On April 18th, my dad will turn 80. He doesn't look it, or act it, and I think that a big piece of what's kept him young has been his lack of sentimentality and his restlessness to figure out what the next interesting development would be. His career in the wine industry has spanned more than 50 years, and he has made contributions as a retailer, an importer, a wholesaler, and now, with Tablas Creek, as a vintner. I'm continually amazed by the various impacts he's had on how Americans buy, drink, and think about wine. At the same time, he's a private person, who is not comfortable promoting himself, and has remained relatively unknown to much of the American wine-buying public.
A quick thumbnail of his career for those of you who may not be aware:
- In the mid-1950s, he launched the first ever Bordeaux futures offering through M. Lehmann, his father's store in Manhattan (the store, now Sherry Lehmann, was sold by my grandfather in the late 1960s).
- He was an important early advocate for estate bottling in Burgundy, and introduced to the American market landmark producers such as Henri Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Etienne Sauzet, and Ponsot, Dauvissat, and Louis Michel. Knowing that a wine was a "Robert Haas Selection" was many people's introduction to fine French wines.
- He first imported Beaucastel at a time when only 3 Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers were even estate bottling their wines.
- He built well known brands such as Marques de Caceres, Santa Rita, La Vieille Ferme, Louis Roederer and Warre's Port through his import company Vineyard Brands.
- He co-founded the wholesaler Winebow, which has itself expanded to also be one of America's leading importers.
- He was an early champion of California, and introduced some of California's most recognizable names to the national market. These producers included Chappellet, Freemark Abbey, Clos du Val, Joseph Phelps, Rutherford Hill, Hanzell, Kistler, and Sonoma-Cutrer.
- Most recently, through his partnership with the Perrin family and the current Tablas Creek project, he's had enormous influence on the growth in popularity of American Rhone varietals, organic viticulture, and the Paso Robles region.
A few years ago, Saveur and The Wine Enthusiast did retrospective pieces on his career, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of his first wine buying trip to France. This year, I'm looking forward to articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, Wines & Vines, and the San Luis Obispo Tribune. This has been one of my goals for the year: to get people to know a little more about my dad, and to get a somewhat broader understanding of the path that he laid down that others have followed: importers like Neil Empson, Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher; wine-focused distributors around the country; specialty retail shops (and producers) that sell a significant portion of their production through futures offerings; producers of Rhone varietals in the Central Coast and particularly Paso Robles; and wine lovers who value wines of place. It is this last contribution which I think is furthest-reaching: his consistent search for wines that reflect the place in which they are produced, made by winemakers whose winemaking respects that place. I have written earlier about how important we believe estate bottling is at Tablas Creek, but this has been an important (perhaps the most important) marker of quality for my dad for more than 50 years.
I didn't grow up in a world of wine dominated by negociants who made wines from lots of regions, from grapes (or wines) bought and blended. And I have my dad, in part, to thank for that.