Life lessons with winemaker Daniel Daou

The story of the Daou brothers epitomises the American dream: arriving in the US with practically nothing, they built a multi-million-dollar company which they sold to start a vineyard. Now their wine is listed in Harrods. “We risked everything for our passion,” Daniel Daou tells Adam Lechmere

Words by Adam Lechmere

Winemaker Daniel Daou standing in front of wine barrels
Daniel Daou, who sold his highly successful tech company to launch Californian winery Daou Vineyards with his brother

Every life is shaped by random events, but there are few winemakers in California whose destiny was decided by a rocket attack that very nearly destroyed their family. Daniel Daou was eight years old in 1973 when one of the first missiles of the Lebanese civil war ripped into his home in the suburbs of Beirut. He and his brother and sister were badly wounded. “I still have a piece of shrapnel in my heart, and my brother was in a coma for 48 hours. My sister, who passed away 11 years ago, was hit everywhere.”

After two years of war, Daniel’s parents Joseph and Marie decided to take their young family to France, where they lived a hand-to-mouth existence. He had been a successful furniture manufacturer – at one point he was supplying 90 major hotels in the Middle East – but Joseph had lost everything. Eventually they got to California, and in 1987 Daniel and his equally driven brother Georges persuaded their father to use his last $50,000 to go into business with them.

They founded Daou Systems, a healthcare IT company that was valued at more than $700m in 1998. Daniel was a gifted computer engineer (“I had the tech bug”, as he puts it) but while he was building the company, another passion was bubbling away in his heart. “Our dad loved Bordeaux, and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular, and in my 20s I started seriously collecting wine.” One bottle in particular still stands out. “It was a Léoville-las-Cases 1986. That was 26 years ago and I can taste now. It just stunned me. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a winemaker’.” He’d always loved the rural life, he says. “Our grandparents had an olive farm and we went there every year and were never so happy.”

Vineyard on Daou Mountain
Daou Mountain, home to Daou Vineyards, which has the ideal combination of climate and terroir for Bordeaux blends

It took him 20 years to realise his dream. He spent a decade looking for exactly the right plot of land from Argentina to Spain to Tuscany, and finally settled on Paso Robles. He had an ideal terroir in mind: the soil had to be European [that is, limestone and clay], and the climate somewhere between Napa and Pauillac. “I needed temperatures that would allow grapes to ripen every year, but not so hot that they would produce overripe grapes.”

Daniel and Georges’ property on Daou Mountain covers some 280 hectares of fine limestone and clay on the western edge of Paso Robles. Eighty hectares are planted, and they expect to plant 80 more. It’s 14 miles from the cold Pacific Ocean, and nearly 2,300ft in altitude. “People who come to Paso and say it’s incredibly hot haven’t been here,” Daou says.

Daou Vineyards now produces some of the most celebrated Bordeaux blends in the region (98% of the vineyard is planted to Bordeaux varieties, the lion’s share of that being Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc). Such is their reputation that the Patrimony Cabernet Sauvignon was launched in London’s luxury department store Harrods in November for £300 a bottle. Indeed, they are credited with pioneering Paso’s shift away from Rhône grapes and Zinfandel. In all, there are 20 wines, from the flagship Cabernet blends to Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and a rosé which is a top seller in the US. The best wines are made with a yeast strain they isolated (and which is now sold in 35 countries). The vineyards are extremely low-yield, made even more so by the fact that they vinify only free-run juice – there is no pressed wine in the blends.

Winemaker Daniel Daou in the wine cellar
Daou wishes he had known that his "true calling" was to be a winemaker when he was 21, rather than in his early 40s

A remarkable thing about the Daou vineyards is their age: most are no more than eight years old, and the early vintages (the 2005 is the first) were made from vines in their third leaf. “I was blown away by the quality,” Daou says now. Others were equally impressed: Robert Parker gave 96 points to one of their first estate wines, the 2010 Soul of a Lion (the name is a reference to Joseph’s indomitable spirit).

When Daou told his family he was going to sell his shares in Daou Systems and buy a vineyard they were horrified. “They said: ‘You’re a successful engineer, an executive, and you want to become a farmer?’” Despite, or because of the formidable challenges the family has faced, he brims with confidence (he named a mountain for himself, after all). “When we started our vineyards, we bet everything on a dream – the belief that we can make wines that rival the best in the world. We were willing to risk it all to pursue our passion.”

What was your childhood ambition?

Wanting to following in my father’s footsteps, to be successful in business – specifically in the tech area.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?

That my true calling was to be a winemaker. I did not discover that until I was in my early 40s. As a teenager I wondered about studying winemaking, but I didn’t go that way. France is very hierarchical: if you want to be a winemaker you’re competing with people who have connections everywhere. I wanted to get out of France and be somewhere were I had the opportunity to tap into my potential. But of course I also had a great gift for high-tech – I had the bug.

What exercise do you do?

Tennis, hiking and golf. My handicap used to be 8 but now I’m a 12; I’m 4 to 4.5 in tennis [on the Universal Tennis Ratings (UTR) system]. I’m in Colorado right now where my fiancée and I do two or three hikes a week of six to eight miles. I love it.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself

I’ve made a few impulsive decisions that I regretted. My first marriage was one, and I’ve been involved in some company purchases and regretted them. A few years ago I traded my Porsche for a Cadillac SUV and two days later realised I’d given up a Porsche for a truck. I’m getting better with age. I’m finally getting married again next year but I’ve taken my time about it. I’ve learned, as the Italians say, that who goes slowly goes very far.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

A Ferrari 488 GTB. I don’t regret that decision at all.

Ferrari 488 GTB
The Ferrari 488 GTB, Daou's most expensive purchase

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I live in paradise right now but if I had to live anywhere else, it would be Tuscany.

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?

I would be in a band because I’m happy when I sing (although I can’t sing at all).

Louis Vuitton backpack
Daou's desert-island luxury would be a Louis Vuitton bag, packed with protein bars and ready meals

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?

My Louis Vuitton backpack. I’d fill it with protein bars, ready meals, water, my knife…

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

I want to make a Super-Tuscan. I’ve been looking for a property for three years. I already know where I want to be – the Val d’Orcia; I made an offer two weeks ago and it didn’t work out. It’s likely I’ll be living in Tuscany for four to six months of the year.

Val d’Orcia in Tuscany
The stunning Val d’Orcia in Tuscany, where Daou is keen to buy some land and create his own Super-Tuscan wine

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

One to care for those who are hungry, thirsty and homeless.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Shania Twain.

Shania Twain
Country singer Shania Twain, who would impress Daou very much if she attended one of his dinner parties…

What’s your guilty pleasure?


What’s your secret talent?

Figuring out ways to solving problems.

When were you happiest?

Growing up in Cannes (France) when my parents were alive.

Who do you most admire?

My father.

What’s your greatest regret?

My first marriage, although I love my children.

What time do you go to bed?

9:30 pm. I like to spend two hours thinking of how the day has gone, calming myself down in bed before I go to sleep.

Singers Charles Aznavour, Joe Dassin and Julio Iglesias
Celebrated crooners Charles Aznavour, Joe Dassin and Julio Iglesias are on Daou's nostalgic playlist

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

The nostalgic music I grew up with: Charles Aznavour, Joe Dassin, Julio Iglesias, Gérard Lenorman, Daniel Guichard.

What’s your favourite thing in your wardrobe?

My Gucci or Moncler jackets.

The French Laundry
The three-Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant in Napa is among Daou's favourite restaurants

What’s your favourite restaurant?

The French Laundry in Yountville, Napa, and L’Ambroisie in Paris (in fact, I just made a reservation there for November).