The man behind the beard: Q&A with Winemaker, Neil Collins

Editor's Note: This interview begins a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better. We're starting, appropriately, with Winemaker Neil Collins, who has made every vintage of Tablas Creek except 1997, when he was working at Beaucastel. If you have questions for Neil, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

Neil is the Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard and a busy man. He also makes the wines for his own label Lone Madrone, which is run by his sister Jackie and his wife Marci, and a growing line of traditional styled hard apple ciders (Bristols Cider) which you can taste at his new cider bar in Atascadero.  Neil’s blend of respect for tradition and willingness to experiment is integral to the spirit of Tablas Creek. We were proud to learn that he was named 2013 San Luis Obispo County Winemaker of the Year in an award voted on by his peers. 

I recently sat down with Neil and asked him a few questions about his life, what brought him into the wine industry and his vision for the future of Tablas Creek.

Winemaker Neil Collins Summer 2012

Neil, can you talk a bit about where you were born and what brought you to the States?

I was born and raised in Bristol England, the south-west of England. At that point there weren’t any vineyards, not really anyone making wine, a lot of wine was being consumed but traditionally it was not a wine country, now there is a lot of good wine and cider. I came to the States just to visit my sister Jackie in Santa Barbara for a six-week vacation and I never really left.


Can you tell us about how you met your wife Marci?

So when I ran out of money on my vacation and had to get a job I started working in the kitchen at a restaurant my sister opened with some friends of hers, it was called the Paradise Café in Santa Barbara. Then six months after I started working there, Marci started working in the kitchen and that’s where we met, we met in Paradise.


What began your interest in working with wine and what were your first experiences?

I was working in restaurants and began getting intrigued by wine and its production. The original intent was just to do a year in the cellar; harvest to harvest, to learn so I could understand wine better for the restaurant business. After the year long stint, I just kept going.  I started with Wild Horse during the 1991 harvest because the building at Adelaida was still in construction, so even though I got my job offer from Adelaida, I worked one harvest with Ken Volk at Wild Horse. Then after harvest in January of 1992 I moved to Adelaida where I stayed until March of 1997 working along side John Munch.  Then I went back to England for 6-months, then to France to Beaucastel for a year and finally to Tablas Creek.


Which winemakers have inspired you the most?

Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) has done an incredible job sticking by a great style. He makes great wine, very traditionally and he has stuck by that, his winemaking is meticulous and thorough and they ave great character. Obvously Jacques Perrin who is an inspiration to all of us here, Claude from Beaucastel, and of course I have an immense amount of respect for Ken Volk and John Munch (Le Cuvier), Josh Jensen (Calera), Bob Lindquist (Qupe). Ken Volk was instrumental since my first harvest and he was a great person to learn from because he incredibly throughout and diligent and super meticulous so it was a great foundation because I learned everything the right way. And then Munch is completely the opposite and willing to try anything, experiment and push things to the edge; which the two of those combined is fantastic because you get the complete spectrum and I can take the best from both.

Which is your favorite wine region?

At the moment? It changes, as of today I would say I really like the wines of the Loire Valley, the whites from Alsace and I like Gigondas a lot.

Have you been more drawn recently to whites or reds?

It’s seasonal; there are so many factors like the environment and food. I do like whites, they’re very intriguing. They’re much more transparent, less to hide behind. When they’re beautiful, they’re beautiful. There’s an elegance and balance with whites that’s not easy to accomplish and when it is achieved… well, when it’s really good it’s really good.


What is the story behind Tablas Creek En Gobelet?

So, that started with a desire to plant head-trained vines because we were interested in getting the Grenache to perform a bit better and since most of the great Grenaches of the world that I’m familiar with are head-trained vines, it seemed like a good connection. And then, that paired with our desire at Tablas Creek to make wines that are very reflective of this estate, my opinion would be that dry-farmed, head-trained vines are the purest expression of the given piece of land. So with all of those things combined that would be where the first plantings of head-trained vines came from.  We actually started with Mourvedre, not Grenache, in 1999.  When that kind of worked, we planted Scruffy Hill and it has proved, at least so far for us, to be a great way to farm and has produced very interesting wines that are unique and different from the other wines that we make.


What is the vision for the recently acquired 160 acre parcel?

The vision for the new property is very much inspired by the success of Scruffy Hill and it’s very similar terroir-wise. It has everything you could want; it’s steep, it faces in every direction and thre’s a kind of knoll in the middle. It’ll be planted 5 to 10 acres a year, at this point, all in the head-trained, dry-farmed style. That’s what we’re planning to start in the spring of 2016 with Grenache, Mourvedre and a little Roussanne.


How has the drought affected the vineyard?

It’s a concern, if it doesn’t rain this year, we’re anticipating that it will, but if it doesn’t, we’ll assess whether or not we’re going to plant the new property. We were going to plant late this summer and we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to get vines started in these conditions. So we put it off until spring of next year. Hopefully we’ll see some rain. We don’t need a lot, but we need something. Planting a dry-farmed vineyard in the 4th or 5th year of a drought is daring business.


Does the possibility of El Nino erosion concern you?

We’ve ordered more cover crop seed than usual and we’re going to get it into the ground earlier than normal. We’re going to get the compost in earlier as well. We’re bringing in more straw than we normally do to put on the steeper roadways. None of this is going to hurt if it doesn’t pan out to be what everyone says it will be.

NeilMarci


The 11th annual Tablas Creek Vineyard pig roast dinner

By: Lauren Phelps
We hosted our 11th annual Pig Roast dinner on Saturday evening, August 15th and wanted to share some of the images and a bit of information about this event.  Over 120 guests joined us for a family-style meal on our terraced patio with wines paired from our cellar.  The meal was collaboratively prepared by our very own Winemaker, Neil Collins and local Chef, Jeffery Scott

Tablas_Creek_20150815_182833_2000It was a beautiful evening, and relatively mild for August in Paso Robles.  As the sun set behind the tasting room the breeze brought in cool marine air.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_193044_2000Our very own Darren Delmore and his brother who make up the duo, The Delmore Boys set the tone with their Americana guitar tunes.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_190304_2000Many Tablas Creek team members and their families attended the event including, Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Jason Haas and Nicole Getty.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_190617_2000This year, Neil roasted the 350 pound estate-grown pig for over 12 hours using a modified iron-cross roaster with oak from our property. Chef, Jeffery Scott contributed incredible appetizers and sides using locally-sourced and organic ingredients.

TABLAS CREEK PIG ROAST

SATURDAY AUGUST 15th, 2015

CHEF JEFFERY C. SCOTT

 UPON ARRIVAL

CHILLED SUMMER MELON CUPS
GINGER CRÈME FRAICHE

  TABLAS ESTATE LAMB CRUSTADE
MOROCCAN SPICES, ROSEMARY HUMMUS

DINNER FAMILY STYLE

 HEIRLOOM TOMATO & WATERMELON
FRENCH FETA, SOFT HERBS, BALSAMIC CREMA

TOASTED PEARL COUSCOUS
PINE NUTS, SULTANAS, CURRANTS, FENNEL CONFIT

SHEEP’S MILK YOGURT TATZIKI

MASON JARS OF CAPONATA

HUSH HARBOR RUSTIC BREAD

________________

 EMBER ROASTED TABLAS CREEK ESTATE PIG

AMARETTO-APRICOT GLACÈ

 LOO LOO FARMS GARDEN PAELLA
PORCINI STOCK, LINGUICA, ROMESCO

 CUMIN GLAZED CARROTS & CHARRED SUMMER SQUASH
ROASTED GARLIC, LOCAL GOAT CHEESE, LEMON THYME

______________

BLUEBERRY-PEACH COBBLER

OLIVE OIL GELATO, CINNAMON BASIL

Tablas_Creek_20150815_184259_2000

We paired the meal with the 2014 Grenache Blanc, our 2014 Dianthus, the newly released 2013 Mourvedre and our flagship red wine, the 2011 Esprit de Tablas, that we brought up from the library.

Tablas_Creek_20150815_194257_20003

We'd like to thank all of the guests who joined us and invite you to view additional photos by Patrick Ibarra Photography on our Pig Roast Dinner Flickr Album

Also, we are thrilled to announce that the Cooking Channel's, Man Fire Food will be airing an episode on September 15th highlighting our pig roast dinners! We're really looking forward to watching it.

The date for the 2016 pig roast has not been set yet and we recommend periodically checking our Upcoming Events page for more details.  We give priority invitation to our wine club members and seating is very limited.


On the Rhone: a Post-Cruise Appreciation

By Robert Haas.  Special thanks to Jeffery Clark, who provided most of the photos.

I’m back in Vermont, basking in the afterglow of our Tablas Creek cruise of the Rhone. It was a ten-day celebration (including the optional three-day visit to Paris and Champagne) of great food and wine, organized by our partners at Food & Wine Trails.  By the end, new friends felt like old friends, and our 120-person group had made the S.S. Catherine ours.  On a personal level, I very much enjoyed sharing with the group the homeland of the Rhône varieties that we have nurtured at Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

About one half of our large group of adherents opted for the Paris-Champagne addition, July 30th-August 1st.  The Bel Ami Hotel was comfortable, nicely air-conditioned (needed in the hot weather France has been seeing this summer) and well placed around the corner from Paris landmarks on the Boulevard St. Germain, such as the Brasserie Lipp, and the cafés Deux Magots and Café de Flore.  

For the trip to Champagne, we arrived in Vrigny at the property of Roger Coulon, propriétaire-récoltant on the Montagne de Reims, with an hour and a half bus trip.  Coulon produces only about 90,000 bottles from his own vines.  His cellars were straightforward, simple but modern.  We tasted his wines.   They had an artisanal terroir character that I loved.  We enjoyed an excellent champagne lunch at his close-by restaurant, Les Clos des Terres Soudées.  He paired his various cuvées of champagne with each course.  We then visited the cellars of Taittinger -- quite a contrast -- with traditional old cellars cut deep into the Champagne chalk under Reims, followed by a tasting of their wines.  The visits were enjoyable and educational.  Some of us preferred the artisanal drier, richer style of Coulon and others the traditional "grande marque" style of Taittinger.

We had some time to spend on our own in Paris and then took the TGV from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon on the 2nd to join the rest of the cruisers boarding the ship.  On my first visits to pre-autoroute France in the 1950’s, that trip down the N7 took 10 hours.  The TGV made it in 2. 

Pont d'Avignon 2
The famous Pont d'Avignon

The voyage began with a short overnight sail to Tarascon, a little south of Avignon, from where there were interesting shore visits to Tarascon, a city that dates back to the late bronze age.  It has a riverside castle from the 15th century that is known as "The King's Castle" (Château du Roi René).

There was also a visit to Arles, which is close-by.  Arles is a fascinating city.  It was a Phoenician port by about 800 B.C., taken by the Romans in 123 B.C., and still is home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains outside Italy.  In modern times it was an attractive abode for Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in 1888.  Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Café, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L'Arlésienne.

Arles amphitheater
The Roman amphitheater at Arles 

The centerpiece of the cruise was the stay in Avignon, which provided a base for twin cellar visits and delicious open-air lunches in the court of Château de Beaucastel.  It was fun to share the Beaucastel secrets with our group.  We were too large a group to all go at once so half the group went on the 3rd and half on the 4th.  Everybody got to taste from barrels and visit the old spotlessly clean cellars, as well as learn about Beaucastel's wine making.  Each day, those not on the Beaucastel visit got to tour the old city of the Popes with its palace and crenelated walls.

Cellars at Beaucastel
The cellars at Beaucastel

Lunch at Beaucastel
Lunch in the gardens at Beaucastel

Lunch menu
The lunch menu

BSH, RZH & FP
Barbara Haas, Robert Haas, and Francois Perrin at lunch

From Avignon we sailed north to Viviers, and then on to Tain- l'Ermitage. This stretch was during the day, so most of us assembled topside to enjoy the views and the passages through the écluses (locks).  I was fascinated by the ship's design, from the ballast tanks below that fill with water to the to the retractable pilot house, railings and awnings, all to lower the ship's profile in order to pass under low bridges across the Rhône.  

Lock
The lock at Viviers

On deck
Mind your heads!

Tain- l'Ermitage was a second highlight.   We received a very good tour of the Hermitage vineyard and a sit-down tasting of Chapoutier wines. We were also treated to an excellent lunch served with northern Rhône wines.  I was interested to see the upright cane and spur pruning of the Syrah, a pruning we have adopted at Tablas on "Scruffy Hill."

Neighbor Jaboulet
The remarkable hillside vineyards of the Northern Rhone

From there, we continued north to Lyon, passing the vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu on our port side just as we were served a dinner on board paired with wines of those very appellations from Maison Nicolas-Perrin

On day 5 of the cruise (August 7th, for those keeping track) we got to tour Lyon, a center of classical French gastronomy, and home to the remains of two side-by-side spectacular Roman amphitheaters: one for music and the other for drama.   In the evening we reconvened on the Catherine for a nice Tablas Creek cocktail party in the ship's lounge, followed by dinner in the dining room. 

Lyon marks the northern edge of what France thinks of as the Rhone Valley (though the river originates in Lake Geneva, in Switzerland).  But the cruise continued north to dock in Macon on the Saône, for an excursion to nearby Burgundy.  Many guests took a bus to Beaune, toured some of the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, and visited the 15th century Hospices de Beaune, scene of the annual wine auction of wines from its vineyards.  We heard this was all wonderful.  However, Barbara and I, along with Neil and Marci Collins, instead took a car and drove through the vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé and Beaujolais to visit an old friend Claude Geoffray, the 7th generation proprietor of Château Thivin in the Côte de Brouilly. 

Market Radishes
Radishes in the market in Beaune

From Macon we all sailed overnight back to Lyon where we debarked August 9th and went our own ways. 

Although the unusually hot weather was noticeable on shore visits, no one seemed daunted, and they proceeded as planned and seemed to be enjoyed by all.  The ship, of course, was well air-conditioned and the cabins very comfortable.  The food and service aboard was excellent, far exceeding my expectations, and the wines from Famille Perrin, Beaucastel and Tablas Creek set the scene.  We were definitely on a Food and Wine Trail.  Lots of good conversation flowed in the Leopard Bar before and after dinner. 

Cabin
The view from inside the cabin

We are already looking forward to our next cruise in 2017.


The Early Years of Tablas Creek

We recently received a treasure trove of photos from our original Nursery Manager, Dick Hoenisch.  He oversaw the initial phases of Tablas Creek, from developing and building our nursery to planting our first vineyard blocks to our initial harvests and ultimately the building of our winery in 1997.  He's remained a regular visitor and correspondent ever since, but even I had never seen most of the photos that he sent us.  As by the time I moved out here in 2002 the property had assumed more or less the shape it has now, these photos feel to me like a time capsule, and most definitely worth sharing.

So, without further ado, and with thanks to Dick, I'm sharing some of my favorites of the photos.  Dick gets pride of place in the first photo, posing next to two other firsts: our first vineyard truck, which we also think was the first thing ever to bear a Tablas Creek logo, in 1993:

Dick with truck

In 1993, nearly all the activity was confined to the grapevine nursery.  You can see our first two greenhouses, in which we kept and propagated the "mother vines" (those vines that came through quarantine, and whose progeny populate our vineyard and all the others who have planted our clones) and the small section of rootstock in the foreground:

First nursery buildings

Inside the greenhouses were the mother vines that we'd recently gotten out of quarantine from the U.S.D.A.  These are many of the same vines that you can see in pots today on the patio outside our tasting room:

Mother Vines

In 1992, we planted the top of our tallest hill to roughly two-acre blocks of the best quality California-sourced Rhone varieties we could find.  This photo, also from 1993, shows them at the time.  We have since grafted over the Syrah, Mourvedre, and Marsanne to French clones, though the Grenache (at the right) and Viognier (on the far side of the hilltop) remain.  I can't imagine how we farmed this, given that the road up to the top looks completely unimproved.  It must have been impassable all winter and most of the spring:

Original plantings, 1993

By 1995, we had come a long way in laying out the central part of the vineyard for planting, with vineyard on the hillsides and rootstock fields in the valley bottoms:

Vineyard Panorama 1995

We may not have had a winery yet, but by 1995 enough was going on in the vineyard and nursery that the Perrins and my dad were here for long stretches of the year.  I'm happy to see that, even if they had to do it at a plastic picnic table, they took the time to enjoy appropriate vineyard lunches.  That's my dad at left, with Dick in the middle and Jean-Pierre Perrin at right:

RZH, DH and JPP at lunch

Lest you think that the planting was easy, take a look at how much rock we uncovered just in digging the irrigation trench.  David Maduena, now our Vineyard Manager, is manning the backhoe:

Trenching

One of the cool early projects that I remember, since it took place in part when I was out here for a visit, was the 1997 construction of a beehive-shaped brick water cistern at the top of the property, which we still use as a fire suppression reservoir.  We dug into the hilltop, built the cistern, and then filled the earth back in:

Beehive cistern construction

The construction of the winery was, as you would expect, a major milestone for us when it was happening in 1997.  You can see its first framing stages in a photo from the spring of that year, from a vantage point more or less where our grafting and nursery education area is now:

Winery Framing 1997

We'd made quite a bit of progress on the winery building (back right) by the early summer, when we were planting the Chardonnay block that would produce our Antithesis each year between 2000 and 2011 (it was then grafted over to Mourvedre and Counoise):

Planting Chardonnay and Building Winery

The winery did get finished -- and, as seems axiomatic in winery construction, just a few days before the 1997 harvest began -- but the rest of the building was still being worked on as the grapes began to come in:

New winery

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the construction of the dry-laid limestone wall surrounding the original parking lot.  You can see clearly how little topsoil there is above the calcareous clay, as well as the work involved in the wall's construction:

Rock Wall

Thank you, Dick Hoenisch!


Community Roundup: Major Awards for Qupe and L'Aventure, Imminent Rain, Snow in the Rhone, and New Direct Shipping Opportunites

Last year, I debuted a weekly feature on the blog called Weekly Roundup, focusing on interesting news from our communities (Rhone and Paso Robles), fun articles that we'd found on the world of wine, and pieces from other social media channels that we thought would interest a wider audience.

Unfortunately, the series never got a lot of traction.  I didn't hear much feedback about it, we didn't get many comments (1, in all the articles) and it didn't get shared or clicked on all that much when we posted it.  And it was a fair amount of work to do each week, some of which frankly didn't have all that much that was exciting going on in our community.  So, I've decided to rechristen this as a roughly monthly endeavor, and make its focus more explicitly on our community.  So, please welcome the Community Roundup: an occasional foray into what else is going on in our world.  These are things that we think are sufficiently noteworthy and of interest to our audience to be worth sharing, but maybe less than a full post each.

And please continue to share your own feedback on this series in the comments section.  Is it something that you've enjoyed and would like to continue to see?  Are there areas that you'd like to see more of?  Thanks in advance!

Two Awards for Two Iconic Figures
This week, we've been pleased to hear that two industry veterans for whom we have enormous respect are receiving major awards. 

Stephan Asseo CroppedThe first is Stephan Asseo, whose desire to combine the strengths of Bordeaux and the Rhone introduced a new kind of fusion into Paso Robles.  Stephan began making wine in 1982, and for the next 15 years developed a formidable reputation in Bordeaux.  Looking to escape the restrictions of France's appellation controlee system, he came to Paso Robles, where he founded  L'Aventure Winery in 1998.  His work in the seventeen years since has played a major role in establishing Paso Robles as the home for some of the most innovative garagiste winemakers in California, and brought to prominence the "Paso Blend", combining grapes from different Old World traditions into something uniquely Paso.  We are excited to learn that Stephan will be presented with the 2015 Wine Industry Person of the Year award from the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  Photo (right) is from the L'Aventure Facebook page.

Bob Lindquist CroppedThe second award recipient is Bob Lindquist, whose pioneering work at Qupe Winery was one of our inspirations, showing since 1982 that great Rhone varieties could be made in California's Central Coast.  Bob, throughout his time at Qupe, has been a tireless advocate for the wines of the Rhone, and a generous, patient, and humble figure in the movement.  He doesn't ever call attention to himself, which is one of the joys of his receiving only the third-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhone Rangers: that he'll get some richly deserved time in the limelight. My dad received this award last year, and the ceremony was great. If you missed it, I wrote a blog after that includes the amazing tribute video presented at his ceremony. If you're interested in joining for the celebration, you can; Bob's award will be presented at the Rhone Rangers San Francisco Winemaker Dinner. Photo (right) is from the Qupe Web site.

Snow in the Rhone
The Famille Perrin Instagram account is chock-full of great images, but one really stuck out this past week.  Snow isn't exactly a rarity in the Rhone Valley; they get a dusting at some point most years, but heavy snow is.  The photo that they shared of Gigondas under a heavy white blanket was stunning:

Snow in Gigondas

Rain in Paso Robles
At the same time, we're eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first real storm of 2015 tonight.  It looks like it will produce at least a few inches of rain for areas out near us, and I've read a report suggesting that the hills out here might see as many as six inches by Monday.  It's much needed; as my blog post from earlier in the week pointed out, we got less than 5% of normal rainfall in January.  A good head start on February (average rainfall: about 5 inches) would be great.

This rain (and the frost which is scheduled to follow) is particularly important because January was so warm that some California regions are reporting exceptionally early bud break. This isn't something we're worried about in the short term (I wrote about why last summer) but we're still at the point where some cold weather can shift the beginning of our growing season a few weeks later, reducing our risk of frost damage significantly.

New Direct Shipping Opportunities
FreethegrapesEarlier in January, I wrote a long piece on the state of wine shipping in the United States.  It wasn't really germane to the article -- which dealt more with the levels of expense and regulation within the three-dozen shipping states -- but it seems like there's been a little flurry of opportunity in opening some of the roughly dozen states that still prohibit all wine shipping.  Not only is Massachusetts set to open any day now, but the South Dakota legislature is debating a viable shipping bill, as is Indiana, and I've been hearing rumors that Pennsylvania is likely to move on wine shipping before the end of the year.  As always, the best place to go is Free the Grapes, where you can learn what's being debated and use their built-in templates to write state legislatures.

Drink for Thought: Wine State or Beer State?

Wp-winecountrybeercountry

I'm a sucker for maps.  There were several interesting ones, including the one above, in the Washington Post's article Do you live in beer country or wine country? These maps will tell you. The take-home message for me was that where there are wineries, there are likely breweries too.  Of course, there are hotspots where one or the other dominates, but fewer than you might think.  This is why I've found the reported worry in some corners of the wine community over the rise of craft beer silly.  In general, the people who love good wine love good beer, and increasingly, vice versa.  And more importantly, the people who love interesting wine look for interesting beer.  Nowhere more so than winery cellars.  The old adage that "it takes lots of good beer to make good wine" is absolutely true, in my experience.  Cheers!


What We're Drinking with Thanksgiving

TurkeyThanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  It has yet to be successfully commercialized, and it centers around family and food.  What could be better!  The celebratory nature of the meal suggests that several bottles of wine will be consumed, but the varied nature of the foods on the table -- and the fact that many of the foods have some sweetness -- makes pairing a single wine challenging.  Yet, whether reds, whites or even rosé, Rhone-style wines are good bets.  The reds tend to be fruity and open-knit, while the whites tend to be rich and unoaked.  All these characteristics are friendly with a Thanksgiving dinner.  In fact, last year, we had four different major newspapers suggest Tablas Creek wines for Thanksgiving... and each of the four suggested a different wine!

To get a sense of some of the different options out there, I asked several members of the Tablas Creek team to share what they're pairing with their Thanksgiving feasts this year (whether Tablas Creek or otherwise).  Here is what they shared:

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker
I will be drinking a Domaine Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling. It is delicate yet has a lushness and balance that will be perfect for our thanksgiving table. Chances are high that there will also be some hard cider consumed!

Lauren Cross, Marketing Assistant
I'm starting with Vermentino because it is bright and fun and low in alcohol- a perfect socializing wine.  Our Tablas Creek Vermentino is my mother's favorite and since she is the main chef of our Thanksgiving I like to make sure to keep her happy!  With our meal I will serve our 2010 En Gobelet which is my favorite.  I love to share this wine and tell the story of the dry-farmed en gobelet pruned vines this wine comes from.  En Gobelet is such a nice complement to a wide variety of fruit with the bright Grenache flavors, earthy Mourvedre and depth of the Syrah and Tannat.  

Thanksgiving 2014 Wine - DarrenDarren Delmore, National Sales Manager
We're goin' country with a smoked Texan brisket and two magnums with enough fruit and spice to match it: 2013 Miraval Cotes de Provence Rosé and 2004 Two Hands "Deer in Headlights" Barossa Valley Shiraz

Tyler Elwell, Cellar Master
I’m going to be having Whitcraft Winery 2013 Pinot Noir Santa Ynez Valley Pence Ranch Mt. Eden Clone.  It’s young, fresh and acidic. With 12.2 alcohol and it’s light body it’ll complement the variety of fixins on the table.

Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker
If I had any of these bottles left, my choice for Thanksgiving dinner (or any special dinner, for that matter) would be the Ridge 2011 Monte Bello Chardonnay.  With a gorgeous weight and fullness of texture, it is a wine that can certainly be enjoyed on its own before the feast, but drinking it without food seems like a shame.  With the beautiful balance it carries itself with, it can certainly pair with turkey and stuffing - and anything else you may find on your table this Thanksgiving.  After thinking about this wine, I believe I may have to resupply!

Thanksgiving 2014 Wine - LeviLevi Glenn, Viticulturist
Freisa - an indigenous variety to Piedmonte in Northern Italy, which according to Jancis Robinson is related to Nebbiolo. Aromatically it shows lighter red fruits, such as strawberry and raspberry. On the palate it exhibits more tannin than you would expect due to its light color. The acidity is medium to medium plus. A great accompaniment to a Thanksgiving meal, the acidity cuts through the richer sides, and its inherent juiciness will keep you coming back. Tip: chill in the fridge for 15-20 minutes to mellow the tannins and accentuate the fruit. A joyful wine for a joyous day.

Robert Haas, Founder
We're having oysters as hors d'oeuvres and traditional roasted turkey for the meal. I would like a dry minerally, chalky, citrusy white for the oysters, such as the Côtes de Tablas Blanc 2012. I prefer the 2012 for this use because the 2013 is more exuberant.  I would like a dark rich earthy red wine to go with the turkey, so we're going with the 2003 Panoplie.

Sylvia Montague, Assistant Tasting Room Manager
I am breaking tradition this year and heading to the coast for some seafood and a great ocean view. I am sure there must have been some creatures from the sea served at that first Thanksgiving in the new world (and if not, there should have been!).  I will bring along a bottle or two of our fabulous whites, Esprit de Tablas Blanc and/or Viognier, as they are outstanding with everything from crab, lobster, scallops and fish and stand up well to most manner of preparations.

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
It the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I have no idea what wine we’re going to serve!  I can tell you that I’ll be stopping on my way home tonight and making some decisions on the fly.  Rather than a traditional Thanksgiving meal, we’ll be serving Thai food, so that changes the game considerably.  If turkey and stuffing were going to be front and center, I’d be looking for lighter-bodied reds (think Pinot Noir and Grenache-based blends), Rosé, or full, savory whites, such as the spectacular 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc.  If I was attending a large gathering, with the attendant danger of Aunt Martha spiking her wine with Fresca (or worse), I’d lean toward something a little easier on the wallet, like the 2013 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, which is really a superb wine at the price point.

As it is, I’ll be looking for off-dry whites for dinner, and maybe open an older Esprit de Beaucastel later in the evening.  I’ll let you know which vintage next time.

Madeline VanLierop-Anderson, Lab Specialist
My 2014 Thanksgiving wine selection comes from Jura, France.  Jura, a wine region located between Burgundy and Switzerland, is known for its distinct and unusual wines- this bottle certainly falls into a category of it’s own; Champ Divin 2013 Pinot Noir.

Like Tablas Creek, Champ Divin farms their vineyards by both organic and Biodynamic applications making this bottle a unique interest of mine.  This Thursday evening I will enjoy this Pinot with a honey cured spiral cut ham with sides of thinly sliced potatoes gratin, fresh green bean casserole, apple cranberry stuffing and my homemade cranberry sauce. 

As for a post meal beverage- I plan on opening a bottle of 2002 Delamotte Blanc de Blancs in undaunted faith that the San Francisco 49ers will “get stuffed” in feast- I mean Beast Mode by the reining NFL world champion Seattle Seahawks in their new critically acclaimed Levi stadium.  Although my wine is often red, my colors are Green and Blue- GO HAWKS!

As for me?
I'm going to be having dinner at my dad's house, so it sounds like I'll be enjoying some Panoplie.  Left to my own devices, I tend toward riesling and Beaujolais, and I try to pick the biggest bottle that I have available.  It's a party, after all... and nothing says party like a 3-liter bottle of wine!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Robert Haas receives the Rhone Rangers 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award

This past weekend, a big Tablas Creek contingent made the trip up to San Francisco to cheer on my dad as he received the Rhone Rangers 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. I wrote about the significance of the honor when we first received notice of the award, so I won't delve too deeply into the background of his career, but I did want to share the remarkable tribute video that the Rhone Rangers put together and debuted at the awards dinner where he received the honor.  It features interviews with some icons of the California wine industry, including Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, Josh Jensen of Calera, Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery, and Bob Lindquist of Qupe, as well as a wonderful message toward the end from Jean-Pierre Perrin. The warmth of the comments from these titans is palpable, probably my single most memorable impression from seeing the video for the first time.  Take a few minutes to watch it, and then we'll pick back up after:

OK, welcome back.  The ceremony itself was wonderful, highlighted by a touching acceptance speech from my dad and an unexpected appearance by last year's award winner, Bonny Doon Vineyard's inimitable Randall Grahm. I got a photo of the two of them together: the first two Rhone Rangers lifetime achievement award winners:

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This award dinner kicked off a full Rhone Rangers weekend, which included that night's dinner (wonderfully catered by the Girl and the Fig) and live auction, and two seminars and grand trade and consumer tastings the following day.  While the Winemaker Dinner remained on the grounds of the Fort Mason Center (at the nicely restored General's Residence) policy changes at Fort Mason, forced the seminars and tastings to move to the Craneway Pavilion, a gorgeous, newly renovated space in the East Bay:

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On the one hand, it's too bad to leave Fort Mason, which has been home to not just Rhone Rangers for the last fifteen years, but had become the go-to venue for most Bay Area wine events.  But on the other hand, the Craneway's setting is even more beautiful than Fort Mason's, the venue is newly renovated and contains wonderful touches like sound panels on the walls so the hubbub of voices doesn't reach deafening levels, and the practicalities of getting there (freeway access, parking, and public transit) are all in its favor.

And, it wasn't like the organization had any choice.  The changes that the Fort Mason Center has made, all designed to discourage alcohol-related events because of worries and complaints from their local community, left the Rhone Rangers no choice.  Some changes were minor but inconvenient (like their new process for requiring food vendors to individually obtain permits to show their wares, which was so long and time-consuming that the first year it was implemented it cut the number of vendors in half). Others were financial, as they reclassified wine events as "for profit" rather than "nonprofit" (even though organizations like Rhone Rangers are all nonprofit) and raised the costs by some 50%.  But the final requirement, which eliminated a wine event from the long-standing option of holding their same weekend for the next year -- instead allowing them only to reserve a six months out, if they had in the interim been unable to sell the weekend to another event -- meant that organizations like Rhone Rangers couldn't plan or set their schedules, and had no assurance of continuity from year to year.  And there isn't really another viable venue in San Francisco for a tasting like this one of around 100 wineries.  Hence the move to the East Bay.

The good news is that I think that the event landed in a great home.  The venue really is gorgeous, inside and out, and the staff there was great to work with.  Rhone Rangers even ran dedicated ferries across the bay from Embarcadero, which on a day like last Sunday (mid-70's and sunny) would have been a highlight in itself.

I leave you with a few other photos of the wonderful weekend.  First, a photo of my dad, getting the award from Ridge's David Gates, current President of the Rhone Rangers Board of Directors:

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Next, a photo of the lot we donated to raise money for the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund: a six-vintage magnum vertical of our signature Esprit wines, and a private tour, tasting and lunch or dinner with my dad and wines out of his cellar:

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A photo of the seminar space at the Craneway Pavilion, flooded with light:

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And a photo of the Craneway's interior during the Grand Tasting:

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And finally, a photo of me and my dad, taken the night of his award.  It was really an honor to be a part of the festivities, and see my dad get his moment in the limelight.

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Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, Decanter's 2014 Men of the Year

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.

Perrins men of the year

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.


Congratulations to Robert Haas, Rhone Rangers "Lifetime Achievement Award" winner for 2014

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.

Robert Haas Seated on Patio

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.


Reining In Harvest 2013

By Chelsea Franchi

I was standing in the entrance of the cellar on Monday with my hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, watching as a storm rolled over the hills of Paso Robles and finally touch down on our vineyard.

And I had a smile on my face.  

I have a certain fondness for inclement weather, but typically at this time of year, weather like that can be panic inducing.  This year's a bit different, though, as all of our fruit is off the vine and resting comfortably, tucked away safely in tank and barrel.  You can almost feel, and sometimes hear, the soft, gentle crackle as the wines finish up their fermentation.

This cozy, mellow scene feels a world away from where we were just a few weeks ago.  We all knew harvest was going to be early, and it seemed as though we were all parroting the words "harvest is starting soon!" without thinking about what that actually meant.  And then harvest really did start early, and when it started, it was in earnest.  One moment we were leisurely prepping the harvest equipment and suddenly we were hit with a deluge of fruit, with the bulk of it flooding in at once and filling each of our available tanks in the blink of an eye.  We were forced to put our heads down and focus on the tasks directly in front of us and only on October 10th (the last day of harvest) did we dare to glance up and marvel at all we had accomplished in a rather short amount of time.

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Cleaning up after a long day of pressing the pomace (or solids) of red wines

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Hand sorting fruit before it gets pumped into a tank to ferment

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Draining off juice to add to Dianthus rosé

Not only is everything picked, it's also pressed, and so last Friday, the cellar crew grabbed a thief and a handful of glasses to taste through the wines of 2013.  Initially, we were giddy to be tasting through the cellar so early.  However, after the first few wines, the full weight of the situation settled in. Harvest 2013 is in the books.  And you know what?  It's good. The whites seem to have an exuberant quality. They dance across the palate with both brightness and gravity.  The reds are a bit more tricky to read at this stage. Across the board, during punch downs and pump overs, the lots of red were smokey, meaty and rich.  Now, in barrel, many of them are starting to show promise of an unfurling of fruit, spice and depth.  

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I'm going to miss harvest a little bit (but trust me when I say that I can definitely wait until fall of 2014 for the next one).  The easy comraderie that comes with working with people so closely (and for so many hours) is a pretty unique perk of the job.  And this harvest, we had a cast of invaluable characters working alongside us.  I'd like to offer them a public thank you for all their hard work.  We couldn't have done it without them.

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Winemaker Neil Collins pulls samples from a barrel of Grenache Noir

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Viticulturist Levi Glenn takes a break from the vineyard to feed the pigs

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Vineyard Manager David Maduena enjoys a much deserved glass of Mourvedre - in a block of Mourvedre

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Cellar Master Tyler Elwell pumps over a fermenting Syrah lot

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Lab Technician Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson collects a day's worth of coffee mugs

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Cellar Assistant Craig Hamm demonstrates what forklifts are really for (lifting forks)

Harv13_ErichHarvest Intern Erich Fleck fills barrels with espresso in hand

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Harvest Intern Jordan Collins pumps over a fermenting tank of red under the watchful (but sleepy) eye of the cellar mascot, Millie

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Above, Harvest Intern and Tasting Room Employee Gustavo Prieto takes a Tannat shower.  Below, Jordan and Madeline celebrate in a stop animation film of the last bin of Harvest 2013.

 

For the moment, I'm looking forward to the halcyon cellar days to come.  We'll finish cleaning up the mess that harvest left behind and then move forward with looking closely at what we have in the winery and monitoring the fermentation progress of our wines.  The storms have cleared - both the proverbial storm that came crashing through our cellar in the form of fruit, as well as the actual storm that came Monday.  I'm anxious now to see what those two storms yield.