Editor's Note: This interview begins a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better. We're starting, appropriately, with Winemaker Neil Collins, who has made every vintage of Tablas Creek except 1997, when he was working at Beaucastel. If you have questions for Neil, please leave them in the comments.
By: Lauren Phelps
Neil is the Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard and a busy man. He also makes the wines for his own label Lone Madrone, which is run by his sister Jackie and his wife Marci, and a growing line of traditional styled hard apple ciders (Bristols Cider) which you can taste at his new cider bar in Atascadero. Neil’s blend of respect for tradition and willingness to experiment is integral to the spirit of Tablas Creek. We were proud to learn that he was named 2013 San Luis Obispo County Winemaker of the Year in an award voted on by his peers.
I recently sat down with Neil and asked him a few questions about his life, what brought him into the wine industry and his vision for the future of Tablas Creek.
Neil, can you talk a bit about where you were born and what brought you to the States?
I was born and raised in Bristol England, the south-west of England. At that point there weren’t any vineyards, not really anyone making wine, a lot of wine was being consumed but traditionally it was not a wine country, now there is a lot of good wine and cider. I came to the States just to visit my sister Jackie in Santa Barbara for a six-week vacation and I never really left.
Can you tell us about how you met your wife Marci?
So when I ran out of money on my vacation and had to get a job I started working in the kitchen at a restaurant my sister opened with some friends of hers, it was called the Paradise Café in Santa Barbara. Then six months after I started working there, Marci started working in the kitchen and that’s where we met, we met in Paradise.
What began your interest in working with wine and what were your first experiences?
I was working in restaurants and began getting intrigued by wine and its production. The original intent was just to do a year in the cellar; harvest to harvest, to learn so I could understand wine better for the restaurant business. After the year long stint, I just kept going. I started with Wild Horse during the 1991 harvest because the building at Adelaida was still in construction, so even though I got my job offer from Adelaida, I worked one harvest with Ken Volk at Wild Horse. Then after harvest in January of 1992 I moved to Adelaida where I stayed until March of 1997 working along side John Munch. Then I went back to England for 6-months, then to France to Beaucastel for a year and finally to Tablas Creek.
Which winemakers have inspired you the most?
Paul Draper (Ridge Vineyards) has done an incredible job sticking by a great style. He makes great wine, very traditionally and he has stuck by that, his winemaking is meticulous and thorough and they ave great character. Obvously Jacques Perrin who is an inspiration to all of us here, Claude from Beaucastel, and of course I have an immense amount of respect for Ken Volk and John Munch (Le Cuvier), Josh Jensen (Calera), Bob Lindquist (Qupe). Ken Volk was instrumental since my first harvest and he was a great person to learn from because he incredibly throughout and diligent and super meticulous so it was a great foundation because I learned everything the right way. And then Munch is completely the opposite and willing to try anything, experiment and push things to the edge; which the two of those combined is fantastic because you get the complete spectrum and I can take the best from both.
Which is your favorite wine region?
At the moment? It changes, as of today I would say I really like the wines of the Loire Valley, the whites from Alsace and I like Gigondas a lot.
Have you been more drawn recently to whites or reds?
It’s seasonal; there are so many factors like the environment and food. I do like whites, they’re very intriguing. They’re much more transparent, less to hide behind. When they’re beautiful, they’re beautiful. There’s an elegance and balance with whites that’s not easy to accomplish and when it is achieved… well, when it’s really good it’s really good.
What is the story behind Tablas Creek En Gobelet?
So, that started with a desire to plant head-trained vines because we were interested in getting the Grenache to perform a bit better and since most of the great Grenaches of the world that I’m familiar with are head-trained vines, it seemed like a good connection. And then, that paired with our desire at Tablas Creek to make wines that are very reflective of this estate, my opinion would be that dry-farmed, head-trained vines are the purest expression of the given piece of land. So with all of those things combined that would be where the first plantings of head-trained vines came from. We actually started with Mourvedre, not Grenache, in 1999. When that kind of worked, we planted Scruffy Hill and it has proved, at least so far for us, to be a great way to farm and has produced very interesting wines that are unique and different from the other wines that we make.
What is the vision for the recently acquired 160 acre parcel?
The vision for the new property is very much inspired by the success of Scruffy Hill and it’s very similar terroir-wise. It has everything you could want; it’s steep, it faces in every direction and thre’s a kind of knoll in the middle. It’ll be planted 5 to 10 acres a year, at this point, all in the head-trained, dry-farmed style. That’s what we’re planning to start in the spring of 2016 with Grenache, Mourvedre and a little Roussanne.
How has the drought affected the vineyard?
It’s a concern, if it doesn’t rain this year, we’re anticipating that it will, but if it doesn’t, we’ll assess whether or not we’re going to plant the new property. We were going to plant late this summer and we decided that it just doesn’t make sense to get vines started in these conditions. So we put it off until spring of next year. Hopefully we’ll see some rain. We don’t need a lot, but we need something. Planting a dry-farmed vineyard in the 4th or 5th year of a drought is daring business.
Does the possibility of El Nino erosion concern you?
We’ve ordered more cover crop seed than usual and we’re going to get it into the ground earlier than normal. We’re going to get the compost in earlier as well. We’re bringing in more straw than we normally do to put on the steeper roadways. None of this is going to hurt if it doesn’t pan out to be what everyone says it will be.