By Robert Haas
Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and François Perrin, "Men of the Year" in the current issue of the venerable English wine magazine Decanter. I cannot think of any French wine family with better credentials. We love them.
My first encounter with the Perrin family was with Jacques in 1967. It was during my short (1967-1970) period at Barton Distilling trying to create a wine division. I was there to buy bulk Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine to be shipped to a négociant bottler in Bordeaux. Barton had the idea of creating a line of French AOC wines under the André Simon brand for which they had the rights. The whole thing eventually fell apart. The execution failed because, among other things, Barton's barons in the field didn’t dig anything under 80 proof. Recognizing the futility of trying to create a wine division at Barton, I resigned in 1970 and went on to form Vineyard Brands shortly thereafter, taking all my suppliers with me.
Jacques and I had hit it off together. He took me under his wing and showed me around other wineries and cooperatives in the Vaucluse to emphasize how far there was still to go in producing quality wines in the Côtes du Rhône. I admired Jacques’ openness and the frank discussions with his family that took place around the dinner table. I returned to Beaucastel in 1968, 1969, and 1970 to ask for U.S. representation of the domain because I thought it unique in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in its use of high percentages of Mourvèdre and Roussanne in its blends and because it was inaugurating organic farming in its vineyard. I finally achieved success in 1970 and became importer for Château de Beaucastel. That was the beginning of the deep family relationships that followed.
In 1971 Jacques introduced me to his son Jean-Pierre, who had graduated from oenology school in Dijon and had started a small négoce in Jonquières with the brand La Vieille Ferme Côtes-du-Rhône. We imported the first ever export (100 cases 1970 vintage) and sold it to Sherry-Lehmann in New York. Today it is an international brand selling cases in the seven figures.
Jean-Pierre and I became friendly. We had kids of similar ages and we visited back and forth as families. Vineyard Brands started representing the early “boutique” Napa wineries, Chappellet, Freemark Abbey, Clos du Val, and Phelps in the early 1970’s. Jean-Pierre accompanied me to Napa on one of my supplier visiting trips and was impressed by the amount of activity (“even the streets are made out of stainless”) and surprised that there were no Rhône varieties being grown even though the climate was more Mediterranean than Bordeaux or Burgundy (think chardonnay). It was at that point that the germ of the idea of “doing something together” in California came to us. It was not until 1985, however, that we started to act on it.
Vineyard Brands continued as importer for Château de Beaucastel and François came on the scene just before Jacques’ tragic early death from cancer in 1977. Thereafter, all three families became good friends, frequent visitors, and business partners.
In 1985 Jean-Pierre, François and I decided to “do something” in California. We started looking for property to start a vineyard and winery partnership. We looked for high pH soils and a southern Rhône climate. After scouring the state for five years looking and tasting, we came upon the then practically unknown Paso Robles area on west side of highway 101, the Las Tablas district, in which we found a 120 acre piece laced with calcareous clay soils and we bought it jointly.
In our travels around looking for property we discovered that there were no reliable cultivars for Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Roussanne, Counoise, and Grenache Blanc, the principal varieties that we planned to plant, so François arranged for supply of cuttings with his nurseryman in France. The California USDA station for reception, quarantine, testing for viruses, and clearance was closed in 1990. The USDA station in Geneva, NY accommodated us instead. The vines cleared in 1993 and were shipped to California and multiplied and grafted in our own nursery. Planting began in 1995. We have continued importing cuttings from Beaucastel recently, bringing in the balance of the 13 Châteauneuf-du Pape varieties through USDA Davis and will make all available to US growers as we have in the past. Ironically, the Foundation Plant Service in Davis will be the only facility in the world able to supply virus free all 13 (14 if you count Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir separately) accepted varieties of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.
The availability of authentic vine material from our collection and the attention drawn to the Rhône idea by our partnership led to a wave of plantings by new wineries focused on Rhône blends, which in turn led to a new focus for the new Paso Robles community of adventurous growers, which in turn led to over 600 American wineries that planted, promoted, and marketed Rhône variety blends.
From the beginning our farming and style of wine making, were inspired by the Beaucastel model: organic farming going to biodynamic and wines with power, but with elegance and a respect for our terroir. Contrary to most current California practices, all reds and some whites are vinified and aged for the most part in large (45 to 65 hecto) French oak. We ferment with native yeasts to maintain our feeling of place.
Our wine maker, Neil Collins, spent the year of 1997 at Beaucastel. Early on Jean-Pierre was the most frequent Perrin to be involved in the decision making, with François being involved in the blending and the vineyard most recently. Jean-Pierre’s son, Pierre spent the year here in 2001, working in the cellar and son Marc is also involved, and François’ son César has been working in the cellar this last year. The style of wine making, as at Beaucastel, is classic, not trendy modern.
We are proud to be an important part of the Perrins' world adventures. Without them Tablas Creek Vineyard never would have happened.