Nicolaus “Nicky” Hahn, a pioneering vintner of Monterey County, died March 2 at his home in Zurich. He was 81.
Hahn was one of a small group of vintners to begin making high-quality wines in the 1970s in the Santa Lucia Highlands, a 12-mile stretch of benchland along the Salinas River. He later led the effort to establish the Santa Lucia Highlands as an American Viticultural Area, winning federal approval in 1991. Later, Hahn would be instrumental in shifting the region from Cabernet Sauvignon cultivation to Pinot Noir, which remains the area’s predominant grape.
Hahn was born in 1936 in Switzerland, the son of a Jewish father and Protestant mother who had fled Nazi Germany. Eventually, the family went to Portugal, then sailed to Florida by way of Cuba.
After a stint in South Africa helping to grow hybrid tomatoes, Hahn worked as a businessman in Paris, New York and London. He became chairman of the multinational software corporation Computer Associates.
But California called. “It’s one of those coming-to-America stories,” said Philip Hahn. When Hahn decided to start a wine business, “the easy thing would have been to go to Napa. But he didn’t want to do what everyone else had done.”
In the 1970s, Hahn purchased a cattle ranch and a horse farm in the Santa Lucia mountain range. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon on the properties, releasing his first wine in 1980. Hahn moved his family from London to Monterey in 1984, and spent two hours every day commuting to the vineyards.
Last year Wine Enthusiast magazine gave its annual American Wine Pioneer award to Hahn.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Gaby, and his two children, Philip and Caroline.