A Legacy Takes Root
Alumni Brothers Cultivate Family Business in Vineyards of Paso Robles
Ioana Patringenaru | December 1, 2008
UCSD alumni Georges (left) and Daniel Daou have become winemakers.
In the past four decades, Daniel and Georges Daou have lived in three different countries on three different continents. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the two UCSD alumni are attracted to the notion of terroir, a French word that roughly translates to a sense of place and has come to mean a wine’s character. This interest now has taken the Daou brothers to the wine region of Paso Robles, where they are planting vines and building a winery.
“This is not a typical business,” said Georges Daou. “This is our legacy.”
Many of the lessons the brothers have learned from all the places they lived—Lebanon, France and the United States—seem to have come together in their latest venture, Daou Vineyards.
Their passion for winemaking stems from growing up in France and enjoying wine at the family table, they said. Daniel even grows grapes in the backyard of his Rancho Santa Fe home. His enthusiasm is palpable when he talks about winemaking. There’s a romance to wine, he said. “It makes life a little bit better,” he explained. Now in his 40s, he also said he has realized that having a good meal and a good wine with friends is one of the best things you can expect in life. His goal, he said, is to make wines that can both be enjoyed today, right out of the bottle, and age gracefully.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “It’s the world’s greatest food.”
Daniel Daou is the wine expert in the family and is closely involved with the making of Daou wines.
In this family business, Daniel is the expert winemaker and the quiet brother. He has been married for almost 19 years and has five children. He said he hopes some of them will go on to study at UCSD. By contrast, Georges is the dealmaker. “My value-add is distribution, marketing, branding,” he said. He’s also the more extroverted brother. One of the Daou sisters, Michelle, also is involved with the vineyard.
To grow their new enterprise, the two brothers said they can count on a knack for business that runs in their family. Their father was a keen businessman in their native Lebanon, before moving the family to France. “Sales are in our genes,” Daniel said. The brothers are financing the winery with proceeds from the successful computer business they started after graduating from UC San Diego in the mid-1980s.
Their time at UCSD
The two brothers says their time at UCSD has fashioned their way of thinking. Georges remembered feeling a little lost during his second year on campus, wondering about his life goals and feeling somewhat panicked. He shared his concerns with one of his professors. George said he would never forget the professor’s answer.
Georges Daou's expertise is marketing and branding.
“He said, ‘You’re not here to learn how to do something’,” Georges recalled. “You’re here to learn how to think.”
To this day, Georges said he believes the training he received here on campus was priceless. He hadn’t always planned to come to UCSD. He first flew from Paris to Northern California to attend Menlo College. He wanted to go to Stanford. But he heard about UCSD and was impressed about the school’s achievements and the students’ smarts. He decided to come here instead.
Once at UCSD, he became a teaching assistant. He collected a fair amount of parking tickets. But he loved going to the library, hanging out and exchanging ideas with classmates. He loved the campus so much he convinced his younger brother, Daniel, to join him in San Diego. “I told my brother the U.S. is great,” Georges recalls. “You’re a fool not to be here.”
Daniel started off by taking classes at local community colleges. He signed up for UCSD’s math and physics course sequences through UCSD Extension and aced them all. He then was admitted here and learned English on the fly. Georges said he knew his brother would excel. When Daniel was just 14, he often helped Georges with his college homework. Daniel graduated from UCSD in 1987, a year after his older brother. Both earned degrees in engineering.
The Daou brothers make wines from several grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Zinfandel.
To stay in the United States, the two launched a computer business that same year and honed their business savvy in the process. Daou Systems flourished into a successful health-care information technology company. In 1997, they took the company public and it reached a market capitalization of $700 million. The brothers celebrated by drinking three well-known wines: Chateau Leoville Las Cases, Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Lascombes, all from France’s Bordeaux winemaking region. But over the years, they moved on to pursue some of their other interests.
Finding the right terroir
Daniel dedicated the next 10 years of his life to figuring out how to make wines similar to the ones he drank the night his first company went public. He chose not to go back to school. Instead, he pored over books and built strong relationships with a handful of winemakers who became his mentors. When Daou Vineyards finally got off the ground, he brought Delphine Barboux–Laurent onto his team, a winemaker who had worked at Chateau Lascombes.
Daniel Daou grows vines in his Rancho Santa Fe backyard.
The brothers scouted locations for their vineyard. They decided on more than 100 acres on Adelaida mountain in Paso Robles, at an altitude of about 2,100 feet. “The terroir there is really powerful,” Daniel said. That’s a more poetic way of saying that the land has a high limestone concentration and that warm days and cool nights, as well as constant wind, make for ideal grape-growing conditions. So far, the Daou brothers have planted 25 acres of vines, but they hope to grow about 70 acres in the long run. Their goal is to become one of the top five wineries in the region, Daniel said.
On a typical day, Daniel rises at 5:30 a.m. He talks with his team and his distributors. He looks at sales. This summer, he was closely involved with the design of a new label for the wines he crafts. “It’s a work of passion,” he said. “It’s not something I want to delegate.”
The Daou wines
La Capilla wines can be found mostly in restaurants.
The brothers named their wine label “La Capilla” or “The Chapel” after their favorite winery “La Chappelle” in the Rhone region of France. Daniel said he uses a complex process to craft his wines. At most vineyards, grapes will go from harvest to barrel in about three to four weeks. At Daou Vineyards, that takes three months. Grapes will be sorted, then some of their juice will be taken out, to increase alcohol concentration. A first fermentation lasts six weeks instead of just one. “We extract a lot more,” Daniel said. “But we also lose a lot more.”
The La Capilla wines retail from $28 for the Old Vine Zinfandel to $46 for Cabernet Sauvignon. But you won’t find them at your neighborhood supermarket, with the exception of Costcos and a few wine stores in San Diego. The brothers are focusing mostly on restaurants for now. “We want to create wines as an experience,” Daniel explains. In San Diego, the wines can be found at a series of high-end eateries, including El Bizcocho in Rancho Bernardo and Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe, owned by Bertrand Hug.
"The wines of La Capilla, one of the new breed of California wine producers, show not only beautiful structure and depth but also a silky quality and respect for the terroir,” Hug says on the Daou Vineyards Web site.