Building a legacy through passion, ambition and hard work Daniel Daou Paso Robles

An interview across a wide spectrum with Daniel Daou of Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles about why they choose Paso, his winemaking philosophy and much more

Daniel Daou and his brother Georges spent much of their childhood surrounded by the bounty of nature at their grandfather’s farm in Lebanon.

After the family moved to France, Daniel remembers wine as a crucial part of the family meal.

 “My father would open a bottle every day. His favorite was Cheval Blanc from Saint-Emilion. He would drink one or two glasses at lunch, then the rest with dinner. After a glass or two, my dad became very joyful and philosophical!”

daniel daou

Daniel and Georges Daou came to the U.S. to study engineering. After college, the brothers founded Daou Systems, a company that provides IT consulting and management services to the healthcare industry. It grew quickly in less than a decade, becoming one of 1997’s top five initial public offerings in the country. That success allowed Daniel to step away at 31 and follow his other dream: producing world-class Bordeaux style wines.

Mr. Daou, thanks for your time. Let’s jump in, why Paso Robes?

People ask us all the time, why Paso. Why’d you go to Paso? I want to talk a bit about that and give you an explanation of what’s happening here that’s really disrupting the wine industry.

I want to share something first with you. Wine Advocate just released a report this week; 546 wines rated in the entire San Luis Obispo County which includes in the valley as well as Paso. Out of the top eight wines that were rated, six were Daou and got 96 to 100, 98+ to 100.

Paso Robles: The Pursuit of Perfection at Daou Vineyards & Winery

Seventeen wines out of the 31 submitted got 96 or higher. Now, I say that not to show off or boast, but I say that to show you there’s something here that’s really going on in Paso that people are catching up on that’s really disrupting the wine industry.

What’s causing this sort of revolution for Paso? 

There’s a very unique phenomenon here. This is a place that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the planet. Let me explain why. When you talk about terroir, you talk about two things mostly. You talk about soil, you talk about climate. Of course there’s winemaking, but we’re not going to get into that today. Let’s focus on soil and climate.

The soil here on Daou mountain, matches that of Bordeaux. It’s very unlike California. Most California table wines are grown on clay, on volcanic, or sandy soils. You don’t find these calcareous clay soils in California unless it’s the west side of Paso up in the mountain and you find them right here. Here we have clay then limestone.

Daou Vineyards
Daou Vineyards

What does clay and limestone soil do for Daou wines? Why does it matter?

The clay is going to give you bouquet, it’s going to give you color, it’s going to give you fat and flesh but clay alone doesn’t give you minerality, doesn’t give you earthiness. When you taste a California Cabernet, you taste 80% climate and 20% soil, typically. When you taste a Bordeaux, you’re tasting 80% soil and you’re tasting 20% climate because they don’t have great climate but they have great soils.

Over here the soil is exactly like Bordeaux and allows us to dry farm. All the rain water gets trapped in the limestone subsoil and slowly feeds the vines allowing us to grow grapes without having to water them.

soil i like this grape

The second thing that’s unique about these soils is the soils are known for allowing you to have a pure expression of the wine. As you know, most wineries, especially in California with the heat, lose their acid. You have to add tartaric acid to stabilize the wine at harvest. We don’t have to do any of that. We only use wild yeast and nutrients to make Daou wines.

That’s it, yeast and nutrients, and the yeast is from here. It’s truly the purest expression you can actually get into the wines. The only place that allows you to do that is a place that has these soils. Otherwise, with loamy soils, volcanic soils, you most likely are going to have to acidulate or add things to compensate for what the water does not give you.

What about the climate here? There’s a prevailing thought in the market that Paso wines are too ‘hot’.

Climate here is very unique. There’s a myth that Paso is hot. Paso is 614,000 acres. It’s larger than Napa and Sonoma put together. Imagine I asked you is Napa and Sonoma hot or cold, you couldn’t answer it. You would ask where in Napa or where in Sonoma – is it the Russian River where it’s cold, Sonoma coast where it’s cold, Dry Creek where it’s too hot or Valley floor.

On this mountain we have the coolest average high temperature in Paso because we’re the highest elevation in Paso at 2200 feet. If you talk to a pilot, they’ll tell you for every 1,000 feet you drop about five degrees.

View from the tasting room entrance on top of Daou Mountain
View from the tasting room entrance on top of Daou Mountain

We’re the only vineyard that we know of that’s in California that’s at 2,200 feet elevation and only 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Besides getting the beautiful intense sun, you’ve got the beautiful breeze that comes through, what’s called the Templeton Gap, and it cools down the temperature here.

One of the things that I use to gauge how good a terroir is when it comes to climate is the number of days that are 100 degrees or higher. Anytime you get to 100 degrees, the vine shuts down and no longer produces sugar, you get sunburn, and at the end of the day, it affects the quality of the grapes. I always joke if that wasn’t the case, we would be growing grapes in Fresno and Bakersfield!

On average we get five days at 100 degrees or higher on this mountain per year. Five. Let’s compare that to other statistics. Downtown by the airport which is east side of Paso, sees between 30 and 40 days at or over 100. Let’s take a look at 2019, a cooler year by all standards. Paso downtown saw 27 days at 100 degrees. Napa saw 14. Calistoga saw more than 20. Bordeaux saw 4. Over here, 0. 

Ok, you have great soil and climate, but what does it mean in the glass?

Let’s talk about phenolics. Phenolics is an objective way of looking at the quality the of terroir or a wine. What are phenolics? When you take a glass of wine, there are three things that you do. 

First thing that you do is you look at the color. Second thing that you do is you smell the wine. The third thing that you do is you taste the wine, and the structure of the wine is going to give it the aging capability.

After testing over 600 Cabernets and Bordeauxs from all over the world, we’ve not found any wine in the world that has the phenolics we found here in our vineyard. It may exist but we’ve tested 600. The phenolics you would get out of this mountain include the most color, the biggest tannins, structure and the most overall phenolics ever seen on the planet because this combination of harmonious soil and climate doesn’t exist anywhere else. 

Your passion is strong and infectious! You and your brother George were well to do after the sale of your company, why did you get into the wine business  – and become the winemaker and vineyard manager!

I moved here in 2008 from San Diego.  There was nothing here on the mountain. There was nothing. Nothing. Zero. The existing winery was falling apart. It was basically just a barn that was about to fall over, and there wasn’t one single vine here. Today, we have almost 500,000 vines planted here.

I erected a little modular trailer and moved in. There was no electricity, no water for the first couple months. I planted the first 26 acres myself. Yes, I thought it was crazy a few times! But I had this belief that this place could be very unique and it could make world class Cabernet Sauvignon.

Since then, I manage the vineyard and I make the wine.

Naushad Huda barrel tasting with Daniel Daou
Naushad Huda barrel tasting with Daniel Daou

The first year, I made wine the way I was mentored by a French winemaker and it was a disaster. Out of 26 acres, I made only 500 cases. Now granted, I got the first 96 points by Wine Advocate which was great for us, but you can’t make a living making 500 cases out of 26 acres!

I had to go back to the drawing board on how to make wine here, and I had to create all new techniques.

I started with the vineyard. 

Our vineyard is certified sustainable. Anytime we can use organic products, we always do. Rarely we don’t. 

We don’t water the vines, we don’t irrigate, however, we have the means to do it. If we get a crazy heat wave like 2017, we will give the vines about a gallon of water just to make it past the heat wave.

We’re not trying to dry farm as a marketing message. The only reason we dry farm is because you make better wine. 

I spend about three hours a day during the growing season in the vineyard. That’s really where I make the wine, but that’s also where my heart is.

Tell us what happens after harvest what are you doing when you’re making the wine? 

One of my goals when I started making wine after having been a wine collector for quite a few years, I wanted to make a wine that’s approachable upon release but yet will outlive everybody in this room. That’s not a small feat, but I think we’ve been successful. 

In France, as a tradition, when you make wine you bring in grapes and you ferment them in the tank. At the end, when the fermentation is done, most winemakers will drain the tank and they will go out and press what’s left in the skins. When you combine these two things together, you get about 165 gallons per ton.

In France, they learned a long time ago that the best quality wine is free run, which means when you open up the valve, all the wine that freely runs out is going to be the highest quality wine because the tannins come from skin. They’re very integrated, they’re very silky, they’re approachable upon release very quickly.

I don’t like to add anything to my wine, when you press the must, you end up with basically extracting a lot potassium in most cases, which means the Ph is going to go up a lot. When that happens you have to fine the wine with gelatins, you have to add tartaric acid to stabilize the wine. I don’t do any of that.

From day one, we’re 100% free run in all the wines from the estate as well as the reserve. These wines never use any press. We average about 80 gallons per ton. Most wineries get 165 gallons per ton. We get half what a typical winery gets for the same ton of grapes.

Another big component in winemaking is the barrels. Not all barrels are created equal! When cooperages make barrels, the process is typically: you go out and harvest trees, cut them into staves and then they go on a sorting table. You’ve got people looking at every stave and identifying them into 3 grades: extra tight grade, tight grade, slightly tight grade.

Daou soul of the lion barrel

Sorry to interject, but what is the difference between the grades?

The difference is that the slight and the tight grain releases the oak very quickly and release a lot of tannins. If you’re trying to make a wine that’s got a lot of oak, and you don’t want to age it more than 12 months, then slight and the tight barrels do a good job because they release oak very quickly. 

A lot of wineries just want you to drink a lot of oak in their wines, so they buy these barrels. These barrels typically sell for $700 to $800 a barrel.

Got it, ok please continue about the barrels.

The second thing that’s very important for barrels is how long the wood is cured out in the elements. When the staves are left to the elements, the cold, the rain, the fog, the snow, it helps cure the oak. The longer you cure that oak, the more flavorful it becomes.

Curing the staves is an expensive proposition. Think about having a stack of wood that you’re aging for three years. That’s three years you aren’t making revenue. We don’t use anything less than three-year aged wood. However, I created a barrel back in 2012 that is aged for five years out in the elements. 

My goal with barrels is to taste the effect of the wood, the coffee, the tobacco, the vanilla, but not the taste of the wood.

Today, our barrel program is very intense. One hundred percent of all the estate wines are aged in 100% new French oak, which is very rare. We put the investment in there because we truly believe it makes a huge difference. Our mentality is every wine that comes out of our estate must be first growth quality.

What’s your take on sulfur in wines? 

Winemakers use sulfur before the hot summer months which basically prevents bacteria from growing on the wine. 

I hate doing that because what I’ve noticed doing trials is when you hit wine with a lot of sulfur; one, you bleach the wine, so you lose color; two, the wine gets very tired, and, let’s face it, it’s poison. You want to try to minimize how much sulfur to use. I cool the temperature in the cellar to 50 degrees as opposed to 65 or 70, and I keep at 50 degrees all year because I use temperature to control bacteria, so I don’t have to use a lot of sulfur. 

We use 10 parts, which is very, very small. We use 10 parts or so while aging in the barrel to really keep the wines fresh and vibrant. When you taste this wine, you’ll see for yourself the wine is not tired.

From the beginning, Daou’s wines have proven special, receiving high scores from major wine publications and praise from influential critics. That’s not surprising: Daou is obsessed with perfection in his Cabernets and Bordeaux blends, and his winemaking methods include constant testing and meticulous attention to quality.

This interview was part of a longer conversation with Daniel Daou for the upcoming book Drive Through Paso Robles – the second book in the Drive Through series and follow up to the acclaimed book Drive Through Napa. We will be posting more in-depth interviews with unique personalities that makeup the fabric of Paso Roble as we continue to research for the book. The target publishing date for Drive Through Paso Robles is Summer 2020. Email to receive updates on our progress.

Drive through napa valley
“This book is an answer to dry guidebooks and stiff informational publications that pervade the wine industry.” – L.A. Times