by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
There are few winemakers who have a success story that can top that of Daniel and Georges Daou, brothers whose eternal bond formed in war-torn Lebanon as kids and held together through challenges first in France and then the United States. Their success story is one of remarkable perseverance, defiance and self-confidence.
When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1973, the Daou house in Beirut was the first to be hit by a missile. Daniel was hit in the face and heart with shrapnel; Georges went into a coma for 48 hours. When the war escalated, their family fled to France where the brothers, according to Daniel, “had to fend for ourselves and watch each other’s backs every day.”
“Not too many brothers are blown up in a terrorist attack when they were 8 and 12,” he said. “That really helps you form a bond that is unbreakable. Nothing comes between us.”
The brothers would eventually earn engineering degrees at the University of Southern California and invested the last of the family savings to form a successful company that brought integration technology to hospitals. But it was their passion for wine – ignited by Bordeaux tastings with their father – that drove them to take a new path.
They set off looking for the ideal location to plant a vineyard whose grapes would achieve the same results as that of Bordeaux. One would think their compass would take them to Napa Valley, ground zero for premium red wine. Instead, it took them to a mountain top not far from the Pacific Ocean in the Adelaida district of Paso Robles where they launched DAOU Family Vineyards in 2007. Although others vehemently disagree that only in this particular soil can Bordeaux-like red wine be made, Daou is insistent.
“As an engineer, you tend to take a different approach,” Daniel said. “To me it was very simple. The question I asked myself before I made a decision was if a perfect condition did exist to grow Bordeaux varieties, other than Bordeaux, what would it look like? And the answer was very simple as well. It comes down to one word: terroir.”
Terroir is a combination of soil and climate widely considered a key influence to great wine. Daou said it’s on the hillsides of what is now DAOU Mountain where the calcareous clay soil, like that of Bordeaux, can be found. Daniel said the top layer of clay and the limestone subsoil underneath combines to give bouquet, color and flesh to the wine. The limestone allows for dry farming – Adelaida is blessed with 22 to 24 inches of annual rainfall, nearly twice as much in Paso Robles city.
Daniel said the calcareous clay soil allows him to make natural wines that don’t have to be supplemented with tartaric acid and cultured yeast. He doesn’t have to macerate grape skins to add phenols nor do his grapes struggle to reach phenolic ripeness. The grapes, not the winemaker, do the talking.
It’s much cooler here, thanks to a 2,200-foot elevation and a distance of only 14 miles from the ocean. He said it’s 5 to 7 degrees cooler than downtown Paso Robles. The difference explains why Rhone varietals do so well in central Paso Robles, but cabernet sauvignon is king in a much cooler western Paso Robles.
His red wines, which account for 98 percent of the portfolio, consistently earn 96-plus scores from critics. He achieved this not by getting a degree in oenology and viticulture, but on the job training.
“I had mentors in Bordeaux and Napa 14 years and went through two Davis (University of California) textbooks,” he said.
His education was measuring phenolics, chemical compounds found in the pulp of grapes that determine taste, color and mouthfeel in wine. Those compounds include tannin, which gives wine its longevity.
“Out of the 700 cabernet sauvignons we tasted, we have not found anything remotely close to what we are making on this mountain,” he said.
Unlike wineries elsewhere in California, Daou does not press his grapes and instead uses only free-run juice. His barrels have tighter grains at his insistence, which means the tannin in his wine comes from the grape skins and not the barrels. They are not over-extracted or plump with sugar, characteristics he said offends foreign palates.
You can’t fault the Daous for being bullish about their 200-acre vineyard, but there are many Napa Valley winemakers who would strongly disagree that only here can Bordeaux-quality wine be made. That includes Joel Aiken, long-time winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and current winemaker for Scattered Peaks in Rutherford. When we asked Aiken if you need calcereous soil to make Bordeaux-like wine, he said, “Hell, no. The Rutherford Bench has a little history.”
Indeed, legendary producers such as Staglin, Caymus, Beaulieu, Peju and Grgich call Rutherford home. These soils are marine sedimentary deposits with some volcanic material. Oakville’s To Kalon – perhaps the most respected Napa vineyard that serves some of the most respected producers – lies on large alluvial fans. Hillside vineyards, such as the famous Pritchard Hill, consist of poor and rocky volcanic soils. There are many that will judge these wines among the best in Napa Valley and as good as Bordeaux.
Not all soil in Bordeaux is the same. Gravel soil dominates the Left Bank; clay and limestone dominate the Right Bank.
The top iconic wines in Napa Valley that achieve the highest scores sell for stratospheric prices ranging from $500 to nearly $2,000 a bottle. Daou’s top wine – Soul of the Lion – sells for $150 a bottle. We tasted the 2018 – a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot aged 22 months in new French oak -- and it lived up to its billing. It was powerful yet elegant.
“Our reserve cab is $50 and is higher in phenolics than 99 percent of luxury cabs sold in California,” he said. “So, the consumer is able to get a bottle of wine for $50 that will age longer and has more phenolics and more minerality.”
The 2018 DAOU Family Vineyards Reserve cabernet sauvignon we tasted had generous black cherry, cassis and plum aromas with plum and kirsch flavors and interesting nuances of sage and mocha. The 2019 DAOU estate cabernet sauvignon ($95) was elegant with the mineral notes Daniel talked about. The Wine Advocate rated this wine 94 to 96 points.
DAOU also has a Discovery cabernet sauvignon that sells for a reasonable $30.
Tenuta Tascante Buonora Etna Bianco 2020 ($21). Tasca d’Almerita is one of the old winemaking companies in Italy and produces wines from cool-climate vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna. This one, made entirely of indigenous carricante grapes, is delicious with brisk acidity and lemon/lime notes. Good weight on the palate and a dash of mineral.
Herdade do Rocim Amphora Alentejo DOC 2019 ($18). Aged in amphora with no temperature control, this fantastic wine delivers a unique experience by using a blend of mereto, tinta grossa, trincadeira and aragonez grapes. Right, you never heard of them. Lush, full bodied, aromatic and loaded with forward plum and black cherry flavors. Soft tannins make it an easy quaff.
Vietti Roero Arneis 2020 ($24). We continue to be impressed with the often-forgotten indigenous grape varieties from Italy. Here the local arneis grape makes a vibrant white wine with citrus notes, refreshing acidity and lingering finish.