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March 2018

Giving Robert Haas the Send-off He Deserved

This Sunday, we hosted a celebration of my dad's life here at the vineyard. We tried to make it an event my dad would have enjoyed: good food and wine, not too formal, a chance for people to tell stories in different ways, either to speak to the whole audience, to reminisce in smaller groups, or to record a video with Nathan, our Shepherd/Videographer.  About 350 people came, from as far away as France and Vermont, wine folks from all over California, and a great representation of the local wine community.  The mood was one of appreciation, not sadness, which I thought was great.  Yes, we are all sad to lose him, but at almost 91 he had a great and long life, achieved so many goals that he had, and laid the foundation for many others to succeed after him.

RZH IG Collage

I will forever be grateful to everyone who helped put this event together.  There were many, but a few principal ones were Neil Collins, who did a masterful job organizing leading the storytelling; Chef Jeff Scott, who put together a great array of foods for the gathering including my dad's favorite East Coast oysters and Tablas Creek lamb; my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, who assembled a selection of music from my dad's favorite artists and eras, Nathan Stuart, who spent his day filming reminiscences and the breaks taking photos; the many volunteers from the Paso Robles wine community, who manned the food and wine stations so that the team here could participate fully in the event; and finally Kyle Wommack, Wonder Woman and master event coordinator, who pulled together all the pieces of this complicated event -- of a sort we'd never hosted before -- and allowed the family to focus on the guests who came and on what we wanted to say.

LRG_DSC05201

It has also been a pleasure to see the tributes that appeared in the national and international press since he passed away.  If you haven't read these, and you have a half hour to spare, there are some wonderful stories in each of these pieces. My sincere thanks go out to all these writers, who gave him the tributes his long career deserved. In the order in which the stories were published:

A theme that came out again and again both in the articles that were written and in the tributes that people gave on Sunday was that my dad was a builder: someone who didn't just come up with ideas (though he did that, for sure) but oversaw the creation of structures that were set up to succeed long-term.  The impacts of that foundation-building were in full evidence at the party, with people there to remember his work not just at Tablas Creek, but as an importer, as an advocate for the Paso Robles wine community, and as a patron of the arts.  I thought it might be interesting for me to share the speech I wrote for the occasion.  I didn't end up giving it verbatim, but this was, more or less, what I said to the group.

Welcome, everyone. I had an anxiety dream a few days ago where there were only about 40 people here and I had to slink up to the podium and announce that we were going to start, I guessed, since it didn’t look like anyone else was coming.  I am so honored to see all of you here, and to have heard from so many of you – and so many people who couldn’t be here today – about how my dad had touched your lives. It’s been one of the really nice things in what has been a difficult month.

I remember, when Meghan and I were thinking about moving out here almost 20 years ago, that getting the chance to work with my dad while he was still actively involved in Tablas Creek was my main motivation in making the move when we did. If I’d waited a few years, and something had happened to him, I would have regretted that forever. But I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he did that had made him successful. After having the pleasure of working with him for 15 years, I think it boiled down to three things:

  • First, he generated more ideas per amount of time spent at work than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. This wasn’t always easy – there were times when it drove us all nuts, because he would have a new good idea while we were still trying to implement the last one – but what a great foundation for any business.
  • Second, he was willing to lead by example. Whether this was going out well into his 80s and carrying a wine bag up and down the New York subway stairs showing Tablas Creek, or being the first to stand up and put in money to get the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs off the ground, or in creating the winery partners program to support the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, on whose board he served into his 90s, if the cause was something he believed in, he was willing to put his own time, effort, and money into making sure that cause succeeded.
  • Third, he believed in people. One of the hallmarks of all the companies he founded was that people stayed and made a career there. He did this by giving the people he hired the authority to make the right decisions in their area of expertise, by allocating them the resources they needed, and by providing them vision without micro-managing the details. There are people here today from Vineyard Brands who remember me coming home from little league games and walking through the sales meeting dinners that he and my mom were hosting, in uniform. A dozen of them made the trip out here, many of whom are still there 30 years later, running the company that he founded.

My dad also had a pretty clear sense of what mattered, and what didn’t. I remember once, getting a semi-critical review in a class I took in high school, that said (with the implication that my judgments were perhaps less nuanced than they should be) that I had “little use for fools”. He read it and said, “well, I’m not sure there is much use for fools. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

But in the end, what I’m going to hold on to most about my dad was his essential optimism. He started this vineyard when he was already in his early 60s. He did it in a way that guaranteed that we wouldn’t see any wine for a decade. And for him, none of that mattered. It was an interesting and worthwhile thing to do.  He was confident that he could figure out the pieces he didn’t yet know.  The fact that we would be making wine from grapes that most Americans didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce, and that we would be blending these grapes into wines that didn’t really have a category in the marketplace, were just details that could be overcome by perseverance and force of will. That perseverance and force of will hadn’t ever let him down.  And they wouldn’t here either.

All kids, I think, grow up thinking that what they grow up with is normal.  Your dad is “Dad”. He does the things he does because that’s the way the world works.  I will forever be grateful that I got the chance to work with my dad as an adult, and see him through the eyes of the people he worked with and inspired.  And I believe that the reason he was successful in business was the same as why he was a great dad and a great friend.  You always knew where you stood.  You always knew that if you needed his support, you’d have it.  And you knew that when he said something, he meant it. 

I have one story I’d like to end with.  I remember, not long after we moved out here, walking out into the middle of the vineyard here with my dad.  Most of the vines here were still young.  He was in his mid-70s.  He stopped for a moment and waved generally toward the vineyard and said, “you know, I didn’t build this for me.  I’m not going to be around when it’s at maturity.  I didn’t even really build it for you.  But it should be amazing for your kids.”

Thank you all for coming today.  I am really looking forward to hearing your stories.  It’s been an honor to spend as much time inside my dad’s life as I have these last two decades.  Thank you all for being a part of it.

JH speaking at RZH memorial

Finally, one observation that really drove home to me what a lasting impact my dad had on not just the communities in which he lived, but on the people who he brought into the businesses he started.  At the event, there were some 65 people who had worked for him either at Vineyard Brands or at Tablas Creek.  By my rough calculations, those 65 people had combined for about 1000 years of tenure in his businesses.  And that, I think, is the legacy of which he would have been proudest.


Spring in the Vineyard: A Burst of Growth and a Wildflower Explosion

It's been a while since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard. So, let's remedy that.

Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles.  The hillsides are green.  The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day.  Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've had relatively stress-free nights and (other than a little testing) haven't even had to turn on our frost-protection systems.  That's particularly nice because this week, both our winemaker and our vineyard manager are out representing the winery at Taste of Vail.  Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.

But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card.  The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:

Poppies and animals

Low to the ground, particularly in valley areas and those blocks where the sheep came through earlier in the winter and ate the taller grasses, you can find a carpet of tiny purple flowers covering the ground:

Purple wildflowers

On hillsides, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:

Mustard in the vine rows

Not all the growth is colorful. The green of our cover crop mix (oats, sweet peas, vetch, and clovers) combines with wild grasses to approach the height of the cordons where we haven't been able to get the sheep in to eat it down:

Cover crop

With bud break, we're approaching the end of the season where we can have our animal flock in the vineyard safely. We've moved them to the late-sprouting Mourvedre and Counoise blocks, including one easily visible from the winery itself.  I love this photo, which shows the hillside with the sheep, the extent of the green growth, and the winery, complete with solar array, all in one shot:

Winery  animals and solar panels

The rain we got last month meant that (briefly, at least) Las Tablas Creek was running, and it filled up the lake on the new parcel we bought in 2011. We still haven't done anything about using that water to help frost-protect the vineyard, but seeing the lake full for the second consecutive year has rekindled our thinking about how we might:

Lake Ramage

But, of course, it's the vines that are the main event at this time of year. And the splashes of vibrant yellow-green are the most hopeful sign of all. While some varieties (like the aforementioned Mourvedre and Counoise, as well as Roussanne, Tannat, and Picpoul) are yet to sprout, early grapes like Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) are already well out of dormancy:

New growth - Grenache Blanc

This explosion of spring color won't last long.  Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and we'll turn to getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.


The Man Behind the Forklift: Q&A With Assistant Tasting Room Manager Charlie Chester

By Suphada Rom

Always on the go with a task list that extends beyond the length of your forearm, Charlie Chester has a diverse role here at Tablas Creek. From curating a collector's tasting for enthusiastic guests to transferring pallets of wine to keep the tasting room stocked, Charlie does it all- while also juggling the his son Brandon, now age two.

Charlie New
Charlie in our new seated flight tasting room

How did you learn about Tablas Creek?
I was a wine club member before I was an employee. I visited the winery in 2011, right after the new tasting room was finished. I was on my way back from an extended ski season up north in Truckee and I wanted to pick up my wine club shipment. I was enjoying the new tasting room, newly released wines while chatting with John (Tasting Room Manager).  I mentioned I was interested in working for Tablas Creek and he invited me back for an interview.  The rest, as they say, is history!

Why did you choose to join the Wine Club at Tablas Creek?
Before I worked for Tablas Creek I was working in the limousine industry, chauffeuring people around Paso Robles, I got to see it all. I really enjoyed visiting the different tasting rooms, observing like a fly on the wall. After visiting a winery more than once, I could gauge for consistency both in quality of wine and customer service. Tablas Creek stood out as having unique, consistently high quality wines plus their staff was always super friendly.  The tasting room staff would go out of their way to show you something special and share their passion for the wines and the story. 

John and Charlie
Charlie (left) with Tasting Room Manager John Morris

What do you think is special about Tablas Creek?
I like being part of something that is on the cutting edge of Rhone wines in California. I remember the first time I had Counoise on it's own, bottled varietally, and I thought that was really great. To be able to share these unique wines that are normally only found in blends one of my favorite things we do here.  Last year we introduced Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche to the U.S and Paso Robles... how great is that?!

Your title here is Assistant Tasting Room Manager and Logistics- what does a typical day look like for you?
I help things runs smoothly both in the tasting room and in our wine inventory. During the busy season we can have multiple tour groups, tastings, private tastings, group tastings- I help to make sure everyone has a good experience and all positions are staffed appropriately. We have a jigsaw puzzle-ish library storage area that I am constantly moving and shuffling wine around in. I also like driving the forklift around!

What is your most memorable experience here at Tablas?
Oh man, last summer we had some fun with the sheep!  That was crazy. We were finally heading home after a busy day in the tasting room when I noticed our herd of sheep on the road!  We had to get them back on the property so my first instinct was to try to corral them back in and out of the road, so I grabbed a bucket of sweet feed (a mix of grain and molasses the animals go crazy for!). That usually works to lure them in. While I drove the gator, a few other tasting room team members were doing their best herd them. It took us about 2 hours to finally get the sheep in their pen. 

Escaped Herd
Herding the escaped animals

When it comes to running the tasting room, what is your work philosophy?
I want to make sure everyone is happy and taken care of.  In the tasting room there's always something exciting to share with new guests, from someone who, say, knows the tasting room as it stands today, to someone who first tasted with Bob [Haas, our founder] "off of two barrels and a plank in the cellar". 

What's your favorite thing about your job here?
I enjoy the diversity of things that I get to do in the winery and on the property from taking care of the animals to driving forklifts and moving wine....All of it's awesome!

When you're not working, what are you doing?
Spending time with my son, Brandon. He's two. Hanging out with friends, grabbing a beer and tacos, going to the beach. Go wine tasting! 

Finally, how do you define success?
Happiness!! Work isn't as meaningful if you don't believe in what you're doing and if you're not happy doing it.

Charlie and Brandon_edit
Charlie with son Brandon and father Charles Sr.