Reflecting on 15 Years at Tablas Creek – An Interview with Three Familiar Faces
December 12, 2022
By Ian Consoli
2007 was a big year for Tablas Creek. It was a blockbuster vintage, one of the most intense (and highest-scoring) in our history. It was the first year we could ship to five new states (Florida, Maine, Michigan, South Carolina, and Vermont) as unconsititutional state laws were changed following the Granholm v Hield Supreme Court decision. Ohio and Nebraska would join the group later in 2007. Behind the scenes, the TTB was working through its internal issues that the submission of the Paso Robles sub-AVAs brought to light, and paving the way for the AVA map we know today. Our founder Robert Haas turned 80, and we saw great articles like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle celebrating his influential career.
It was also a milestone year because of who we brought on board the Tablas Creek team. Three people you likely know today started working here that year: including Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Tasting Room Manager John Morris, and Director of Biodynamics Gustavo Prieto. They came to us from all over the world at different stages of their personal and professional lives. We decided to ask each of them to reflect on the past 15 years, from how they came here initially to how it's going today. Thank you, Chelsea, John, and Gustavo, for your 15 years of dedication to everything Tablas Creek!
Chelsea Franchi, John Morris, and Gustavo Prieto
Please state your name and position.
My name is Chelsea Franchi. I am the Senior Assistant Winemaker.
My name is John Morris. I am the Tasting Room Manager.
Gustavo Prieto, I am the Biodynamicist.
What brought you to Tablas Creek 15 Years ago?
I came tasting here with a friend from Cal Poly, which was a super mind-blowing experience. I was talking to somebody years ago at a Rhone Rangers event about how people tend to lean towards either Rhone reds or Rhone whites. Of course, you can love both of them, but one sucks you in early on. For me, it was Esprit Blanc here at Tablas. It started an absolute obsession with Rhone whites. So yeah, decided a few weeks after I came tasting here that I should apply for a job.
A couple of things. I had talked about working at Tablas Creek a couple of times, but there was nothing full-time available. When a position did open up, I went for it. I wanted to be here because the wine was more up my alley than most in Paso back then. I had come from Seattle, where I was mainly drinking European wines with lower alcohol and more nuance and finesse.
I was impressed by the wines and I wanted to learn more, so I decided to apply for a position. It was like all roads led to Tablas Creek.
What was your position title when you started?
Greeter? <laugh>. Basically a glorified hostess.
Tasting Room Manager! So, you know, I've made no progress in 15 years <laughs>. I feel like I've had three jobs within the same position, really. There was my role before we expanded the tasting room in 2011, post-expansion, and now with the changes COVID-19 brought about. The job has evolved as we have grown.
Tasting room attendant.
Chelsea working the register in our old tasting room
Did you think you would still be here 15 years later?
I was still in college and didn't have the imagination to begin to dream that I could have ended up in the position I am in. So no, no I did not.
No. No, I didn't. If anybody would've told me when I walked in the door that I'd still be here in 15 years, I would've probably not believed them.
I hoped so!
Gustavo and John at a tasting in 2007
What kinds of wine were you drinking then and what are you mostly drinking now?
That's a really interesting question. To look back on it and try to compare and contrast. Back then, I drank a lot of entry-level reds from France, Spain, and Italy. They were less expensive, higher toned, with that brighter acidity and a little bit of grip to them. Cost was a huge factor because I was a college student. Now I'd say I probably drink more domestic stuff and explore more California wines. But obviously still plenty of wines from other countries.
I was mostly drinking red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. Now I enjoy Rhone blends and varietals, reds, whites, and rosés. Also, red and white Burgundy, but I'm very open to all kinds of wines.
What is the biggest change you have witnessed at Tablas Creek since you started?
I think the change at Tablas Creek is, more often than not, a progression of our core values. Seeing the introduction of new varieties in the vineyard and coming into the cellar. There is a harvest elation when a new variety hits the cellar door for the first time. Everybody has their camera phones out, taking videos of it going onto the sorting table and its first pump over. That excitement is so cool and so real. Also, the biodynamic and ROC certifications. And none of these beliefs are new to Tablas Creek, but we're making them bigger and better, continuing that ideology.
The size. I feel like the integrity has always been there and still is, which is super important to me. And the reason for being is the same, but, you know, when I started in the tasting room, I had six or seven employees. That has now grown to eight full-time employees and twenty-five total.
The continual evolution of our farming practices that keep pushing us toward greater sustainability, and seeing the evolution from organic to biodynamic and now the ROC certification.
Tasting room staff at Tablas Creek Vineyard in 2007
What is the most significant change in your life over the past 15 years?
I feel like some of the biggest, most important things a human can do have happened since I started here. I got engaged, bought a house, got married, and had a baby. Yeah, like all of the great things <laugh>.
I got married and took on a few stepkids. No question, that's the biggest change.
Please share one of your favorite stories/memories from the past 15 years at Tablas Creek.
When I had been working here a week or two as a greeter, I was standing outside one sunny Saturday morning, and a… gruff-looking gentleman <laugh>, approached the front doors. It was a bustling weekend day and I, as kindly as I could, told the gentleman that we were busy and that he would need to come back some other time. He brushed past me without a second glance and said, "I'm the winemaker" <laugh>. It turned out to be winemaker Neil Collins, who lives on the property. I thought, 'well, it was a really good two-week run. I had a really good time, and now I'm fired.' Clearly, I wasn't fired, and now I work with Neil and I've worked with him for 15 years. He is like a father figure to me. Oh, the things we've overcome <laugh>.
This was some years ago, on a perfect Spring day during Hospice du Rhone, before we opened the new tasting room and things weren’t quite as busy or tightly scheduled as they are now. 10 or 12 French men and women, some with limited English, some with none, strolled into the tasting room and asked for a tour. Why not! As we walked into the vineyard doing our best to communicate, it was revealed that I was hosting winemakers and vignerons from Domaine du Gros 'Noré, Domaine Clape, and another prominent property that escapes me, in town for Hospice. Bear in mind that I was relatively new at this time, and certainly didn’t have the depth of knowledge to answer deep technical question about the vineyard or winemaking. Good thing there was a language barrier! Anyway, I did my best, I believe they were happy, and I again thanked my lucky stars for landing at Tablas Creek.
About 5 years ago, during our annual pig roast party, all of the sheep managed to knock down their fence, run down Vineyard drive, and up the neighbor's hill. Neil and I spent an hour chasing after them, finally bringing the last ones in after dark. It's funny now, not so much then!
Significant life events for Chelsea and John in the past 15 years
You have one Tablas Creek wine from any vintage to take to a deserted island. What's it going to be?
That one is really difficult, but I think it would have to be the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel. That was one of the Esprits we were pouring in the tasting room when I started here. To this day, it still has the lushness, velvety texture, and chewy fruit, all of the elements that I loved about it then I still love about it today. And it's one of those really cool wines that just, I mean, all wines have the ability to transport you if you give them the opportunity, but that one especially takes me back to where I was in that moment of time. It's funny to look back on that wine and think how many things have changed. But that wine, the way I feel about it, has not.
2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. The Esprit Blanc tends to be my favorite wine in general because it is so unique and is almost always the best white wine in the region, and possibly even California some years. The 2017 is so complex. It's waxy, herbal, and spicy. But it's not too big or too rich. Good acidity, just super balanced wine.
Uf, that's a tough one, but if I have to choose one, it would be the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel rouge.
Any parting thoughts?
The fact that I've known Gustavo and John for 15 years, and Neil, Jason and all of these people for 15 years is really special. Even people I met working in the tasting room that I still see today. Every time I walk into the tasting room or attend a Tablas Creek event, I meet somebody new and look forward to seeing them the next time they visit. We have such a great audience, and it's a true delight to make friends with everybody who comes through these doors. It's a really unique and special experience and I absolutely love that.
Yeah, I feel lucky to be here, to be part of the contributing team. It's been a really great 15 years.
The earliest archived photos of Chelsea, John and Gustavo at Tablas Creek Vineyard