“Nicky” Hahn, who spearheaded the creation of California’s Santa Lucia Highlands appellation and built his family winery into a global brand, passed away after a long illness in Geneva, Switzerland on Friday, March 2, surrounded by family. He was 81 years old. Hahn had recently been honored by Wine Enthusiast during the magazine’s annual Wine Star Awards as an American Wine Pioneer.
Hahn was born in 1936 in Switzerland, where his father, a Jewish banker from Frankfurt, had settled after fleeing the Nazis. He then spent his early days moving through England, Spain, Portugal, Cuba and Los Angeles. He attended grade school in New York, high school in Switzerland and university in Munich, where he studied economics.
He worked as a broker in Paris, London, New York and founded his own firm in Switzerland. He then took over as chair of Computer Associates, which became one of the largest software firms on the planet.
In 1979, seeking a legacy project, Hahn purchased Smith & Hook Vineyard in Monterey County. But he soon learned that the region struggled to make fine wine. “The reputation was such that somebody had to do something about it,” Hahn told Wine Enthusiast last year.
So, he set about creating the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, which was approved in 1991, today known for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“Depending on the context, you can place my name up with Piero Antinori,” said Hahn last fall. “Who would ever have thought that was feasible? I think I am correct in calling myself the black swan of the American wine industry. What I did is simply not possible.”
Hahn Family Wines now produces more than 400,000 cases annually with distribution in 48 states and 20 countries. The family-owned company farms more than 1,000 acres in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.
“I’d like to be known as a fair employer, and if you look at our employee list, many of them have been with us forever,” said Hahn last fall. “Between that and my appellation, I think I’ve done enough.”