March 17, 2014
Starting a winery in the New World, especially California, can be a daunting financial prospect. Unless one is already wealthy from another career, making even 100 cases of wines can be an economic challenge. And if you’re a young cellar rat on a tight budget, it takes real perseverance, scrounging every available penny to pursue your dream. Rick Hill is a winemaker who did just that. A New Zealand native, Hill took a circuitous route to achieve his goals. “In the early ‘80s in New Zealand, there really wasn’t an opportunity to find a career path in wine. It was all small mom and pop operations that couldn’t afford employees, and I figured I needed a way to make money to create a path for my interests in winemaking,” says Hill. “So, I actually ended up in the milk and fruit juice industries, which I had a background in, and traveled the world doing that and building up capital.”
Through his travels Hill came upon an internship opportunity with Simi Winery in Napa in 1997. Hearing of his love for Pinot, the crew there suggested he head down to Santa Barbara County instead, where he landed a gig at the renowned Central Coast Wine Services (CCWS) as a cellar rat. “My job would be anything from picking up pizzas at 4 in the morning to doing 4 punchdowns a day at a winemaker’s whim, and by ingratiating myself to them they gave me a lot of trust. Many young winemakers feel the need to jump around every year, work a vintage in Tuscany, then Argentina, etc., but when the harvest ended, I felt I’d really found my own little niche here and wanted to stay.” Though still splitting his time between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, he committed to returning each year to CCWS to work harvest.
Rick’s fourth vintage in the area (2000) saw a fortuitous event that would forever alter his winemaking path. One of CCWS’s main clients, Lane Tanner, injured her knee and needed a full time assistant. “She said, ‘look, I don’t have a lot of money to offer you, but if you work exclusively for me, I will give you two tons of any grapes that I have sources from,’ and I thought, ‘perfect.’” Those two tons, which would come from the venerable Bien Nacido Vineyard, were the birth of the Labyrinth label. This was also the beginning of a relationship that would blossom from a close friendship into a romance. In 2004, after dating for a few years, Rick and Lane decided to marry, turning Hill into a full time Central Coast resident. “My plan was a 2 year transition; hers was immediately, so I moved within 6 months to the U.S. full time.”
Hill’s approach in the cellar and resultant wines speak to a love of Burgundy. Elegant, with an emphasis on spice and structure over fruit, they are the essence of great California Pinot Noir. “Essentially, for anyone growing up in New Zealand, we didn’t have much in the way of local wine or other New World wine available, so European wines were the benchmark, and for me in particular it was about Burgundy,” says Hill. “Those early years of drinking Old World wines that shunned high alcohol and lots of new oak really laid the foundation for my winemaking philosophy.” Hill utilizes a variable approach in his assessment of when to pick, relying on numbers, flavors, and instinct honed over years. “You’re looking for that point in time when there’s no herbaceous flavor in Pinot, particularly if you’re doing whole-cluster.” He finds the ideal flavor profile in the fruit when picking to be along the line of cranberry or pomegranate with a hint of black cherry. “I want to avoid those darker flavors, the blackberry and prune. That’s just Shiraz in drag.”
Hill’s sister label, Haka (a Maori war cry, honoring his Maori heritage and connoting power or boldness), was born out of the economic turmoil caused by the recession. As with his winemaking approach, he is very forthcoming about the economic realities and challenges of being a small producer. “When the economy tanked, from 2007 to 2011, people stopped buying most of those high end Pinots. I didn’t want to destroy the Labyrinth brand by discounting, because people have long memories when it comes to pricing, so I founded Haka as a way to bring value-driven wines, as well as a different varietal focus, into the marketplace.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, and through his Haka label he has found a new niche through his exploration of Tempranillo. “I’ve been passionate about Tempranillo since the New Zealand days when the early imports first came into the country. You can pick it early and get those nice sinewy tannins and dried cherry, you can pick it late and get more of the black licorice and coffee grounds; for Haka, it’s really my benchmark wine.” He has explored, and is still exploring, numerous interpretations of the grape, picking at different ripeness levels, utilizing both French and American oak, and working with sites in warm-climate Paso Robles and cooler sites in Los Alamos. His ‘12s and ‘13s out of barrel are some of the most exciting expressions of the grape I’ve yet tried from our state, matching the power and minerality of Toro with a uniquely Californian presence of fruit.
After a brief hiatus, the Labyrinth label bounced back in a big way with the 2012 and 2013 harvests. Working with new vineyard sources in Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, there’s renewed vigor in Hill’s Pinot program. While the Haka label has allowed him to work with more powerful grape varieties and a slightly riper style of winemaking, his Labyrinth Pinots are still classically balanced, site-driven, and filled with notes of earth and spice. He also chooses to work with only one cooper, Alain Fouquet, for his Pinots, a decision he believes helps communicate the differences between sites more clearly. “If I start utilizing different coopers, it’s like ‘where is that change coming from? Is it the site, is it the picking, is it the oak?’ I really want those vineyard differences to be apparent, and for my style to stay consistent, which is why I stick with one cooper.” Lovers of California Pinot with a Burgundian sensibility should keep an eye out for the release of his 2012s later in the year.
There is an intuitive nature to Hill’s winemaking that can be tasted and felt throughout his entire program. It is an approach he describes as “habitual practices but no fixed rules.” While there is a desire for consistency of quality and a certain sense of style, the vagaries of vintage are adapted to and allowed to speak, making for wines that beautifully marry time and place with a sense of self. In these wines one tastes the ebullience of a young cellar rat from New Zealand, whose desire to express himself through wine has only grown with time.