As a name, Daou sounds like a jumble of letters you are left with when playing Scrabble, but for those who know their Californian wines, it’s the name of one of the state’s most coveted wine producers, making a range of quality wines from Paso Robles. It is, though, still making its way in the international fine wine market, but hopes to really find its place in Michelin and premium dining in the UK and Europe thanks to a new partnership with Artis Drinks and Ranulf Sessions and Pieter du Toit. Richard Siddle talks to them and Daou’s president Nebojsa Lukic.
Daou Vineyards & Winery have such a great story to tell and they know how to tell it. Here’s just a window into the world they have created, first, in Paso Robles, and now one they want to share with wine buyers and sommeliers around the world.
Daou is actually the family name of Georges and Daniel who have a back story that is rather more dramatic than the average wine business. For they are both Lebanese immigrants who survived a bomb blast in 1973 on their home in Beirut, aged 12 and 8, which left them, and their sister Michelle, with serious injuries and scars that they carry today.
Their route to America came when they left what had become their family home in France to take up engineering degrees in San Diego. It was when they went on to set up their own computer networking business, Daou Systems, in the mid-1980’s that they built their first business success, allowing them to sell at such a price, they could then follow their other passion honed during their time in France – wine.
Rather than inherit land, or buy up an existing, successful producer, the Daous have created their own piece of history in the Adelaida mountains of Paso Robles, thanks to what they say is the unique terroir of the plot of land that they claim share the same characteristics of St Emilion in Bordeaux.
A plot of land that it took the Daous some eight years to be “lucky enough to stumble upon” in 2007, as they looked and looked for the ideal place that had the climate of Napa and the clay soils of Bordeaux. A search that had taken them as far south as Chile.
Bordeaux on a hill
It’s the combination of height of 2,200 feet, location, being 14 miles from the sea, creating hot days, cold nights and clay and limestone soils that the Daous say help ripen grapes and make wines that have fast tracked them up the Californian premium wine charts.
Vines that have helped the Daous to make what they see as being the perfect balance between “concentration, minerality and acidity” with high phonelics. Their homage to Bordeaux centred around their interpretation of Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks at first to the help of French winemaker, Delphine Barboux–Laurent who had worked at Chateau Lascombes.
But whilst the Daous might have the quality of Bordeaux-style Californian wines to compare with those from across the state, the fact they come from Paso and not Napa was an issue.
To help Daniel Daou helped set up in 2012 a new organisation to showcase the superior quality of Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style wines. He was able to get the support of other wineries, including Eberle, J. Lohr, Adelaida Cellars, Justin, Vina Robles and Chateau Margene. Together they founded Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux) Collective, and have been hosting an annual two-day symposium ever since. This culminated in the Judgement of Paso held in 2016 that saw the best of Paso Robles, including Daou wines, more than match up against the top wines from Napa.
Like any fine wine in California, the Daous also have Robert Parker to thank and it was 96 point score for the first vintage in 2010 of its ‘Soul of a Lion’ blend that helped build a momentum all of its own for its wines.
Time to export
For all their success in California, the Daous and their wines are far less known outside of the US, where they have only just stated out on the export trail. Building a respected international business is very much the agenda of the recently appointed president of the winery, Nebojsa Lukic. He has joined the family business after a long and successful career working in wine distribution in the US with Southern Glazer’s Wines & Spirits.
So is particularly well placed to know what it is a winery needs to do to grab the attention of a potential wine supplier in a new market. For him it is not just the quality of the Daou wines that makes them stand out, but the family and “human first” approach the winery has to how it does business.
“I have seen and tasted all of Californian wine and seen all the pretentiousness. The Daous do things differently. They put their people first and I liked that enormously,” says Lukic. “Yes, they want to sell their wine, but they want to build relations, not transactions. They want you to fall in love with their story because it is so unique.”
It was also a story he got to hear first hand some four years ago from Georges Daou during a chance a meeting playing golf at Pebble Beach. “I had gone there to play golf with a great friend who represented another prominent Cabernet producer. When we go there we were paired with two other guys. One of which was Georges Daou. I just happened to greet him in Serbian and we just clicked,” he recalls. “We ended the round saying that one days we would get to work together.”
At the time Southern was only selling a handful of cases of Daou wines and it was from there that he started to take more of an interest not only in the wines, but in the Daou family.
Lukic felt the biggest issue for Daou was not the quality and profile of its wines, but the image of Paso Robles as a region capable of producing ultra premium Californian wine. He urged them to get more involved in the on-trade and hosting special trade events and tastings.
To help Lukic put on a pre-sales event three years ago and invited 25 buyers to attend and. They ended up selling 70 cases. Three years on and the pre-sales event now attracts over 350 buyers from all over the US.
A few more rounds of golf later and Lukic was ready to make the jump from distributor to producer and take up a full time role with the winery.
“I feel really connected to the family and the business as I helped during my days at Southern five them a bit of a heart beat in the States,” says Lukic. “I also know that Daou wines is going to be seen as one of the most important Cabernets in the world.”
The Daou family philosophy is not just something that Lukic likes, he more than fully embraces with his own warm, friendly personality. He’s great company to be with.
His approach to management is also very refreshing. Running a good wine business, he says, is a “third having a good chief executive, a third having great wine, and a third luck”.
To build its profile overseas means working with the right partners. Which is where the familiar wine trade faces of Ranulf Sessions and Pieter du Toit and their new wine import and distribution business, Artis Drinks, come in. Following an initial meeting at last year’s ProWein, thanks to some match making from the Wine Institute of California, the duo have agreed to help try and build the Daou business not just in the UK, but in other markets around the world.
To help build distribution in Europe Daou is holding stock in Belgium to be distributed to local markets from there. “It’s about organic growth by telling out story, allowing customers to taste our wines and then hopefully they will come back and buy more,” says Lukic. “We want to over deliver on affordable premium wine.”
The next steps for Daou are to build the business through a combination of taking on more land, and increasing volumes, and matching those with more international and US sales. Soul of Lion is now at 4,000 cases and up 200%, whilst its overall US business is growing at 62%, claims Lukic. “We want to triple sales over the next three years,” says Lukic.
Its Pessimist wine is now the number one premium luxury brand in the US, showing 54% growth, and is twice the size of the number two brand, adds Lukic.
Lukic says the fundamentals of the business is to be an “approachable” premium wine business that allows people to be able to afford to buy a 98 point Californian wine. To do so will mean controlling prices through careful allocations and partnerships around the world. If merchants break those price levels then they risk losing their allocation.
“We want to give confidence to our customers that they have a long term commitment to us on price and availability,” he says.
With Lukic they have the unusual, but potentially wining combination of experienced drinks distribution skills, with the potential of a super quality, premium Californian producer.