Winemaker relies on taste buds

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Is the production of fine wines a business or a compulsion? It's a fair question. In the case of David Hunt, the answer is "both." But there are times when his unwillingness to compromise on the qualities that distinguish cabernets, zinfandels and syrahs from one another borders on the obsessive.

"I'm a nut for varietal character," Hunt said. "You smell it, it's a zinfandel. You taste it, it's a zinfandel."

Hunt is the president of Hunt Cellars in Paso Robles in the South Central California coastal region. He was in Steamboat Springs this week for the Steamboat Wine Festival '04 and stayed in the home he and his wife, Debbie, own on 57 acres about 10 miles south of town.

Too many winemakers, in Hunt's opinion, allow the distinctions between the wines made from distinct varieties of grapes to be blurred. He has tried since beginning his winery to sample great wines, store their complex flavors in his mind as a sort of benchmark, and then live up to their flavor profiles with his own wines.

"If something rocks my boat, I commit it to my wine memory," Hunt said.

Hunt has succeeded in making memorable wines, consistently winning prizes for each successive year's production. However, he has learned from experience that merely making great wines isn't enough to establish a successful wine label. A veteran businessman who moved from North Carolina to Southern California to make a fortune in sales of home security systems, voice mail systems and later in real estate development, Hunt says the most difficult part of the wine business is the marketing.

His wines are not placed with a distributor, and a significant portion of his annual sales are produced at tasting rooms and from his monthly wine club.

"I used to think that if I made a great wine, they would chase me to the ends of the earth," he said with a wry smile. That has not been the case. And wine-making is clearly a labor of love. He expects to open his own wine-making plant in the midst of his 585-acre property later this year. And he expects to operate at a profit next year, but acknowledges it will be many years before his initial investment of more than $3 million is recouped.

If Hunt were able to clone himself, marketing would not be a problem. His passion is contagious.

"Doesn't it leap out of the glass at you?" he exclaims upon pouring a guest a sample of his 2001 Paso Robles Zinfandel Reserve from his Outlaw Ridge vineyard.

It's the startling bouquet of the wine he is describing. But upon first sip, the wine offers a subtle fennel taste (similar to licorice) and ripe blackberry flavors that reveal themselves in layers as the wine slides down the tongue.

A zinfandel was Hunt's first big success. In his first year of production in 1998, with a wine made with someone else's grapes, he won prizes at an annual convention of zinfandel aficionados in San Francisco and scored a 90-point rating from "Wine Enthusiast" magazine. In succeeding years, his zinfandels' rating went up by several points, and in 2001 the wine earned multiple gold medals, including one from the prestigious wine competition at the Los Angeles County Fair.

Ironically, Hunt did not set out to make zinfandels, but instead had his heart set on making world-class cabernets and merlots. Now, he makes all of those and more.

Hunt is meticulous in his wine-making, but carefully avoids pretentiousness.

I'm not a wine snob," he said. "I don't like wine geekiness."

Still, he agrees his perfectionism adds up to an obsession with details. He ages his wines in oak barrels that can cost as much as $850. He calculates the barrels alone can add more than $2.50 in cost to each bottle they yield. For the most part, he always starts with new barrels and often pairs French oak barrelheads with North American oak in the staves, all to achieve more layers in the taste of the ultimate product.

He experiments with planting varieties of grapes in different microclimates within his vineyards. The climate, 18 miles inland from Morro Bay, on the hilltops outside Paso Robles, is ideal.

"Here, the heat builds slowly all day, and it can reach 91 degrees in July, but at 5 p.m. (the breeze blows in from the ocean and) it's like somebody opened the refrigerator door."

When the temperature drops into the 50s overnight, the plants' metabolism shuts down, and they "sleep hard."

However, Hunt treats his grapevines the way a stern NFL coach treats his players during training camp. He grows them in soil that is challenging.

"Fertile soil doesn't make good wine," Hunt said. "It makes big happy grapes. I want my grapes to be no bigger than the end of my little finger. You want to stress these grapes out. You want to give it and take it away. They need to be pushed, they need to be stressed. It's the opposite of what you think"

The result of stressing the grapes is to concentrate flavor in the fruit. When he harvests them, they are so dense they are almost sticky with sugar. But Hunt is careful to manage the amount of sugar in each variety to achieve the right amount of alcohol. Too much alcohol overwhelms the complex layers of flavor.

Hunt randomly tastes grapes as harvest season approaches, and consults with his wife, Debbie, about the telltale color of the seeds.

He insists the magic in wine production takes place in the vineyard, but he adds his own magic in the blending of wines from different oak barrels to achieve his goals.

Halting the conversation for a moment, Hunt asks a guest to pour him another glass of wine. Suddenly he says, "Oh, oh, not too much. Don't pour above the crown of the glass. It's designed to act like a chimney," delivering the bouquet of the wine to the nose of the drinker.

All of this is mildly astounding, because Hunt cannot see the wine glass his guest is pouring the deep red syrah into.

A degenerative condition in his retinas has left him blind and savoring the world and his wine through other senses.

"Music, wine and food -- what else is there?" he asks.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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