On Thursday night, my father was awarded 2009 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the California Mid-State Fair. It was a really nice presentation, with my dad's introduction given by Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. He was previously committed to a dinner in Vermont, so I accepted the award in his place. There was good symmetry, as the son of last year's recipient (Jerry Lohr) presented the award to the son of this year's recipient.
In his generous introduction, Steve Lohr spoke about my dad's career, which has spanned more than 50 years in the wine business as a retailer, an importer, a wholesaler, and now, with Tablas Creek, as a vintner. He has had tremendous impact on how Americans buy, drink, and think about wine, and has had an even greater impact on Paso Robles and the rest of the Central Coast. I wrote about his varied career (which I still think is under-appreciated) on the occasion of his eightieth birthday a few years ago, so I won't repeat that here, but I do want to reflect a little on his impact on the local community.
- At the time when he and the Perrins together decided to buy property in Paso Robles, it was on no one's list of up-and-coming California wine regions. Monterey, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, even Lodi were thought of as more compelling regions to explore. Now, Paso is the third-largest (after Napa and Sonoma) and fastest-growing wine region in California, and has more wineries than all of Santa Barbara County. I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance for the Paso Robles area of the decision that my dad and the Perrins made to choose Paso Robles for their project after looking all over California.
- In 1989, no Paso Robles winery was producing any Rhone variety, and the total footprint of Rhone varieties in the AVA was just a couple of acres of Syrah. Now, nearly 90% of Paso Robles wineries produce at least one wine from Rhone varieties, and the Paso Robles AVA is the largest home in California to nearly every major Rhone variety (including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc).
- The decision to import new cuttings of Rhone varieties, and to then make these cuttings available for sale to other producers, changed the face of the Rhone Rangers movement in California. There were only six Rhone grape varieties in California (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Viognier and Marsanne) and Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsaut had mediocre reputations due to the inferior clones that were here. The decision that he and the Perrins made to accept a five-year delay in their planting to bring vines in through a USDA-mandated quarantine and then, even more importantly, to make these clones available to other interested vineyards, gave the Rhone Ranger movement a critical boost at a time when its membership included only a few early pioneers. We believed that getting these clones in more widespread circulation would help us (in classic "rising tide lifts all the boats" manner). The fact that this prediction has turned out to be true should not obscure how extraordinary and generous this decision was.
- When we decided in 1989 that we would follow the lead of the Beaucastel estate and farm our vineyard organically, there were only a handful of vineyards being farmed organically in California (Paul Dolan's experiments with organic viticulture at Fetzer had just begun in 1986). None of these organic vineyards were in Paso Robles, and the consensus of the major American viticultural universities was that farming grapes organically was pointless and difficult. Yet we were convinced that organic viticulture was an essential element of our effort to express the place in which our grapes were grown. The movement toward organic (and even biodynamic)viticulture is now widespread among the best vineyards of California.
- Similarly, we decided that we would ferment with native yeasts, use a minimum of new oak and age our red wines in 1200-gallon foudres. Using native yeasts was unusual (enology professors tended to call it "Russian roulette"), new oak was in fashion, and foudres were unheard of in California. We had to import ours on container ships from France. Now, all three practices have gained dramatically in popularity, as California winemakers have come around to the Old World goal of elevating the expression of terroir to paramount importance.
In addition to these far-seeing decisions that he helped make at the beginning of the Tablas Creek project, he has made a point of working to unify and promote the Paso Robles wine growing region. At the time when the PRVGA (Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association) was weak in the early years of this decade, he resisted calls to split off and form an association of westside-only wineries, and instead made sure that Tablas Creek participated (and continues to participate) fully in the region's local and national promotional efforts. When a Paso Robles Westside AVA petition was introduced, he recognized it as a mistake and began rallying opposition to put together a more comprehensive proposal of AVA's for the Paso Robles region. He serves on the board of the Paso Robles AVA committee, and has consistently been willing to donate his own time and resources in the push to have our viticultural designations be meaningful and scientifically-based.
In addition, he has been very active in the local community, involving Tablas Creek as major sponsors of the arts, including Festival Mozaic, the Paderewski Festival, and the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center. He serves on the board of this last organization, and patrons of the PAC will enjoy some major changes this year (including wines from some of the region's best wineries at the performances) as a part of the $50,000 in new support he coordinated from the Paso Robles wine community.
There is something fitting about the fact that my dad was not there to receive his award. By the time we learned of the award, he had already committed to a dinner at Hemingway's Restaurant in Killington, Vermont, and so asked me to accept the award in his stead. It seems appropriate that, at age 82, my dad would have a work commitment that would keep him from receiving a lifetime achievement award. His acceptance speech, which I delivered for him, is below:
I am honored and pleased to accept this award voted by fellow members of the Paso Robles wine community. Thank you.
And what a great and growing wine community this is! I feel privileged to live and work in this mixed agricultural setting with its rural atmosphere with its fine California weather, earthquakes and all.
I am often asked if our venture at Tablas Creek in partnership with our good friends, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, is the realization of a dream. Actually, it was more of an itch than a dream. For many years while selecting and marketing other peoples’ wine I had been tempted by the idea of owning vineyard and making wine.
However, it took until 1985 and our and the Perrins’ confidence in California, its climates and soils, and the inspiration of Roederer’s vineyard and winery investment in Mendocino, for me to scratch that itch and say to myself. “We can do that.”
We then started to look for a California property that would be suitable for growing Rhône variety grapes. After spending several years stalking the state looking for high pH soils with a Mediterranean climate we ended up in 1990 with 120 acres of pasture in Adelaida and a long term lease for another 30 acres from our neighbor Alan Ramage. Needless to say to those of you who know the area, we did end up with calcareous clay soils with a vengeance. We had to rip before we could plant.
We then brought in cuttings from France, went through the USDA indexing program, started a nursery to multiply and graft, and began to get some grafted vines in the ground in 1996. We now have about 100 acres planted with another 15 to go.
Of course, the Paso Robles wine community grew along with us. When we got here there were some 17 wineries producing. Now, there are over 200. Thanks to a spirit of community cooperation and endeavor, great soils and climate and excellent work by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, Paso Robles has become one of the prime AVAs of California.
What a great place to be! Thank you again.