tannins in his wines. “So we study how to make tannins in the vineyard, how to manipulate them in the winery.”

Making a 97 point cab

To create the epitome of an upscale Paso cab, Hope unites what he had a hand in dividing — the region’s various winemaking districts.

“Using little pieces of everywhere makes a better experience,” says Hope, one of several area vintners who spearheaded the creation of Paso Robles’ 11 sub-American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), defining differences in soil type, climate and topography.

The Austin Hope cab pulls from vineyards in five of them. Each, Hope says, lends a vital but not quite complete character.

  • Adelaida: A slightly warmer spot that lends a balance of tannins and acidity
  • Creston: One of a handful of places with perfect soil for cab, according to Hope, producing tannins that provide weight without the drying sensation
  • El Pomar: A cooler region not as suitable for growing cab, but where it does, Hope says, it produces intense flavors and heavy, chewy tannins
  • Estrella: The mothership of Paso wine, as Hope calls it, with fertile soils, lush red fruit flavors and velvety soft tannins
  • Willow Creek: Dominated by Rhône varietals and harder to find cab, Hope says, but capable of elegant if not rounded expressions

Together, the components express what Paso is capable of producing, Hope says.

“The takeaway of Paso is diversity,” he says. With rainfall, temperatures and soils all changing dramatically over the span of a few miles, Hope contends, “no other place on earth has the potential for diversity as here.”

To that end, Hope has built an experimental facility — his X Winery — where he and his team test out different methods and timelines as well as new ideas.

“We figure out how to do five tons, then figure out how to do 50 tons,” he says. “We don’t share (the finished product) until we button it up.”

That process gave rise in fall 2018 to Quest, a new label named for Hope’s crusade to create a top-tier Bordeaux blend. But don’t expect the larger mission to end there.

“I’m high strung and don’t sleep much,” Hope says. “It’s hard for me to stop creating things.”

Where to taste Austin Hope wines

For Austin Hope, entertaining ranks right up alongside wine.

The Austin Hope and Treana tasting cellar, located at 1585 Live Oak Road in Paso Robles, embodies that vibe with a welcoming, lounge-like feel that Hope describes as an extension of his living room.

“I want to make people comfortable and demystify wine,” he says. “We want to teach as much as we can, but also help people relax and enjoy the experience.”

In addition to daily tastings, the tasting room, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, hosts events including live music on Thirsty Thursdays in warmer months and an annual harvest-time Bacon Fest.

For more information, call 805-238-4112 or visit hopefamilywines.com.

Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at sallybuffalo@gmail.com.
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