Notes on a Winery
Dentist by day, vintner by avocation, Douglas Hauck lives the dream.
Four hours’ drive from his dental practice in Newport Beach, Dr. Douglas Hauck moonlights living every wine-lover’s fantasy: He runs his own winery. He plunked down $2 million eight years ago to buy the rolling acreage on the prime western flank of Paso Robles. Grapes there, cooled by nightly sea breezes, are considered ideal for producing what Hauck calls “chewy” or “inky” red varietals – dense cabernets, merlots and zinfandels.
His label, HammerSky, is named after his two teenage sons, Hamilton and Skyler, and is emblazoned across Hauck’s black T-shirt. He wears combat-fatigue cargo shorts. A straw fedora shields his shaved head against a sweltering sun.
Hauck is, by most accounts, a mile-a-minute thinker tirelessly devoted to creating and marketing a high-end boutique line – he sells about 5,000 cases a year – while monetizing complementary uses of the property. He operates a four-bedroom inn, for example, in a refurbished, century-old farmhouse. Nearby stands a stately white barn, with a loft bedroom and garlands of white lights, that is rented out for weddings.
Stepping from the kitchen of the inn, where he has been asking visitors to compare two zinfandel prototypes, Hauck trudges past the barn and up a dirt road that crests amid the vines. The view, with dense rows of grape leaves rising and dipping all around, is stunning. A massive oak known as Uncle Dan is thought to be more than 300 years old. Hauck pauses under the canopy of its thick limbs to discourse on one of the many challenges of wine-making – achieving the proper brix, or sugar content, ideally 25 percent or so for his reds.
“If it only gets to 22 percent, you have to try to fix it in the winemaking, but it’s usually not as good,” he says. Brix is a function of hot sunlight, which ripens the grapes, and the harvesting schedule. The numbers can be tweaked by blending in juice from other grapes, though the result, he says, is “never quite the same wine.”
Two deer suddenly dart among vines in the distance, near the tasting room. Hauck scowls. Inn guests enjoy the deer, “and I did too in the beginning,” he says, “but they ate $10,000 worth of fruit last year.” Hauck tried scaring them off with propane cannons, but the deer got used to the noise faster than the neighbors did, so Hauck has been installing a long skein of eight-foot fencing across the rear of the vineyard, fronting a creek, to keep them out.
That’s not the only frustration that comes with running the vineyard.
“Every week there’s a disaster,” Hauck says, perhaps exaggerating slightly. A water main ruptures. The tractor gets a flat. Rodents steal what the deer don’t, requiring Hauck to erect, in strategic places, box-like nests for barn owls. There are constant worries about whether daytime temperatures will stay hot enough to mature the grapes, or whether it might hail. Mildew. “You can easily get some bunch rot, they call it – mold in between the berries.”
If there’s anything harder than pulling teeth, Hauck has found, it just might be operating a successful winery, especially when many top labels are hundred-million-dollar operations.
“Everybody who comes up here says, ‘Oh, my God, you’re living the dream – an American dream,’” Hauck says. “My response is, ‘Holy crap!’ You really have to be half insane to do it. You have to have one screw loose.”
Don’t get him wrong – he loves it. The bluster is partly just Hauck being Hauck. He is crisp on the palate, a man with ample acidity, wry top notes of humor, and deep complexity. “Doug is eccentric,” says Mindy Allen, a longtime vine manager whose company helps grow and harvest grapes at nearly 50 vineyards, including Hauck’s. She chuckles comparing him to other winery people in their drab farm clothing; the lean Hauck often cuts a rakish figure in his fedora and red skinny jeans.
Brash is one word Allen uses in describing him. “Doug is very outspoken,” she says. “He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t have a filter.”
Hauck, who is cagey only about his age – he admits to being in his 50s – seems to relish the struggle of keeping his winery going, even while he grouses about it. He enjoys finding angles, being a provocateur. “He has fun blending,” says his wife, Kim, who oversees the vendors who help on the property as well as the 30 or so weddings that take place at HammerSky each year. “He has fun choosing the barrels, designing the labels.” He gets so into it, in fact, “he can get out of hand,” she says. “He can end up doing 20 different designs.”
HammerSky wines, sold mainly to restaurants, are priced up to $76 a bottle and carry elegant, understated labels – Kim’s suggestion – that feature a discreet lion’s crest. Posters are more eye-popping: In one, a woman teasingly covers a man’s eyes while grabbing for his bottle. Another shows a woman in a bare-back gown. Hauck says he did a whole campaign.
“My wife complained it was ‘a little bit slutty,’” he says, smiling. The whole point is to get people talking. He wants a “big-city” feel to the marketing, “as if Prada made wine.”
After HammerSky began hosting weddings about five years ago, Hauck realized wedding parties wanted Champagne and white wine, not the reds he was growing. He introduced a less expensive brand, Naughty Princess, using an old LAPD mug shot for the label.
His big problem, he says, is that he bought the vineyard in 2007 thinking he was taking on just one more job. He and Kim, who met in the 1980s while she was a television set designer in Los Angeles, used to date by traveling to the wine country. They had a romantic notion about someday owning a winery – only to discover it was far more work than they ever imagined.
“It’s really five jobs,” Hauck says, reeling off the list: grower, winemaker, salesman, marketer, event planner. “And when the toilet breaks, I do that, too.”
Fixing up the property made the first several years especially arduous. Hauck slept in a tent while the farmhouse was being renovated. He chopped away the front of the house with a chainsaw and remade the entry with a second-floor balcony. He replaced old wiring. “You’d open up the walls and there would be newspaper articles inside,” he recalls.
The tasting room got built only after nearly five years of red tape, he says. Vines were already there. He ordered the barn from New Hampshire, where the timbers were cut and numbered and shipped west, then laboriously assembled. Some pieces didn’t fit, Hauck says. “The electrical and plumbing were not included. The pad was not included. All the doors were not included, and I thought they were.”
Altogether, the additions, including Cape Cod-style stone walls, cost several hundred-thousand dollars. Later, the Haucks dealt with whisperings – rumors started by a neighbor, Kim says – that the inn was haunted. “Did you hear about the lady who walks at night?” Hauck says humorously.
Kim bristles at the very thought. “One of our employees said, ‘I saw a little girl looking out the window.’ In the middle of the day a spirit is not going to stand and look out the window. I have stayed in the house for the past seven years, many times by myself, and there’s nothing here.”
Wedding duties require Kim to visit the winery three times a month. Hauck, who still operates his dental office, specializing in implant and cosmetic dentistry, on Pacific Coast Highway near Fashion Island, drives to Paso Robles about every other weekend. Hours are long; he prunes vines at 6 a.m., opens the tasting room at 10. He converses with people who shamble in from cars and wine tour buses. “I’m like the dancing clown,” he says. “They all want to meet the winemaker; they all want to have a drink with the winemaker.”
Hauck has mastered wine’s peculiar vernacular, where the subtlest flavors inspire grandiloquence. Reviews in publications such as The Somm Journal, a voice of industry insiders, wax poetic about tannins and minerality and structure. The “big” wines that Hauck prizes are inky, too dense to see through.
An enormous fossilized whalebone in his tasting room is evidence that the land here was once under water. Limestone soils cause wines to “chalk up,” a taste distinctly different and, to some, preferable to wines from the rival Napa and Sonoma regions. “I can now taste not only my place, but I can actually taste the slope,” Hauck says. “If it’s a south-facing zin, the zins tend to be more ripe, more raisin-y than if it’s a north-facing slope.”
He can hold forth at length about the science of phenolics, how flavor is influenced by skins, seeds and other non-juice material. He expounds on variables in fermenting, the effect of using different barrels – French oak barrels, with their tight wood grains, versus Hungarian oak versus American oak; new barrels versus old; flame-treated “toasted” barrel heads.
“He’s educated himself tremendously,” says Rich Hartenberger, owner and winemaker at nearby Midnight Cellars Winery & Vineyard, in describing Hauck, who rents facilities at Midnight to sort and process grapes. “He’s here all the time. He stands at the sorting table – he’s right in it. A lot of guys” from Southern California, “who own wineries up here, they phone it in. He doesn’t.”
Hauck has a vision for what his wines should be. He’s after a certain bouquet that he’s still striving to get. “A certain profile in the nose,” he says. “This floral, punchy nose. And then, for the big cabs, you’re looking for that silky mid-body, a full-mouth feel and then a soft, long finish.”
He’s tasted it in Napa, even in Paso. Even in his own wines, but it’s a fickle thing. Can it be tamed? “It depends on the year and the rainfall and when you pick, and what does the weather do.”
Sometimes he hits. The Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide singles out HammerSky’s 2009 “Party of Four,” a blend of cabernet, merlot, petite bordeaux and cab-franc, calling it “frankly delicious. It’s dry and balanced, with firm tannins framing black and red currant flavors that are deep and long in the finish.” An even higher rating, 93 points, is bestowed on Hauck’s 2010 cabernet sauvignon, outstanding for its “jammy aromas of strawberry preserves, cheery pie, brown sugar, hot licorice and smoked meats.”
Such praise makes the business fun, Hauck says. Or at least more fun than, say, trading in the stock market. And the best news is, HammerSky is in the black. “We’re there,” he says. “We keep the books tight. We’re growing at about 28 percent annually the last six years.”
“We don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars behind us,” adds Kim Hauck. “We are hands-on. Doug is out on his tractor. He is tending his vineyard. He does still live and breathe it, and he loves to share it. He has a lot of fun sharing it with people.”