Daou: putting Paso Robles on the world wine map
At first glance, Daniel Daou fits the casual stereotype of a Californian wine man. Sporting a regulation baseball cap and Hollister hoodie, he evens sounds the part, with a soft West Coast drawl and a relaxed demeanour that suggests he’s just strolled in from the beach for a flat white.
Looks can be deceptive, of course, and stereotypes dangerous.
Born in Beirut, as a child Daou was among the first victims of the civil war that ripped Lebanon apart in the 1970s and 80s. Caught up in a rocket attack that left him, his brother and sister badly injured, the family fled to France, Daou’s parents abandoning their successful business. More than a decade later, having lost their fortune, the American Dream inspired a move to the United States.
Daniel and his brother Georges studied as software engineers, persuading their father to part with the last of his cash to support a start-up health technology business. A decade later, the company was floated on the New York stock exchange, making them multi-millionaires.
“I was an engineer, but I really wanted to be a farmer,” says Daou, who, together with his brother, had inherited their father’s appreciation of fine wine. “He loved Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular.”
Having accumulated the wealth to buy a vineyard, a search ensued for the perfect terroir, eventually leading the brothers to Paso Robles, halfway between LA and San Francisco, and an estate that was to become ‘Daou Mountain’.
At an elevation of around 650 metres, the property encompasses 280 hectares, of which around 81 is planted to vines. The steep slopes of limestone and clay are cooled by ocean breezes, with the Pacific just 14 miles west.
“When we talk about the terroir in California, we’re not usually talking about European soil,” says Daniel Daou, “yet here we have the soils that you would expect to find in Bordeaux or Burgundy.”
To those who suggest Central California might be a touch warm, he has this advice: “it’s really important to know where you are in Paso. Of course, downtown gets really hot, but up here we didn’t see a single day when it went over 100 degrees last summer. The people who say it’s too hot haven’t been here!”
Though previous wisdom had suggested Paso Robles was best suited to the Rhône varieties, Daou was determined to demonstrate that the region’s future lay with Bordeaux. Though planting began little more than a decade ago, the wines have already amassed critical acclaim, Parker points and prices to match. A sell-out success each year, such is demand that there are plans to double the number of vines, not least because the winery makes low yields its raison d’être .
Tasting the wines for the first time, Daou’s obsession with phenolic structure (he talks about it… a lot) immediately makes sense: “We want tannins that are silky, so we don’t press the grapes as we have plenty of tannins from the free-run juice. We want to make wines that can age for decades, but they have to be approachable on release.”
With his innate sales patter – to twist Arthur Miller, Daou’s story could be entitled ‘Birth of a salesman’ – he has even managed to flog the winery’s own unique yeast strain to rivals around the world. “We isolated 100 different strains and 20 was the magic number,” he says referring to the strain now known as EnartisFerm D20, the 20th from the original 100 trialled on Daou Mountain.
For all the bravura, Daou is very open to what others think of his wines, endearingly calling for a show of hands at the end of our tasting, at 67 Pall Mall, for us to select our favourite.
There are also moments of pathos too. Daou’s flagship cuvée, Soul of a Lion, the 2018 vintage of which is soon to be released, is named in honour of their late father.
“It’s a tribute, because our family has been at the top and also at the bottom and our father always used to say to us ‘when you’re at the bottom, always remember that you have the soul of a lion’”.
Daou Estate Malbec, 2018, made with a rare, low-yielding Mendoza clone, the nose is floral, with blueberry bush and violets. The tannins are silky smooth and there’s real grace to the fruit profile as well, with subtle spice from fine-grained new French oak in the background.
Daou Estate Cabernet Franc, 2018, testament to the cooling Pacific influence, Cab Franc shines here, albeit in small quantities, with a production of just 300 cases. Expect more in the future, as the wine is clearly a hit with its importer using the presentation to beg for a bigger allocation. Lilac, blueberry and ripe red cherry lead the fruity charge, the tannins are smooth, the oak subtle, and there’s the variety’s hallmark earthy note, which veers into granite on the finish. It’s a wonderful wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 169, 2017, “I like to taste the blue to black spectrum”, says Daou. And you really do in these clonal selection wines. Blackberry, blueberry, cassis and ripe Victoria plum, with sandalwood and rosemary, the tannins smooth and sumptuous, the finish still fresh and long.
Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4, 2017, from a growing season that was preceded by a wet winter, the vines enjoyed one of the longest hang times they have seen. The nose has a real savoury charm, with mushrooms and forest floor, there’s red fruit and blueberry (again), with lovely structure, fine tannins and an elegant finish.
Daou Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018, with foraged blackberry, violets, cocoa nibs and a hint of mint, there’s a floral freshness to the fruit, nicely balanced with Cali’ Cab’s trademark power, the silky tannins woven through it.
Daou, Soul of a Lion, 2013, the vines were a mere six years old when this wine was produced, during one of the driest years on record. The floral nose leads into tertiary notes of cedar, cigar box and forest floor. It is quite evolved already, the tannins are fine-grained and the finish is serene.
Daou, Soul of a Lion, 2016, if the ’13 was the older brother, this is the loud, carefree, younger sibling. Bright blackcurrant, black cherry, plum and cassis lead into a concentrated, blockbuster with supple tannins and a lingering black fruit finish.
Daou, Soul of a Lion, 2018, from a long season that led to the latest ever harvest, this was my favourite wine in that show of hands. With an elegant nose of lilac, violets and summer rose, leading into blueberry, foraged blackberry and ‘Chukar’ chocolate cherries (a reference for our American readers), wrapped up with a delicious mineral lick, sumptuously smooth tannins and a long, concentrated finish.
This piece originally appeared in The Buyer and has been amended to add stockists.