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!


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.


Tablas Creek 101: Why We Are Where We Are

By Robert Haas

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:

US_cretaceous_general

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.


Tablas Creek 101: Why (and How) We Use So Many Grapes

By Robert Haas

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.

13 Cepages Poster

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 Grapes

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:

  • Mourvedre 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 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 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 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.

Redcomponents_0001

White Grapes

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 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.

  • GrenacheBlanc 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 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 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 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.

Whitecomponents_0002

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.