Giving Robert Haas the Send-off He Deserved
April 17, 2018
This Sunday, we hosted a celebration of my dad's life here at the vineyard. We tried to make it an event my dad would have enjoyed: good food and wine, not too formal, a chance for people to tell stories in different ways, either to speak to the whole audience, to reminisce in smaller groups, or to record a video with Nathan, our Shepherd/Videographer. About 350 people came, from as far away as France and Vermont, wine folks from all over California, and a great representation of the local wine community. The mood was one of appreciation, not sadness, which I thought was great. Yes, we are all sad to lose him, but at almost 91 he had a great and long life, achieved so many goals that he had, and laid the foundation for many others to succeed after him.
I will forever be grateful to everyone who helped put this event together. There were many, but a few principal ones were Neil Collins, who did a masterful job organizing leading the storytelling; Chef Jeff Scott, who put together a great array of foods for the gathering including my dad's favorite East Coast oysters and Tablas Creek lamb; my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, who assembled a selection of music from my dad's favorite artists and eras, Nathan Stuart, who spent his day filming reminiscences and the breaks taking photos; the many volunteers from the Paso Robles wine community, who manned the food and wine stations so that the team here could participate fully in the event; and finally Kyle Wommack, Wonder Woman and master event coordinator, who pulled together all the pieces of this complicated event -- of a sort we'd never hosted before -- and allowed the family to focus on the guests who came and on what we wanted to say.
It has also been a pleasure to see the tributes that appeared in the national and international press since he passed away. If you haven't read these, and you have a half hour to spare, there are some wonderful stories in each of these pieces. My sincere thanks go out to all these writers, who gave him the tributes his long career deserved. In the order in which the stories were published:
- Los Angeles Times, March 20th: Robert Haas, influential American vintner and wine importer, dies at 90 (Patrick Comiskey)
- Wine Spectator, March 20th: Tablas Creek Cofounder and Paso Robles Pioneer Robert Haas Dies at 90 (Aaron Romano)
- San Luis Obispo Tribune, March 20th: Robert Haas, forefather of the Paso Robles wine region, dies at 90 (Andrew Sheeler)
- Wine Enthusiast, March 21st: Robert Haas, Tablas Creek Vineyard Founder and Partner, Dies at 90 (Matt Kettmann)
- Decanter, March 21st: Robert Haas, Tablas Creek co-founder and wine pioneer, dies in California (Chris Mercer)
- San Francisco Chronicle, March 21st: Remembering Robert Haas, one of the most influential figures in American wine (Esther Mobley)
- Wall Street Journal, March 30th: Robert Haas Imported Fine French Wines, Then Made His Own in California (James Hagerty)
- New York Times, April 5th: Robert Haas, Wine Importer and California Vintner, Dies at 90 (Sam Roberts)
A theme that came out again and again both in the articles that were written and in the tributes that people gave on Sunday was that my dad was a builder: someone who didn't just come up with ideas (though he did that, for sure) but oversaw the creation of structures that were set up to succeed long-term. The impacts of that foundation-building were in full evidence at the party, with people there to remember his work not just at Tablas Creek, but as an importer, as an advocate for the Paso Robles wine community, and as a patron of the arts. I thought it might be interesting for me to share the speech I wrote for the occasion. I didn't end up giving it verbatim, but this was, more or less, what I said to the group.
Welcome, everyone. I had an anxiety dream a few days ago where there were only about 40 people here and I had to slink up to the podium and announce that we were going to start, I guessed, since it didn’t look like anyone else was coming. I am so honored to see all of you here, and to have heard from so many of you – and so many people who couldn’t be here today – about how my dad had touched your lives. It’s been one of the really nice things in what has been a difficult month.
I remember, when Meghan and I were thinking about moving out here almost 20 years ago, that getting the chance to work with my dad while he was still actively involved in Tablas Creek was my main motivation in making the move when we did. If I’d waited a few years, and something had happened to him, I would have regretted that forever. But I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he did that had made him successful. After having the pleasure of working with him for 15 years, I think it boiled down to three things:
- First, he generated more ideas per amount of time spent at work than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. This wasn’t always easy – there were times when it drove us all nuts, because he would have a new good idea while we were still trying to implement the last one – but what a great foundation for any business.
- Second, he was willing to lead by example. Whether this was going out well into his 80s and carrying a wine bag up and down the New York subway stairs showing Tablas Creek, or being the first to stand up and put in money to get the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs off the ground, or in creating the winery partners program to support the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, on whose board he served into his 90s, if the cause was something he believed in, he was willing to put his own time, effort, and money into making sure that cause succeeded.
- Third, he believed in people. One of the hallmarks of all the companies he founded was that people stayed and made a career there. He did this by giving the people he hired the authority to make the right decisions in their area of expertise, by allocating them the resources they needed, and by providing them vision without micro-managing the details. There are people here today from Vineyard Brands who remember me coming home from little league games and walking through the sales meeting dinners that he and my mom were hosting, in uniform. A dozen of them made the trip out here, many of whom are still there 30 years later, running the company that he founded.
My dad also had a pretty clear sense of what mattered, and what didn’t. I remember once, getting a semi-critical review in a class I took in high school, that said (with the implication that my judgments were perhaps less nuanced than they should be) that I had “little use for fools”. He read it and said, “well, I’m not sure there is much use for fools. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
But in the end, what I’m going to hold on to most about my dad was his essential optimism. He started this vineyard when he was already in his early 60s. He did it in a way that guaranteed that we wouldn’t see any wine for a decade. And for him, none of that mattered. It was an interesting and worthwhile thing to do. He was confident that he could figure out the pieces he didn’t yet know. The fact that we would be making wine from grapes that most Americans didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce, and that we would be blending these grapes into wines that didn’t really have a category in the marketplace, were just details that could be overcome by perseverance and force of will. That perseverance and force of will hadn’t ever let him down. And they wouldn’t here either.
All kids, I think, grow up thinking that what they grow up with is normal. Your dad is “Dad”. He does the things he does because that’s the way the world works. I will forever be grateful that I got the chance to work with my dad as an adult, and see him through the eyes of the people he worked with and inspired. And I believe that the reason he was successful in business was the same as why he was a great dad and a great friend. You always knew where you stood. You always knew that if you needed his support, you’d have it. And you knew that when he said something, he meant it.
I have one story I’d like to end with. I remember, not long after we moved out here, walking out into the middle of the vineyard here with my dad. Most of the vines here were still young. He was in his mid-70s. He stopped for a moment and waved generally toward the vineyard and said, “you know, I didn’t build this for me. I’m not going to be around when it’s at maturity. I didn’t even really build it for you. But it should be amazing for your kids.”
Thank you all for coming today. I am really looking forward to hearing your stories. It’s been an honor to spend as much time inside my dad’s life as I have these last two decades. Thank you all for being a part of it.
Finally, one observation that really drove home to me what a lasting impact my dad had on not just the communities in which he lived, but on the people who he brought into the businesses he started. At the event, there were some 65 people who had worked for him either at Vineyard Brands or at Tablas Creek. By my rough calculations, those 65 people had combined for about 1000 years of tenure in his businesses. And that, I think, is the legacy of which he would have been proudest.