Weekly Interview: Paul Clifton

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 09-28-2012

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Paul Clifton, the winemaker at Hahn Family Wines in California’s Santa Lucia Highlands.

Although Paul grew up in Salinas, it wasn’t always clear he’d pursue a career in wine. In his early 20s, Paul worked as a Forest Service firefighter in Lake Tahoe so he could ski, hike, and bike in his spare time. While visiting home one holiday season, Paul discovered some old winemaking equipment that his grandfather had used to make wine during Prohibition. He decided to start experimenting with it and fell in love with the process, so soon moved back to wine country.

Paul learned to make wine from industry veteran Don Blackburn at both Bernardus Winery and Byington Winery. He also spent a year in New Zealand, where he worked, explored, and attended oenology school. In 2003, Paul began work at Hahn.

Today, Hahn is one of California’s largest wineries, producing about 400,000 cases annually. Despite its large production, Clifton sorts and ferments each lot and vineyard block separately.

Check out our interview with Paul below the fold.

What is your general winemaking philosophy? 

My winemaking philosophy is to always strive for balance. Balance in oak, complexity, fruit, acidity, structure, and depth in mouthfeel and viscosity. I strive to make wines that are fully integrated between the fruit components, oak, acidity, and terroir of each vineyard source. The vineyards play a heavy hand in nearly all these characteristics leading in to their expression.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

Too many bottles, all empty. We just finished a comparative tasting of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs, so there are a handful of the region’s best, including our own 2010 Hahn SLH Estate and Lucienne Smith Vineyard and Lucienne Doctor’s Vineyard. These comparative tasting always reaffirms how much I love this region and admire my peers.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

I have two of them. The first was my mentor in all things philosophical and in Old World winemaking methods, a man who is now in heaven, Don Blackburn. The other is a fellow surfer and has influenced me in New World winemaking methods, Barry Gnekow.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I’m not sure if he qualifies as new, but Bill Brosseau at Testarossa. First, because I love the wines he and his team are producing. Second, I respect how he’s able to retain so much information and details about the vineyard and cellar practices. I consider this to be a trait that leads to success in this business.

How do you spend your days off?  

My days off are spent either at the beach, on a mountain bike, or with my family. We’re lucky to live in a place that is close to so many great outdoor activities. Where else in the world can you choose between enjoying the fresh ocean breezes or crisp mountain air!

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

It was the 1992 Bernardus Bien Nacido Pinot Noir. Even though it’s been 17 years since I enjoyed that wine, I can still vividly remember the aromas and flavors. I hold this wine very close to my heart because it’s the reason I decided to become a winemaker.  The year after enjoying that wine, I started working in the cellar at Bernardus to learn how to make Pinot Noir from Don Blackburn and the rest is history.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive? 

Are you kidding? My wife, Rebecca, doesn’t let wine age in the bottle. I have a small cellar, but it is empty except for a relic I found down in my grandparent’s basement, a 1966 Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuissé. The only reason we haven’t uncorked it is because I’m pretty sure it is vinegar and for its sentimental value.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

Just coming off that comparative tasting mentioned earlier, the red I would pick would be a tossup between that 2007 ROAR Rosella’s Pinot Noir and the 2007 Lucienne Doctor’s Vineyard.  The white would have to be Chardonnay for my wife Rebecca. She loves our 2011 Hahn SLH Estate Chardonnay.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Making sure every wine going into the bottle tastes two to three times its price. I always want to hear our customers tell us that we offer the best value in each of our wines, no matter how much it costs.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

Central Otago in New Zealand. Rebecca and I lived down in New Zealand for about a year working, going to school, and exploring. Central Otago is a beautiful place with incredible vineyard potential, particularly with Pinot Noir. It shares very similar climate qualities with Santa Lucia Highlands and my time down there has helped shape some of my viticulture and winemaking practices here at Hahn.

Is beer ever better than wine? 

Yes, an ice cold one at the end of the week with my cellar crew is impossible to beat with wine. Especially during these grueling harvest days!

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I’m half Italian and hate pasta.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

Before winemaking, my career path was working for the Forest Service as a wild-land firefighter. If it wasn’t for that bottle of ’92 Bernardus Pinot Noir, I’d be cutting line somewhere right now. It’s a testament to the power of a beautifully crafted wine and I can only hope that one of my wines will impact a future winemaker in that same way.

How do you define success?   

Maintaining happiness, but not at the expense of others.

Comments (1)

  1. I love the fact that his wine making interview started with using his grandfather’s old wine making equipment from Prohibition. What a great thing! Good interview.

    – Kristy @ Wine Logic