This week, The Rhone Rangers announced that Tablas Creek founder (and my dad) Robert Haas will receive the 2014 Rhone Rangers Lifetime Achievement Award, for services to the American Rhone movement. It's a wonderful honor, just the second-ever lifetime achievement award that the organization has given out. The first went last year, appropriately, to Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, the original Rhone Ranger.
Though my dad's wine career began focused on Burgundy and Bordeaux, his history with the Rhone is a long one. He made his first buying visit to Chateauneuf-du-Pape in 1967, looking either to find an estate whose wines he could import, or barring that (few estates were even estate bottling at the time, and those few that were had established relationships) to find some bulk Chateauneuf-du-Pape that he could buy and have bottled for the American market. He visited Beaucastel on that trip, convinced Jacques Perrin to let him taste through the cellar, and selected some barrels he would bottle and market under the "Pierre Perrin" label. [That story, if you haven't heard it, is detailed in the blog post a great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and the wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek, from 2012.]
His connection with the Rhone developed along with his friendship with Jacques Perrin and his two sons, Jean-Pierre and Francois, working together as importer and producer through the 1970's and 1980's. For an American market still largely unaware of the Rhone Valley, my dad devised a marketing strategy of personalizing Beaucastel, and made dozens of trips around the United States with Jean-Pierre and Francois, promoting both the flagship Chateau de Beaucastel estate and their growing collection of wines under the La Vieille Ferme and Famille Perrin labels. The brands are still a cornerstone of Vineyard Brands, the importing company he founded.
If the relationship had ended here, his contribution to the Rhone movement in America would still have been significant. But his friendship with the Perrin brothers and their joint conviction that the Rhone grapes they worked with in France would thrive in California led them in 1985 to begin the search that would culminate in Paso Robles and Tablas Creek.
Several of the places that they looked at seriously (notably Sonoma, El Dorado and Santa Ynez) have become major contributors in the Rhone Ranger movement, but they settled on Paso Robles, which has become its epicenter. From 1990, when there was negligible acreage of Rhones in the county, there are now more acres of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Syrah and Counoise in San Luis Obispo county than any other, and more acreage of Viognier, Grenache and Mourvedre than any other coastal or mountain county. The focus that the partners' decision to buy land in Paso Robles brought to the region -- as an area for high quality wine grapes, but more specifically as a great home for Rhone varieties -- was enormous.
Perhaps the most lasting contribution that he (along with the Perrins) had in the American Rhone movement came with their decision to import new grapevine cuttings from France, and then to make them available to other vineyards and wineries, rather than trying to keep this potential competitive advantage proprietary. More than 600 vineyards and wineries have purchased Tablas Creek stock since we began selling it in 1996. This new high quality vine material both gave the Rhone movement a direct and dramatic boost and had an indirect effect, spurring the nurseries already in California to build new partnerships to themselves import quality new French clonal material.
Finally, I believe that Tablas Creek's focus on blends has provided an important counterpoint to the varietal paradigm that dominated California for decades. We're far from the only winery who has tried to make our name on blended wines -- and the paradigm is far from broken -- but the winery's insistence in the early years, when the market was telling us again and again that what it wanted was varietally labeled wines, on sticking with what we felt was the best expression of our grapes, land and place, was one piece in creating space within that paradigm for alternatives. I sat recently on an industry panel discussing the future of the proprietary blend, and I can't imagine that panel even existing without the work over the last two decades by wineries like Tablas Creek, and stubborn proprietors like my dad.
So, on Saturday, April 5th my dad will be recognized at the Rhone Rangers annual gala in San Francisco. I'll introduce him. And I'll know that not only will I be standing where I am because of him, but many of the Rhone producers and enthusiasts around the room will also be there because of what he made possible.