Here at Tablas Creek there are faces you see often, out in the market or when you visit our tasting room. But there are other faces, equally important, who operate behind the scenes. And these people play a huge role in making this vineyard what it has come to be. One of the goals of our interview series with members of our Tablas Creek team is to help you get to know some of the key people who you might not see out in front of the house. And of these, none is more important than ten-year veteran Monica O'Connor, our stunning and creative Direct Sales Manager. You may know her as the primary voice on the other end of the phone when you call our order desk. But in addition to that role, she's a key piece of our great Wine Club team, an accomplished home cook, and still designing and making clothes: a continuation of her earlier career in fashion.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Los Angeles and grew up on the “Miracle Mile”, not far from LACMA. We spent lots of time at the La Brea Tar Pits and the art museum, walking distance from home and school. It was a great time to grow up in LA!
Being originally from Southern California, what drew you up to the Central Coast?
I came from a large family - I have three brothers and two sisters, and our parents would take us on driving vacations during the summer. I remember loving the central coast area as a child when we would come through, and sometimes stay. There was something enchanting about it to me as a child, and that always drew me here.
How did you transition from a degree in Fashion and Merchandising to the wine industry?
I earned my fashion design degree in 1988 and worked for a time in the industry. I was raising my son at the time and found myself without the time I wanted to spend with him, so when I was offered a position in my family’s printing business, I took it and enjoyed several years working with my father and sister there. I continue to enjoy designing and making clothes though - I have a couple of things in the works now!
When and how did you get into wine?
I became interested in wine through my older brother who has a small collection and has traveled a bit. I would come up to this area to visit, and attended the Paso Robles Wine University in 2004 and 2005, a weekend of learning about wine growing and appreciation. It was fun, but I mostly become interested in the art and science of wine. It was then that I discovered Tablas Creek, as Jason was a speaker in a few of the seminars. I ventured out here and took the tour, and subsequently joined the wine club! Not long after, I took a UC Davis course with Carole Meredith, and ultimately decided to leave LA to make the move here.
What is your role at here at the winery?
I am the Direct Sales Manager, and my role is to broaden, and add value to the relationships with members established in the tasting room and nurtured through the Wine Club.
What’s your biggest challenge as Direct Sales Manager?
My biggest challenge is probably in making it all move like a waltz! We have many members and I want to know them, what they like and expect. Fine-tuning this and communicating within are goals I’m always striving for.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
I have not traveled extensively but I will say that some of my favorite wines are Champagnes. I also love and am fascinated by Burgundy wines. One of my favorite varietals is Sangiovese. Local wineries I like to visit are Bella Luna in Templeton, and down in Arroyo Grande, Laetitia, for their sparkling wines.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
If I had to pick just one red and white to drink for the next month? No question, the white would be the 2015 Esprit Blanc. It reminds me a little of the 2007, which I adored. Its depth and high notes are totally balanced and it’s perfectly beautiful. For the red, well the recent heat is really influencing me here - I have to say the Tablas 2016 Counoise. Chilled, friendly with any summer food you can think of - it’s a natural!
Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I love coming up with new food and wine pairings, but I have a special love for Mourvedre. And paired with a simple filet steak rare, with a perfect crust . . . something delicious and unfussy to savor!
How do you like to spend your days off?
On the weekends I love to run on the beach or hike, design and make clothes and create new recipes. I recently made preserved lemons - so easy, I don’t know why I never made them before! They make everything that calls for lemons better - try it!
What would people be surprised to know about you?
One thing people might be surprised to know about me is that I’m a yoga teacher. I have helped people with yoga therapy, and though I haven’t taught a group class in many years, I love yoga and believe it has far-reaching benefits.
What is one of your favorite memories here?
One of my favorite memories here at Tablas Creek is hearing Bob’s stories. He had many and I heard only a few first-hand, but the way he distilled his experiences, and communicated them was really special. I know I am very fortunate to have had these impromptu interactions with Robert Haas.
How do you define success?
Success to me is living a life that is always creative. Not only working on creative projects, but making every decision and being able to act from my creative center. Those I admire most live this way at every age, and I hope I will too.
This is but a scratch at the surface of how incredible this woman is, so we hope you're as in love with her as we are!
It is with sadness that I write to report that my dad, Tablas Creek's co-founder Robert Haas, passed away last weekend, one month before his 91st birthday. Followers of Tablas Creek likely know him from his time here at the winery, either at events like our blending seminars, or from his articles on this blog. He was a regular presence at Tablas Creek well into his tenth decade.
What many of you may not know is the impact he had on the American wine market before Tablas Creek ever got off the ground, or what he was like as a person. I hope to share some of each of these in this piece, as well as some of my favorite photos of him. And we may as well start here, from his 89th birthday party two Aprils ago:
My dad was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 18th, 1927. His father Sidney ran a gourmet butcher shop named M. Lehmann that he had inherited from his uncle Morris Lehmann. My dad would talk about going to visit his grandparents and walking over to Ebbets Field, and would remain a Dodgers fan for life. One of my favorite gifts I ever got for him was a ball signed by Sandy Koufax. Small but strong and quick, he also played baseball and was a good enough shortstop to get an invitation to an open Dodgers tryout from a scout while he was in high school, and a good enough athlete to win summer camp tennis tournaments despite never really playing the sport.
After the repeal of prohibition Sidney was on the ball enough to get New York's first retail liquor license, and turned M. Lehmann into a liquor store and eventually New York's top fine wine shop. Meanwhile my grandparents had moved to Scarsdale, NY, in the suburbs, and my dad had gained a sister, my aunt Adrienne. After high school, he followed in his grandfather's footsteps and went to Yale, but interrupted his studies and enlisted in the Navy in December of 1944. After two years in the Navy, he returned to Yale, graduated class of 1950, and joined his father's business.
While there, he convinced his father -- who thought no one would ever pay for wine before they could take possession of it -- to put out the first-ever futures offer on Bordeaux, commissioning hand-colored lithographs describing the qualities of the 1952 vintage and selling out the 1500 cases he had reserved in just a few weeks. When the store was looking for a new buyer for their French wine after the death of Raymond Baudouin in 1953, my dad and his two years of college French jumped at the opportunity. His goal on this first French trip in 1954 was ostensibly to find a new wine buyer. But I've always gotten the sense from him that he decided quickly that there was no way anyone but him was going to do that job. I asked him just a few weeks ago if that was true, and he responded "Yes, I pretty much knew at the end of my first day that this was what I wanted to do". So, at age 27, he became M. Lehmann's wine buyer, and soon after started cultivating relationships with distributors in other states, so he could be a better customer for the suppliers whose wines he was buying. Meanwhile, he had married, and had his first two children, my sister Janet and brother Danny.
It was in this period that he cemented his relationships with many of the Burgundy suppliers who are still crown jewels of the Vineyard Brands import book: iconic estates like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, and Dauvissat. He also agreed to buy the lion's share of the production of Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus after their British agents balked at a price increase for the iconic 1961 vintage, and represented them exclusively over the next decade.
His relationship with my grandfather was not always smooth. I know there was tension where my grandfather wanted him to spend more time minding the store, and less time traveling around France buying wine and around America selling it. Sidney was at heart a merchant, not a wine lover. I believe he thought my dad would settle down at some point, and was surprised that when he announced that he was ready to retire, my dad suggested he sell M. Lehmann and my dad would take the contacts he'd made and turn them into an importing business. But neither backed down, and that's what happened. After an initial ill-fated sale to one of its employees, the rival Sherry Wine & Spirits bought M. Lehmann and merged the two to become Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, which remains one of New York's iconic wine shops to this day.
The late 1960s was a difficult period for my dad in a few ways. He was a one-man show, often advocating for wine in a market that didn't yet value it. He worked for a few years to build a wine division within Barton Brands, who had bought the inventory from my grandfather's import company, before he realized that they were so much more interested in liquor that getting them to focus on wine was hopeless. And his first marriage had ended, although he did meet my mom not long after, on a flight back to New York from Florida. When my mom Barbara first visited his apartment, she remembers the entire contents of his fridge being a few condiments and a bottle of vodka. A photo from their wedding, in January 1968:
It was in this period that he first met Jacques Perrin and convinced him to sell him some wine from the Beaucastel cellar. [The remarkable story where I found one of these bottles on the legendary wine list at Bern's Steak House is told in full in one of my favorite-ever blog posts, from 2012]. He built upon this relationship with Jacques' son Jean-Pierre, with whom he developed the La Vieille Ferme brand. From a beginning of a few hundred cases, sold as an exclusive to Sherry-Lehmann in 1970, it is now the largest French wine brand in the world. In the end he decided to set up shop on his own, first in New York and then, when they got tired of city living, from the converted barn of the 1806 Vermont farmhouse to which they moved in 1970. He incorporated Vineyard Brands in 1973, the same year that I was born. This photo of Jacques (left) and my dad is from that very same year, which I know because there's also a photo of me, age 5 months, sitting on Jacques' lap from the same visit.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, he balanced additions to the estate side of Vineyard Brands with new brands, championing Rioja (Marques de Caceres), Chile (Santa Rita), and New Zealand (Villa Maria). He also had his second daughter and fourth child, my sister Rebecca, and was active in the Chester, Vermont community, serving on the school board and as a little league coach. Long-time employees of Vineyard Brands still remember us coming back to the house in uniform as they were getting ready for dinner.
He was not infallible in his business judgments; he had an ongoing tendency to be ahead of the market, championing regions that are now critical darlings like Beaujolais, Languedoc, and Oregon a decade or longer before the market was ready to accept them. But he had a terrific nose for regions or wines that were punching above their cost, and was willing to put in the work to establish regions and producers at the same time.
This instinct was on full view in California, where he represented some of the greats of the first generation in Napa and Sonoma, like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and he helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s as the California Chardonnay wave was gathering. When he was in California with Jean-Pierre Perrin or his brother Francois, he would bring them to visit California wineries to see what they thought, and they together came away both convinced that California was capable of making world-class wines and confused as to why no one was trying Rhone varieties in the clearly Mediterranean climate. Abstract discussions in the mid-1970s gradually became more serious, and they decided to start looking for property together in 1985, even as each was fully engaged in growing their own businesses. This photo of my dad with Jean-Pierre and Francois at Beaucastel is from around that time:
I first became aware that my dad was a big deal in certain circles when I read an article ("Have Palate, Will Travel") in a 1988 edition of the Wine Spectator. The photo below, which is one of my favorites of him, must have been from the same photo session, since he's wearing the same outfit. He's leaning against the gate of one of the gardens at our Vermont house. He hadn't yet started to step back from the day-to-day operations at Vineyard Brands, but he would soon, to focus on Tablas Creek:
By the early 1990's, my dad had turned over the running of Vineyard Brands to his second-in-command there, and the relationships with the French suppliers to my brother Danny. How he did so says a lot about him. He saw an ad in the Boston Globe about a seminar promoting a new federal program called an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) which could be used to turn a business over to its employees. And that's what he did: in essence, Vineyard Brands bought itself from him, and is now owned by its employees. This has allowed the company to remain independent, to continue to grow and thrive after my dad's retirement, and to enjoy a continuity and longevity from its team that is almost unheard of in this age. There are still significant portions of the senior leadership of Vineyard Brands that were hired by my dad, more than 25 years ago. And my dad was able to take the money and invest it in Tablas Creek.
The search to find Tablas Creek and the development of the property here is likely better known to readers of this blog, but I think the same willingness to be ahead of the curve was in evidence in the decision to settle on Paso Robles at a time when few people were talking about it, and the focus on blends when the marketplace was firmly oriented toward varietals. But in both cases, he was convinced that what mattered was the right raw materials (soils, climate, rainfall) and the right winemaking decisions. The rest was simply a question of perseverance. The photo of the ceremonial planting of the first vines released from quarantine in 1992 shows (from left) Jean-Pierre Perrin, my cousin Jim O'Sullivan, my mom and dad, Charlie Falk (who worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and then helped with the search for Tablas Creek), Charlie's wife Gretchen Buntschuh, and Jean-Pierre's wife Bernadette Perrin.
As Tablas Creek grew from an idea into a business, it encountered many of the challenges faced by any startup. We overestimated the readiness of the market for the blends we were making, and underestimated the importance of taking an active role in our own marketing. But the fundamental idea that my dad and the Perrins had was a good one, and this spot has turned out to be an extraordinary one in which to grow Rhone grape varieties. And because of my dad's business philosophy -- that you make your best guess at what you need to do, put the resources behind it, and then be willing to adjust your strategy based on what you learn -- we were able to make the changes that eventually allowed Tablas Creek to thrive.
Perhaps most important to Tablas Creek's legacy will end up being the partners' decision to bring in grapevine cuttings rather than live with what was already in California, and to make the clones we'd imported available to the community. More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings, and my dad was always convinced that our decision to bring in vines spurred the reversal of a long-standing policy by ENTAV (the French national nursery service) against partnering with out-of-country nurseries. This policy change has led to the import of hundreds of new varieties and clones, and a new flowering of diversity in American grapegrowing, Rhone and otherwise.
My dad maintained an active role at Tablas Creek up until the very end. I often heard from his friends that they thought that his passion for this project kept him young, and I believe that. In the period in the mid-2000's when we were pushing to establish Tablas Creek in the market, he was out there (in his 70's and 80's, mind you), riding around with our distributors, making presentations to restaurants and retailers, up and down subway steps during the day and hosting dinners and tastings in the evening. A quiet retirement this was not. But he was always willing to put his own effort behind the things he believed in, and if this was what needed to be done, he was going to do it. And the example of the Perrins, who are now on their fifth generation running their estate, is an inspiring one for all of us. The photo below, from 2009, shows my dad at lower left, and then (continuing counter-clockwise) me, Francois Perrin, Francois' son Cesar, and our winemaker Neil Collins, who has been here so long he might as well be family. It's not only in Vineyard Brands that the longevity of the employees my dad hired is in evidence; it's a hallmark of every business he's been a part of.
By the early 2010s, my dad had cut back a little but was still coming into the vineyard 3-4 days per week, and had stopped going out and working the market but was still hosting 4-6 wine dinners a year around the country. He led the 2015 Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise with my mom. And he was starting to be recognized as the living icon that he was. One of the nicest windows I got into how others saw him was in the production and ceremony for the lifetime achievement award he received from the Rhone Rangers in 2014. The video incorporated his story with interviews with many of the wine industry titans whose lives and careers he impacted. I've been re-watching it a lot this week.
In the last few years, my dad's health issues escalated; he endured a stroke 18 months ago, and wasn't able to be at the vineyard as much. But he and my mom still maintained an active role in the community, and he continued his work with the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, in San Luis Obispo. In 2009, he he created a new "winery partners" program for the Foundation that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support arts in our local community. He continued to lead this program until last year, and asked at the end that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the foundation.
As he did with the rest of his life, he knew what he did and didn't want for his death. He wanted to be at home, he wanted to have family around, and he didn't want a fuss made. So last week, as it became clear that the end was near, my siblings flew out and joined my mom and me here in Paso Robles. He was lucid until Friday evening, and peaceful at the end. And I will forever be grateful for the time I got to spend with him, not just at the end, not just growing up, but in working with him for the last fifteen years. It's not every son who gets to know his dad as an adult, and gets to see him through the eyes of others who know him professionally. Hearing, over the last few days, from all the people whose lives he impacted over his long life and career, has been an unexpected treat in this difficult time. Thank you to everyone who has reached out. We will all miss him.
He strolls into my office, bright and bushy-eyed with his dilapidated Yeti in hand, no doubt on his fourth or fifth cup considering he’s been up with the sun. His stained brown Carhartts do little to hide the evidence of our lambing season that is currently going on here at Tablas Creek Vineyard. As intrigued as I am, I dare not ask about the exact origins of the stains because after all, I myself am barely through my first cup. Maya, one of his Border Collies, slinks in and flops down upon my feet. Already this is an interview I can get behind.
Nathan Stuart is our shepherd here at Tablas Creek, and one of the central figures in our recent co-branding with outdoor retail giant Patagonia Inc. We all know them for their unparalleled wizardry with all things fleece and Goretex, but they also represent something far beyond climbing gear and backcountry men with a penchant for beards.
Not only is Patagonia a leading example on sustainable, green business practices with their Footprint and Worn Wear programs, but they are also one of the leading corporate voices in the fight for preserving our lands for generations to come.
They are known for radical moves such as donating 100% of their Black Friday sales to grassroots nonprofits ($10 million in 2016 alone). And their recent fight with the federal government on behalf of our national parks. The fact that they are a B Corp -- a for-profit company that is using the power of business to solve social or environmental problems -- says a lot. Their mission statement is "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
You could say we’re fans.
Late last year, we became one of the companies in the United States that Patagonia has been willing to co-brand with. Co-branding happens when two brands agree to join forces to share a product indicative of both their identities. Upon learning this, I was eager to unpack what the process was that led to this move by both our companies, as well as why we were chosen to be one of the companies to share brands on their gear and be able to resell it in our tasting room. I can also safely say, the Tablas crew has never looked more dashing battling the frosty morning winters here in Paso.
Basically it all boils down to two words: carbon sequestration.
If that phrase makes you scratch your head as much as it did me, have no fear because that is where our indomitable shepherd Nathan comes in, along with our Viticulturist and resident vine whisperer Jordan Lonborg to explain the science behind it. But first, some context.
Since our inception, Tablas Creek has made it a priority to farm with as positive an environmental impact as possible. We have been organic since the day our first rootstock touched the soil and certified Demeter biodynamic as of last year. As Nathan says in his characteristically blunt way, “at Tablas we were organic before it was popular. We’re certified biodynamic which is just taking that to the next level. We’re holding ourselves to a higher accountability and pushing to create something that goes beyond us.”
Our flock of some two-hundred sheep and alpacas, plus a llama and donkey or two, is the core of our vineyard's holistic management program. According to Nathan, "holistic management encompasses organic, biodynamic, mob grazing, rotational and regenerative grazing, and asks how we can best benefit the land. We use varied processes depending on the acres, so we are responding directly to the land and listen to what it needs from us to build the relationship." The sheep are moved every couple days to a new section of the vineyard, where they fertilize and till the soil, providing nutrients for our vines and controlling weeds. "The way we manage the sheep on our land is attempting to mimic the buffalo of the plains in centuries past" Nathan continues. The American plains were amongst the most fertile soils in the world, massive repositories of organic carbon, and the rotational grazing provided naturally by the vast, moving herds of American buffalo were a large part of why.1
While our grazing plan falls into Nathan’s sheepish hands, the care of the vines themselves is the responsibility of Jordan Lonborg, our Viticulturist. Upon joining the Tablas family in 2016, one of Jordy's first goals was to move forward with biodynamic certification. He broke down the soil and vine management in a way that didn’t leave my right-oriented brain spinning:
"We are creating a self-sustaining ecosystem right on the property. In order to do this we need to maintain the balance of the land. All of our grape skins, stems, and vine prunings are incorporated into our massive compost program and are returned to the soil on a yearly basis. We capture native bee swarms on the property and raise them to assist in pollination of our cover crops. There are large swaths of beneficial insect gardens planted throughout the vineyard to attract predatory insects, as well as providing a source of nectar and pollen for the honey bees in this arid climate. We also have an ever increasing raptor program on our acres as well. To enhance biodiversity we plant at least one fruit tree for every acre of grapevines on the ranch. Most importantly, we employ a group of 8-10 people throughout the entire year for vineyard work rather than hire random crews for labor as we need them. Our footprint is already smaller than most in this industry and we only plan on continuing to make moves to decrease it.”
So how do regenerative grazing and bee swarms and all these holistic processes tie into carbon sequestration? Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in another form to help slow or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the vast majority of which are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Soil that is treated with anthropogenic fertilizers or pesticides is not able to accumulate or break down the organic matter that holistic soils can. Organic matter equals carbon in the soil, rather than the atmosphere. And there are other benefits. In Nathan's words: "Soil holds carbon. Carbon holds water. So if we hold more carbon in the soil instead of the atmosphere, we’re pulling more water out of the air. And water vapor is another greenhouse gas. Think of it like a holistic raindance if you will, which is attempting to slow the heating of our climate. The carbon is in the wrong place at the wrong time and we’re working on doing what we can to set us on the right path once again." Carbon sequestration is the key, ultimately, to reversing the most critical environmental impacts of the industrial revolution, and is the ultimate goal of the new wave of sustainable agriculture.
A short video that Nathan referred me to called The Soil Story by Kiss the Ground proved to be immensely insightful. Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit working on creating greater public engagement with the pervasive issue of global soil restoration. And not to mention their graphics guy has some serious skills.
Between our holistic approach to vineyard management and Patagonia's stalwart belief in the fundamental importance of sustainable green business practices, the co-branding is something we can all be proud of. When I asked Jordy why he thought the Patagonia co-branding made sense he replied,
"When it comes down to it, it’s about trying to be the best stewards of the land we could possibly be. I think that’s the bottom line of both companies, obviously there’s a profitability side to it and everyone’s got to be able to run a business and make money, but that’s not the reason we come to work everyday. We use our position in the wine industry to shed light on important sustainability processes. And in the end we do spend more money than most wineries to achieve that stewardship and I think Patagonia’s probably right along the same path."
Leslie Castillo, our Tasting Room Team Lead as well as the wife of our shepherd Nathan, and avid reader of everything Yvon Chouinard, was our point woman in reaching out and building our relationship with Patagonia. “I 100% believe in what we do here at the vineyard with our wines, and so I also wanted to start working with people and companies that are like-minded, people that care about the planet in an intentional way and not just for marketing. I see that in Patagonia.”
She, along with all of us here at Tablas who strive to uphold the ideals we think a business should embody, are fortified all the more by the decision to co-brand with a company such as Patagonia.
We are merely two companies amongst thousands in our respective fields. But we each try to do our part individually. If we can work together to accomplish more, we should.
In the early days of Tablas Creek, we followed a very simple model: one red wine (which we called "Rouge") and one white wine (which we called "Blanc"). In 1999, we got really crazy and added a pink wine, which we called (of course) "Rosé".
Things have changed since then, as we've come to know both our vineyard and the market better, and this year we'll bottle, by my count, 29 different wines: 13 reds, 13 whites, 2 rosés, and one sweet wine. These include our three tiers of blends, a pretty wide range of varietal wines, particularly on the white side (thank you, rainy 2016-17 winter), some small-production wine club-only blends, and one special project we're doing in conjunction with the team at Bern's Steakhouse. I'm grateful to have the flexibility and opportunity to make these different wines, which I feel show off the uniqueness of our grapes and the talent of our vineyard and winemaking team.
That said, when we get to the blending, Neil and I always look at each other and remark that it used to all be so easy: as long as we liked the lots, they all went to the same place.
So, it was with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation that I opened a bottle of our 1997 Rouge while I was back in Vermont for the holidays. This was where it all began, and it was not just the reflection, or the essence, of the vineyard that year, but the entirety of our red production. Even so, we only made about 2000 cases. It was the first harvest off the Beaucastel cuttings we had brought into the country, as they were kept in quarantine between 1989 and 1992, and then required two years of propagation before we could plant our first block in 1994. To this, we added small amounts of fruit from our American-sourced one-acre blocks of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, most of which we have since grafted over to French clones. And even these older blocks were only planted in 1992, so the oldest vines in the vineyard were five years old in 1997.
"The scent of this wine draws you in, then the texture holds you effortlessly. What’s great about this Rhône blend, however, is not just the deep, dark scent of dried cherries and wet stones, not just the succulent red fruit flavor and voluptuous feel. When it’s gone it leaves a memory of earthiness and a clean, refreshing taste. The wine isn’t about complexity. It focuses on perfect ripeness, and the delicious savory flavors and textures that come with such impeccably balanced grapes. A joy to drink. This is the first release from Tablas Creek, a joint venture between Château de Beaucastel’s Perrin family and their longtime importer Robert Haas."
Because it was so long ago, because we no longer make a "Rouge", and because there wasn't much of the wine to begin with, I don't get to open the 1997 Rouge all that often. So, it was a treat to see that, even as it approaches its 21st birthday, it's still going strong.
My notes from the dinner:
"A deep, rich nose of hoisin, pine forest, currant, green peppercorn, nutmeg, and a coolness that's surprising from such a warm vintage. The mouth is full of sweet fruit: red raspberry and cocoa powder, and a rich texture with tannins that feel like powdered sugar. A little mushroomy earthiness is the wine's best hint of its age. Shows nice tanginess on the finish and some still-substantial tannins that linger. Fully mature, but nowhere close to over the hill."
What a relief that it's finally old enough to drink.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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):
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:
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:
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.
In the early 1970’s Jean-Pierre Perrin accompanied me when I was visiting my then Napa Valley suppliers of Vineyard Brands: Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Clos du Val and Phelps. We took a little tour of the valley and he remarked that it was extraordinary that, in a climate that seemed extremely apt, there were none of the grape varieties traditional to the Rhône. It was this experience that was the beginning of the idea of doing it ourselves. However, we were pretty busy developing our own businesses at the time and the idea, never forgotten, got shelved for a while.
In 1985, we decided to give it a try and began seeking a proper location. We were looking for three things: a Mediterranean climate similar to that of the southern Rhône, enough annual rainfall to grow grapes without having to irrigate regularly, and maybe most importantly – certainly most restrictively – calcareous (chalky) clay soils similar to those of Beaucastel.
As we had noted in the 1970’s, much of coastal California has a classic Mediterranean climate. But more specifically, we wanted an area with both a long growing season to ripen late-ripening grapes like Mourvèdre and Roussanne and moderating influence (like elevation, nighttime cooling or fog) that could keep the earlier ripening Rhone varieties like Syrah and Viognier from becoming heavy and flabby. Paso Robles has the largest day-night swing in temperature of any wine growing region in North America, typically 45 degrees and often more. (This week, we’ve had several days with 55 degree swings: daytime highs over 100 and nighttime lows in the 40’s!) The proximity of the cold Pacific Ocean, which never gets much above 60 degrees even in mid-summer, and the dry summer climate that allows the day’s heat to radiate off at night provide cooling, while the relatively unbroken 3000-foot high Santa Lucia mountains protect the region during the daytime and allow it to warm up.
Even better, the further south you go in California, the later the onset of the winter rainy season. We typically get our first serious winter rainstorm in the middle of November, two weeks later than our colleagues in Napa and a month later than those in Sonoma. The extra weeks matter in cool years, and we have harvested into November five of the last seven vintages.
The lower limit for dry-farming grapevines is about 25 inches of rain annually. We get that much here thanks to our 1500-foot elevation and our location in the Santa Lucia foothills just 11 miles from the Pacific. Pacific storms are pushed up into cooler air as they cross over the mountains. This cooler air can carry less moisture, so the clouds drop it as rainfall. Our average rainfall of about 28 inches is double what the town of Paso Robles receives just ten miles further east and 800 feet lower. We figure we’re just about the most southerly location in California (and one of the warmest) to receive this much rainfall.
Finally, and we thought most importantly, we felt that chalky soils would give us, as they do in the southern Rhône Valley, healthier vines with better water retention, better nutrient availability, healthier root system development and more disease resistance (for a full discussion of the qualities of chalky soils, see the 2010 blog post Why Limestone Matters for Grape Growing). We found our spot after four years of searching: 120 acres of rugged hilly terrain in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountains. We bought it and that was the birth of Tablas Creek Vineyard.
But why are there chalky soils here? The story begins sixty-five million years ago, toward the end of the Cretaceous period, when the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex ranged the land. At that time, the continental United States was largely covered by shallow seas, with only the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain ranges on dry land. What are now the central plains and the southeast, and both the east and west coasts (including what is now Paso Robles) were under the ocean. A map from the USGS shows it well:
The Pacific plate was then, as now, moving east and colliding with the North American plate, pushing up the land that now forms the western shore of the North American continent. (A fascinating series of maps on the Paleogeography and Geologic Evolution of North America can be found at http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~rcb7/nam.html)
The Cretaceous period, starting about one hundred forty million years ago and ending sixty-five million years ago, was the earth’s most active period of chalk formation. Chalk is principally calcium carbonate. The circulation of seawater through mid-ocean sea ridges during the Cretaceous – a time when mid-ocean ridges were unusually active – made Cretaceous oceans particularly rich in calcium. This richness stimulated the growth of calcareous nanoplankton, the tiny sea creatures whose calcium-rich skeletons settle to the sea floor and eventually accumulate to form chalk and its metamorphic relations limestone and marble. It was during the Cretaceous that the chalk cliffs of Dover and the chalky hillsides of Champagne and the Loire were formed; as were the chalky clay soils around Tablas Creek in west Paso Robles.
The seas began to recede toward the end of the Cretaceous and continued through the Tertiary, driven initially by the slower growth of mid-sea ridges and a cooler climate that would eventually trap large quantities of water in glaciers. The sedimentary chalk-rich rocks that had been laid down in the Cretaceous were exposed throughout the middle portions of the United States. In California, seismic activity pushed up calcareous soils in only a few places, principally along the Santa Lucia Mountain range, where these soils were folded and intermixed with older continental and volcanic soils. Much of these soils are west of the coastal range, in climates too cool to ripen Rhone varieties. It was our good fortune that one large exposed chalky layer was east of the coastal range, in west Paso Robles and Templeton.
So, all three components come together here in Paso Robles. Chalky soils sit at the surface. We typically get enough rain to farm without having to irrigate. And it warms up enough to grow the grapes we love, while staying moderated enough to keep them in balance.
Last night a long-time friend and wine lover asked why we planted and utilized so many different varieties of Rhône grapes in our Tablas Creek wines and what their individual contributions are to our six different blends, or assemblages as they are known in France.
Well, there are multiple reasons that there are multiple grapes.
First, and probably foremost, since we were confident of California’s ability to produce fine Rhône style wines, and we were partnering with the Perrins, we selected the varieties they favored: the traditional grapes of Châteuneuf-du-Pape and the Rhône Valley. The appellation of Châteauneuf–du-Pape permits thirteen different varieties: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, and Muscardin. The Beaucastel poster below shows all thirteen, all of which they use though the last four only in trace quantities. If you count Grenache noir and blanc – both very much planted – the number actually comes to fourteen.
We decided to import the bud wood from France of nine varieties we thought would best perform in our chalky clay soils and our hot-in-the-day, cold-in-the-night climate: Mourvèdre, Grenache (Noir), Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and two traditional Côtes du Rhone white varieties that are not allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation: Viognier and Marsanne.
There is tradition but there is also practicality. A second reason for the different varieties is the viticultural usefulness of varieties that bud and mature in different calendar periods. This spring, for example, we suffered extreme frosts on two consecutive early April mornings. The early budders Viognier, Grenache Noir and Blanc, Marsanne sustained near 100% damage while the later-budding Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Picpoul and Syrah were not yet out and were relatively undamaged.
Another viticultural plus is that with different ripening cycles we enjoy a longer harvest. Our harvest is typically spread across 10 weeks, from early September to early November, which allows us to make more efficient use of our cellar and our winemaking team. Of course, we won’t enjoy this benefit this year: the frosted vines that re-sprouted will be delayed in ripening and everything will be coming in late and together. We will be heap plenty scrambling this October.
Probably most important in our choices, however, is the different roles that the different varieties play in the makeup of our Rhône style blends. Just as different ingredients in a dish can complement or highlight specific flavors, so can the diverse flavors of different varieties create a blended wine that is more than the sum of its parts. The Rhone blending tradition developed over thousands of years because blending these varieties consistently produces more complex, more elegant and more intriguing wines than any of the varieties vinified alone.
Red wines are the most associated with Rhône varieties so let’s start with our red assemblages. First, a review of the characteristics that each of the four principal red Rhone grapes brings to a blend:
Mourvèdre is our most planted grape, dark purple-black in color, providing structure, backbone, and aging potential. It tastes of ripe plum and strawberry fruit, with animal flavors of red meat and mushrooms when young, and leather and truffles as it ages.
Grenache provides lush fruit and bright acidity. It tastes of currant, cherry, and raisin, with aromatic spice of black pepper, menthol, and licorice, and is a brilliant ruby red color.
Syrah gives a deep blue-black color and provides aromatics, firm structure and ageability to blends, with characteristic aromas of smoke, bacon fat, and mineral, flavors of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, firm back-palate tannins.
Counoise is a medium purple-red color, with brambly flavors of blueberry and raspberry fruit, spice notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and bright acidity that enlivens a blend.
These four grapes combine in each of our three red Rhone blends to make very different wines.
The Esprit de Beaucastel is our flagship blend of the best lots in our cellar, and based on the structure, firm, ripe tannins, red fruit, full body and the ageability of Mourvèdre. Syrah firms up the back palate and brings savory spice, dark color and minerality, while Grenache contributes ripe dark chocolate and cherry flavors and lush fruit. A touch of Counoise unifies and brightens the blend with its brambly spice.
Our Côtes de Tablas celebrates the lush fruitiness, dark chocolate, chalky tannins and licorice of Grenache. Syrah balances Grenache’s lushness with minerality and pepper spice, while Mourvèdre’s structure and plum flavor should come out with age. Counoise, at its highest percentage in any of our wines, gives raspberry brightness and opens the wine for near- to mid-term consumption.
Our Patelin de Tablas is a blend focused on Syrah’s dark color, peppery spice and minerality. We add a significant percentage of Grenache for its generous red fruit and roundness of flavor, some Mourvèdre for backbone and ageability, and just a touch of Counoise for brightness and spiciness.
Although the Rhone Valley, like Paso Robles, is better known for reds than whites, there are nearly a dozen white grapes traditional there, and we’ve imported five of them. These have thrived in Paso Robles – so much so that from our original plan to plant 20% whites we’ve increased our white plantings to roughly 35% of our production. Let’s again review the characteristics of each of the five:
Roussanne is our most planted white grape variety. It has rose petal, white tea and honeysuckle aromatics, a deep golden color, and flavors of honey and ripe pear. It provides excellent aging potential with a rich glycerin mouth feel and moderate acidity.
Grenache Blanc has firm acidity, green apple and citrus flavors, and white flower aromatics. It is the 4th most widely planted white grape in France, and its crisp acids complement many of the lower-acid white Rhône varietals.
Marsanne tastes of melon and minerals, and has a golden straw color. It is a flexible and adaptable grape found throughout the Rhone valley. Its quiet elegance provides a valuable counterpoint to more exuberant varieties like Viognier and Roussanne.
Viognier is highly aromatic, with aromas of peach, apricot, and violets. It typically is quite lush with flavors of stone fruits and low to moderate acidity and is usually best consumed young.
Picpoul produces wines noteworthy for their bright acidity, minerality, and clean lemony flavor. In California it adds a tropical lushness reminiscent of Piña Colada that is delicious on its own but also makes for an excellent blending component.
As with the reds, these grapes combine to make three very different white wines.
Our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is the flagship of our white wine fleet, modeled consciously after Beaucastel’s renowned white. Roussanne provides the core richness, minerality, and flavors of honey and spice, while Grenache Blanc adds green apple and anise flavors, lush mouth feel and bright acids. Picpoul Blanc completes the blend, bringing out a saline minerality present in Roussanne but latent without Picpoul’s characteristic acidity.
The Côtes de Tablas Blanc showcases the lushness of Viognier, but with Viognier’s tendency toward softness and heaviness mitigated by its blending partners. Grenache Blanc provides crisp acids while Roussanne adds structure and Marsanne minerality. As the wine ages, a transformation occurs as what was once an overtly floral, fruity wine – clearly marked by Viognier – becomes more mineral as Marsanne takes the lead.
Our Patelin de Tablas Blanc focuses on the crisp acids and minerality of Grenache Blanc. We add Viognier for lush, tropical fruit, and Roussanne and Marsanne for structure and complexity, but the balance is intentionally different from the Côtes Blanc. We’ve chosen brighter Grenache Blanc lots for the Patelin Blanc, so that it is the lemon and mineral side of the grape that shows at the fore, with its richness and Viognier’s lush fruit playing secondary roles.
So, the utilization of these multiple Rhône varieties in different proportions and from different cellar lots allows us to create a broad palette of six wines that fit different occasions and different foods, ranging in the whites from the crisp bright acidity of the Patelin Blanc through the power of the Côtes Blanc to the full-bodied elegance and ageability of the Esprit Blanc. The reds go from the firm, spicy character of the Patelin through the powerful and luscious Côtes to the structured, full-bodied richness and elegance (and ageability) of the Esprit.