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Newsflash: Empire Makes Wine
By W. Blake Gray
Aug 23, 2011
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For a powerful family company, particularly one whose founders are legends of the silver screen, Hearst has not recently been a brand name seen often.   Example: did you know Hearst is America's leading source of tips that “He's cheating on you,” or “ways to spice up your love life?”  Hearst owns (and makes a great deal of money from) Cosmopolitan magazine, which is not a secret, but the company doesn't feel the need to put its name in the title.
 
Thus it's a little surprising that last year, Steve Hearst -- great-grandson of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst -- entered into a joint venture to put the family name on wine bottles.
 
I was a little surprised to be invited to San Simeon to write about it because I used to work for Hearst at the San Francisco Chronicle, but took a buyout in 2007.   Hearst Corp.  could order Jon Bonné to cover the story; me they had to entice down the coast with a trail of Hearst Ranch steaks.  Will work for meat!
 
Hearst Ranch Winery released its first wines last year under the direction of partner Jim Saunders, who got into the industry 20 years ago as a construction guy, building wineries and winery additions for Wild Horse, Treana and Liberty School.   Saunders planted vines on his own ranch because he thought it would be fun to have grapes to sell to his construction clients, and soon found himself in the bulk wine business.
 
But when business soured for unbranded wines, Saunders started looking around for a partner.   It's hard to imagine a better one:  Not only do the Hearsts have more money than some countries; they also have all that untapped brand equity.
 
In 1957, the Hearst family gave the unfinished but still awe-inspiring Hearst castle to the state of California.   With the launch of the wines, a tasting room across the street from the castle's visitor center, and Hearst Ranch grass-fed beef for sale in said visitor center (which is on Hearst land), that gift suddenly looks like a brilliant long-term investment.   Going to San Simeon now means complete brand immersion.   We came, we saw Hearst, we ate Hearst, we drank Hearst, we bought the Hearst t-shirt.
 
If you're there, don't miss the French dip sandwich made with Hearst ranch beef at the 150-year-old Sebastian's food store that shares a building with the tasting room.   I'd blather on about sustainably grass-fed cattle if this site were Meat Review Online, but let's stick to the grape, shall we?
 
While the Hearst family has secured permission to plant vineyards on its 80,000-acre ranch -- not a given since they entered into a perpetual conservation agreement with the state -- they haven't done so yet, and indeed the ranch is so far west, abutting the Pacific Ocean, that even Pinot Noir might not make it.
 
So Hearst Ranch is a bit of a misnomer on the bottles, because the bulk of the grapes come from Saunders' 100-acre ranch north of Paso Robles, where temperatures reach triple digits during the summer.   Yet even saying that, of the winery's 11 initial releases, only one is 100% estate fruit, and that's a Tempranillo rosé that sold out to the wine club.   Such is the potential power of the name and the location: most year-old wineries would love to even have wine-club members.
 
But Hearst is no ordinary brand launch: the wine is already in distribution in 26 states, with more on the way.   While the company's beef strategy is to vertically integrate and go all-estate, there's no way it can maintain the wine brand without buying ever more grapes.   In fact, I speculate that vineyard purchases could be in the Hearsts' future.
 
For now, Saunders has five varieties on his 75 planted acres: Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Malbec and Tempranillo.   He originally had Cabernet Sauvignon but he grafted it over.
 
"It must have been the soil type; the Cab came out vegetal," Saunders says.   "I grafted over to Malbec and Tempranillo on a whim.   I've been very happy with it."
 
The first excellent wine to bear the name is Hearst Ranch Paso Robles Malbec 2009 ($30), which I tasted multiple times and never tired of because it doesn't get boring.   It's a gamy, edgy wine that opens with good acidity and intense cherry fruit and just when you think it's going to go feral, it surprises you with floral notes and a bit of leafiness thanks to the 7% Cabernet Franc.   I don't think it's a coincidence that my favorite wine is mostly estate fruit.
 
I also liked the top-of-the-line Hearst Ranch "The Point" Paso Robles Special Reserve 2007 ($70).   It's a mostly-Bordeaux-blend with a touch of Syrah, and while it packs a hefty 15.5% alcohol, it opens with sufficient acidity to cut through a steak, delivers nice red berry and cherry flavors, and finishes with thick tannins and a darker note. 
 
Adam LaZarre, formerly of Monterey's Hahn Estates, is the consulting winemaker.   Saunders runs the day-to-day operations himself -- trust a construction guy to get things done on schedule -- with help from viticulturist Jeremy Leffert. 
 
How involved are the Hearsts?  "Steve Hearst is very involved," Saunders says, even though the wine business is like a gnat buzzing in the ear of a $15 billion company.   "He really likes the wine business.   He tells everyone about it." I wish I could have asked him myself, but Steve Hearst was on an annual weeklong family drinking-and-deer hunting outing on the ranch with his 84-year-old father George Hearst Jr., chairman of the board of the corporation.
 
I confess that, even though I don't work for the Hearsts anymore, I'm enough of a newspaper history buff to be something of a Hearst groupie.   I mean, how many newspaper publishers can claim to have started their own war?  William Randolph Hearst hired away most of the staff from his rival Joseph Pulitzer, who actually had as much to do as Hearst with the creation of yellow journalism (a clear precursor to today's blogosophere).   Yet do they give investigative reporters a Hearst Prize?
 
Fortunately, W. R. Hearst has had his revenge on Pulitzer from beyond the grave.   There may not be a Hearst Prize, but I haven't yet drunk a Pulitzer Malbec.