Continuing our Interview Series with members of our Tablas Creek Crew, we would like to introduce you to our new Tasting Room Sales Lead, Misty Lies.
She not only makes certain things don't get out of hand in the tasting room, but she also is a successful mother of two children as well as the mama to us all in the front of the house.
Plus, she's not only our recently promoted, kickass new sales lead, but she can also quite literally kick your butt. I’m not joking; the woman is trained in Krav Maga and tells the story of her making a citizens arrest with glee. Facing down a rowdy bachelorette party in the tasting room? No contest.
Misty came onto our team Spring of last year, and if you have come out and tasted with us since then, odds are you’ve seen her behind one of our bars hoarding all the Tannat. I sat down with her recently to ask about her journey to Tablas Creek.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in La Jolla, but I grew up in Encinitas. Before my husband and I moved up here I was down in Temecula.
What drew you to Central California?
My husband is a firefighter and so we moved up here for that. Truthfully it wasn’t wine!
How did you first hear about Tablas Creek?
I drove by it all the time and I would ask my friends what Rhone wines were. And nobody knew even though we were already drinking them, like Syrah’s and GSM’s! Apparently I loved Rhones before I even knew what they were, which is what I think a lot of California wine drinkers do. I started talking to John (our Tasting Room Manager) back and forth, and I told him I had retail experience with Williams-Sonoma and tasting room experience for an olive oil company, and was interested in the wine industry. In my interview he asked me what I knew about wine and I told him that, “I know I like to drink it.” I figured what better way to learn about wine than to work in it?
[When I asked John about Misty, he said, "Misty is a tremendous worker, has great character, and takes great care in everything she does. I sensed all of these traits in her interview, and thought that even though she didn’t have experience in the business, her interest in and love of wine combined with her character would make her a great fit here at Tablas Creek. She has been everything I hoped for and more."]
What is your role at the winery?
I was working part-time in the tasting room as a pourer because my husband Nate and I were preparing to move up to Monterey, but now that is no longer occurring so I’m staying at Tablas and they offered me a tasting room lead position! I believe in making a connection with the people you’re talking to on the other side of the bar, that’s what makes them want to come back at the end of the day. Plus, I used to teach special education down in Temecula and now I’m still doing what I love which is teaching, but now it’s about wine.
What’s your biggest challenge as Tasting Room Sales Lead?
Making sure people get to where they need to be when they walk through the door. It’s up to us to get them to a bar and proceed with a tasting and when things get crazy in the tasting room it’s easy to get distracted.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
No official comment on the Temecula wine scene, even though I lived there for years. But I really love what they do at Brecon, not to mention they throw a heck of a pickup party. Lone Madrone is always fun, plus there’s the fact they have Tannat.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
Tannat… well duh. But the new Cotes Rouge is awesome and I tried a 2013 at our pizza making party, and now there’s no going back. In terms of whites I would have to say just genuinely all Rhone whites. They’re so different than any whites we’ve grown up thinking about. I only drank reds before I came here and now helloo Picpoul!
You are quite the accomplished chef, do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I’ve been really into paella recently. There are so many of our whites that go with that. The Esprit Blanc goes wonderfully, and is so versatile because of its creaminess.
How do you like to spend your days off?
Planning the next adventure. Life is all about seeing everything and tasting everything you possibly can. You should always ask yourself, “What haven’t I done yet?”
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Well if I ever won the lotto I would want to buy socks for all the homeless, because there’s nothing quite like a new pair of socks.
What is one of your favorite memories here?
The tasting room pizza making class was awesome. But it’s like a family here in general. We look after one another and get excited for each other. And that sense of whole is what makes me excited to come to work. I get to talk to the people I work with but I also get to talk with the people who walk through the door.
How do you define success?
Success is doing something you like doing, because if you have fun doing it, then it’s not a job. And it’s also not about having all the money in the world, it’s about having an adventure along the way. Because the more money you make the more money you spend.
If you're as in love with her as we are (and want to pick her brain about the homeless sock answer), stop by our tasting room and she'll have you chuckling in no time.
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:
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.
Always on the go with a task list that extends beyond the length of your forearm, Charlie Chester has a diverse role here at Tablas Creek. From curating a collector's tasting for enthusiastic guests to transferring pallets of wine to keep the tasting room stocked, Charlie does it all- while also juggling the his son Brandon, now age two.
Charlie in our new seated flight tasting room
How did you learn about Tablas Creek? I was a wine club member before I was an employee. I visited the winery in 2011, right after the new tasting room was finished. I was on my way back from an extended ski season up north in Truckee and I wanted to pick up my wine club shipment. I was enjoying the new tasting room, newly released wines while chatting with John (Tasting Room Manager). I mentioned I was interested in working for Tablas Creek and he invited me back for an interview. The rest, as they say, is history!
Why did you choose to join the Wine Club at Tablas Creek? Before I worked for Tablas Creek I was working in the limousine industry, chauffeuring people around Paso Robles, I got to see it all. I really enjoyed visiting the different tasting rooms, observing like a fly on the wall. After visiting a winery more than once, I could gauge for consistency both in quality of wine and customer service. Tablas Creek stood out as having unique, consistently high quality wines plus their staff was always super friendly. The tasting room staff would go out of their way to show you something special and share their passion for the wines and the story.
Charlie (left) with Tasting Room Manager John Morris
What do you think is special about Tablas Creek? I like being part of something that is on the cutting edge of Rhone wines in California. I remember the first time I had Counoise on it's own, bottled varietally, and I thought that was really great. To be able to share these unique wines that are normally only found in blends one of my favorite things we do here. Last year we introduced Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche to the U.S and Paso Robles... how great is that?!
Your title here is Assistant Tasting Room Manager and Logistics- what does a typical day look like for you? I help things runs smoothly both in the tasting room and in our wine inventory. During the busy season we can have multiple tour groups, tastings, private tastings, group tastings- I help to make sure everyone has a good experience and all positions are staffed appropriately. We have a jigsaw puzzle-ish library storage area that I am constantly moving and shuffling wine around in. I also like driving the forklift around!
What is your most memorable experience here at Tablas? Oh man, last summer we had some fun with the sheep! That was crazy. We were finally heading home after a busy day in the tasting room when I noticed our herd of sheep on the road! We had to get them back on the property so my first instinct was to try to corral them back in and out of the road, so I grabbed a bucket of sweet feed (a mix of grain and molasses the animals go crazy for!). That usually works to lure them in. While I drove the gator, a few other tasting room team members were doing their best herd them. It took us about 2 hours to finally get the sheep in their pen.
Herding the escaped animals
When it comes to running the tasting room, what is your work philosophy? I want to make sure everyone is happy and taken care of. In the tasting room there's always something exciting to share with new guests, from someone who, say, knows the tasting room as it stands today, to someone who first tasted with Bob [Haas, our founder] "off of two barrels and a plank in the cellar".
What's your favorite thing about your job here? I enjoy the diversity of things that I get to do in the winery and on the property from taking care of the animals to driving forklifts and moving wine....All of it's awesome!
When you're not working, what are you doing? Spending time with my son, Brandon. He's two. Hanging out with friends, grabbing a beer and tacos, going to the beach. Go wine tasting!
Finally, how do you define success? Happiness!! Work isn't as meaningful if you don't believe in what you're doing and if you're not happy doing it.
It is with sadness that I write to report that my dad, Tablas Creek's co-founder Robert Haas, passed away last weekend, one month before his 91st birthday. Followers of Tablas Creek likely know him from his time here at the winery, either at events like our blending seminars, or from his articles on this blog. He was a regular presence at Tablas Creek well into his tenth decade.
What many of you may not know is the impact he had on the American wine market before Tablas Creek ever got off the ground, or what he was like as a person. I hope to share some of each of these in this piece, as well as some of my favorite photos of him. And we may as well start here, from his 89th birthday party two Aprils ago:
My dad was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 18th, 1927. His father Sidney ran a gourmet butcher shop named M. Lehmann that he had inherited from his uncle Morris Lehmann. My dad would talk about going to visit his grandparents and walking over to Ebbets Field, and would remain a Dodgers fan for life. One of my favorite gifts I ever got for him was a ball signed by Sandy Koufax. Small but strong and quick, he also played baseball and was a good enough shortstop to get an invitation to an open Dodgers tryout from a scout while he was in high school, and a good enough athlete to win summer camp tennis tournaments despite never really playing the sport.
After the repeal of prohibition Sidney was on the ball enough to get New York's first retail liquor license, and turned M. Lehmann into a liquor store and eventually New York's top fine wine shop. Meanwhile my grandparents had moved to Scarsdale, NY, in the suburbs, and my dad had gained a sister, my aunt Adrienne. After high school, he followed in his grandfather's footsteps and went to Yale, but interrupted his studies and enlisted in the Navy in December of 1944. After two years in the Navy, he returned to Yale, graduated class of 1950, and joined his father's business.
While there, he convinced his father -- who thought no one would ever pay for wine before they could take possession of it -- to put out the first-ever futures offer on Bordeaux, commissioning hand-colored lithographs describing the qualities of the 1952 vintage and selling out the 1500 cases he had reserved in just a few weeks. When the store was looking for a new buyer for their French wine after the death of Raymond Baudouin in 1953, my dad and his two years of college French jumped at the opportunity. His goal on this first French trip in 1954 was ostensibly to find a new wine buyer. But I've always gotten the sense from him that he decided quickly that there was no way anyone but him was going to do that job. I asked him just a few weeks ago if that was true, and he responded "Yes, I pretty much knew at the end of my first day that this was what I wanted to do". So, at age 27, he became M. Lehmann's wine buyer, and soon after started cultivating relationships with distributors in other states, so he could be a better customer for the suppliers whose wines he was buying. Meanwhile, he had married, and had his first two children, my sister Janet and brother Danny.
It was in this period that he cemented his relationships with many of the Burgundy suppliers who are still crown jewels of the Vineyard Brands import book: iconic estates like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, and Dauvissat. He also agreed to buy the lion's share of the production of Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus after their British agents balked at a price increase for the iconic 1961 vintage, and represented them exclusively over the next decade.
His relationship with my grandfather was not always smooth. I know there was tension where my grandfather wanted him to spend more time minding the store, and less time traveling around France buying wine and around America selling it. Sidney was at heart a merchant, not a wine lover. I believe he thought my dad would settle down at some point, and was surprised that when he announced that he was ready to retire, my dad suggested he sell M. Lehmann and my dad would take the contacts he'd made and turn them into an importing business. But neither backed down, and that's what happened. After an initial ill-fated sale to one of its employees, the rival Sherry Wine & Spirits bought M. Lehmann and merged the two to become Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, which remains one of New York's iconic wine shops to this day.
The late 1960s was a difficult period for my dad in a few ways. He was a one-man show, often advocating for wine in a market that didn't yet value it. He worked for a few years to build a wine division within Barton Brands, who had bought the inventory from my grandfather's import company, before he realized that they were so much more interested in liquor that getting them to focus on wine was hopeless. And his first marriage had ended, although he did meet my mom not long after, on a flight back to New York from Florida. When my mom Barbara first visited his apartment, she remembers the entire contents of his fridge being a few condiments and a bottle of vodka. A photo from their wedding, in January 1968:
It was in this period that he first met Jacques Perrin and convinced him to sell him some wine from the Beaucastel cellar. [The remarkable story where I found one of these bottles on the legendary wine list at Bern's Steak House is told in full in one of my favorite-ever blog posts, from 2012]. He built upon this relationship with Jacques' son Jean-Pierre, with whom he developed the La Vieille Ferme brand. From a beginning of a few hundred cases, sold as an exclusive to Sherry-Lehmann in 1970, it is now the largest French wine brand in the world. In the end he decided to set up shop on his own, first in New York and then, when they got tired of city living, from the converted barn of the 1806 Vermont farmhouse to which they moved in 1970. He incorporated Vineyard Brands in 1973, the same year that I was born. This photo of Jacques (left) and my dad is from that very same year, which I know because there's also a photo of me, age 5 months, sitting on Jacques' lap from the same visit.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, he balanced additions to the estate side of Vineyard Brands with new brands, championing Rioja (Marques de Caceres), Chile (Santa Rita), and New Zealand (Villa Maria). He also had his second daughter and fourth child, my sister Rebecca, and was active in the Chester, Vermont community, serving on the school board and as a little league coach. Long-time employees of Vineyard Brands still remember us coming back to the house in uniform as they were getting ready for dinner.
He was not infallible in his business judgments; he had an ongoing tendency to be ahead of the market, championing regions that are now critical darlings like Beaujolais, Languedoc, and Oregon a decade or longer before the market was ready to accept them. But he had a terrific nose for regions or wines that were punching above their cost, and was willing to put in the work to establish regions and producers at the same time.
This instinct was on full view in California, where he represented some of the greats of the first generation in Napa and Sonoma, like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and he helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s as the California Chardonnay wave was gathering. When he was in California with Jean-Pierre Perrin or his brother Francois, he would bring them to visit California wineries to see what they thought, and they together came away both convinced that California was capable of making world-class wines and confused as to why no one was trying Rhone varieties in the clearly Mediterranean climate. Abstract discussions in the mid-1970s gradually became more serious, and they decided to start looking for property together in 1985, even as each was fully engaged in growing their own businesses. This photo of my dad with Jean-Pierre and Francois at Beaucastel is from around that time:
I first became aware that my dad was a big deal in certain circles when I read an article ("Have Palate, Will Travel") in a 1988 edition of the Wine Spectator. The photo below, which is one of my favorites of him, must have been from the same photo session, since he's wearing the same outfit. He's leaning against the gate of one of the gardens at our Vermont house. He hadn't yet started to step back from the day-to-day operations at Vineyard Brands, but he would soon, to focus on Tablas Creek:
By the early 1990's, my dad had turned over the running of Vineyard Brands to his second-in-command there, and the relationships with the French suppliers to my brother Danny. How he did so says a lot about him. He saw an ad in the Boston Globe about a seminar promoting a new federal program called an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) which could be used to turn a business over to its employees. And that's what he did: in essence, Vineyard Brands bought itself from him, and is now owned by its employees. This has allowed the company to remain independent, to continue to grow and thrive after my dad's retirement, and to enjoy a continuity and longevity from its team that is almost unheard of in this age. There are still significant portions of the senior leadership of Vineyard Brands that were hired by my dad, more than 25 years ago. And my dad was able to take the money and invest it in Tablas Creek.
The search to find Tablas Creek and the development of the property here is likely better known to readers of this blog, but I think the same willingness to be ahead of the curve was in evidence in the decision to settle on Paso Robles at a time when few people were talking about it, and the focus on blends when the marketplace was firmly oriented toward varietals. But in both cases, he was convinced that what mattered was the right raw materials (soils, climate, rainfall) and the right winemaking decisions. The rest was simply a question of perseverance. The photo of the ceremonial planting of the first vines released from quarantine in 1992 shows (from left) Jean-Pierre Perrin, my cousin Jim O'Sullivan, my mom and dad, Charlie Falk (who worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and then helped with the search for Tablas Creek), Charlie's wife Gretchen Buntschuh, and Jean-Pierre's wife Bernadette Perrin.
As Tablas Creek grew from an idea into a business, it encountered many of the challenges faced by any startup. We overestimated the readiness of the market for the blends we were making, and underestimated the importance of taking an active role in our own marketing. But the fundamental idea that my dad and the Perrins had was a good one, and this spot has turned out to be an extraordinary one in which to grow Rhone grape varieties. And because of my dad's business philosophy -- that you make your best guess at what you need to do, put the resources behind it, and then be willing to adjust your strategy based on what you learn -- we were able to make the changes that eventually allowed Tablas Creek to thrive.
Perhaps most important to Tablas Creek's legacy will end up being the partners' decision to bring in grapevine cuttings rather than live with what was already in California, and to make the clones we'd imported available to the community. More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings, and my dad was always convinced that our decision to bring in vines spurred the reversal of a long-standing policy by ENTAV (the French national nursery service) against partnering with out-of-country nurseries. This policy change has led to the import of hundreds of new varieties and clones, and a new flowering of diversity in American grapegrowing, Rhone and otherwise.
My dad maintained an active role at Tablas Creek up until the very end. I often heard from his friends that they thought that his passion for this project kept him young, and I believe that. In the period in the mid-2000's when we were pushing to establish Tablas Creek in the market, he was out there (in his 70's and 80's, mind you), riding around with our distributors, making presentations to restaurants and retailers, up and down subway steps during the day and hosting dinners and tastings in the evening. A quiet retirement this was not. But he was always willing to put his own effort behind the things he believed in, and if this was what needed to be done, he was going to do it. And the example of the Perrins, who are now on their fifth generation running their estate, is an inspiring one for all of us. The photo below, from 2009, shows my dad at lower left, and then (continuing counter-clockwise) me, Francois Perrin, Francois' son Cesar, and our winemaker Neil Collins, who has been here so long he might as well be family. It's not only in Vineyard Brands that the longevity of the employees my dad hired is in evidence; it's a hallmark of every business he's been a part of.
By the early 2010s, my dad had cut back a little but was still coming into the vineyard 3-4 days per week, and had stopped going out and working the market but was still hosting 4-6 wine dinners a year around the country. He led the 2015 Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise with my mom. And he was starting to be recognized as the living icon that he was. One of the nicest windows I got into how others saw him was in the production and ceremony for the lifetime achievement award he received from the Rhone Rangers in 2014. The video incorporated his story with interviews with many of the wine industry titans whose lives and careers he impacted. I've been re-watching it a lot this week.
In the last few years, my dad's health issues escalated; he endured a stroke 18 months ago, and wasn't able to be at the vineyard as much. But he and my mom still maintained an active role in the community, and he continued his work with the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, in San Luis Obispo. In 2009, he he created a new "winery partners" program for the Foundation that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support arts in our local community. He continued to lead this program until last year, and asked at the end that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the foundation.
As he did with the rest of his life, he knew what he did and didn't want for his death. He wanted to be at home, he wanted to have family around, and he didn't want a fuss made. So last week, as it became clear that the end was near, my siblings flew out and joined my mom and me here in Paso Robles. He was lucid until Friday evening, and peaceful at the end. And I will forever be grateful for the time I got to spend with him, not just at the end, not just growing up, but in working with him for the last fifteen years. It's not every son who gets to know his dad as an adult, and gets to see him through the eyes of others who know him professionally. Hearing, over the last few days, from all the people whose lives he impacted over his long life and career, has been an unexpected treat in this difficult time. Thank you to everyone who has reached out. We will all miss him.
As many of you know, most small to medium sized wineries' businesses are only as successful as their wine clubs. They form the backbone of the direct to consumer sales that allow vineyards to thrive, and their members, if a club is done well, become advocates for the winery out in the world. A huge -- but often unseen -- component of a wine club's success is the team of people who oversee their club. They are the point people in customer service and often sales, and familiar faces or voices when members visit, phone, or open their inbox.
With that in mind, I'd like to introduce you to Dani Archambeault, one of our Wine Club Assistants here at Tablas for the last seven years. As a part of the power group of awe-inspiring ladies who make our wine club the great experience it is for its members, Dani is one of the more dynamic people you will ever meet. She knows Tablas Creek wine like nobody's business and whether you meet her at the winery, at an event, or on the parquet lanes of our local bowling alley, she's someone you'll never forget. If you come out for a visit, you will find her fielding calls in the office or dashing back and forth getting your wine orders together.
Where were you born and raised?
Porterville, CA… my father owned a Pest Management Company for Orchards & Vineyards.
When and how did you get into wine?
Not until my late twenties… I started on some Aussie Yellow Tail wines!
How did you come across Tablas Creek?
In 2010 my husband & I took a leap of faith & left the LA area hustle & bustle & headed for Paso Robles wine country. We lived in our Airstream trailer in a vineyard while working harvest & tasting room jobs. I had heard so many great things about Tablas Creek and as soon as an opportunity to work here became available I went for it! Everything about Tablas is truly exceptional… from the vineyard, the wines, the staff, and the Haas family’s passion for quality and sustainability.
What is your role here at the winery?
For the last seven years I have worked with our Wine Club Team. Our club continues to grow & we work hard to ensure everyone receives outstanding customer service.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
My husband pulls a brisket off the smoker, I open a Tablas Creek Tannat or En Gobelet, our kids are running around the backyard screaming…. Perfect pairing =)
You and your husband Kevin have dabbled in winemaking before, any advice to aspiring winemakers?
We only make a small amount of wine every few years that we use to help raise funds for some charity projects that our close to our hearts. We love to drink wine, so being a part of the entire process is so much fun and you appreciate what’s in that bottle on a whole new level!
How do you like to spend your days off?
We live very close to downtown Paso, so we love walking downtown and enjoying where we live. Paso Robles is a great small town community where ‘everybody knows your name’ (insert cheesy Cheers song- ha!)
What would people be surprised to know about you?
There are five siblings in my family. I am the only one without a tattoo! Occasionally I get tempted by the cute butterfly or fairy… but at this point I’ve got to stay unique & in the lead as mom’s favorite!
What is one of your favorite memories here?
My favorite times at Tablas are when we share a meal together outside. Wine is such an experience, when you have amazing wine & people, & a beautiful vineyard surrounding you.. can’t beat that, right!?
How do you define success?
Live your life with faith & purpose. Count your blessings daily, don’t totally freak out in the hard times, & love the people around you dearly…. That’s success!
He strolls into my office, bright and bushy-eyed with his dilapidated Yeti in hand, no doubt on his fourth or fifth cup considering he’s been up with the sun. His stained brown Carhartts do little to hide the evidence of our lambing season that is currently going on here at Tablas Creek Vineyard. As intrigued as I am, I dare not ask about the exact origins of the stains because after all, I myself am barely through my first cup. Maya, one of his Border Collies, slinks in and flops down upon my feet. Already this is an interview I can get behind.
Nathan Stuart is our shepherd here at Tablas Creek, and one of the central figures in our recent co-branding with outdoor retail giant Patagonia Inc. We all know them for their unparalleled wizardry with all things fleece and Goretex, but they also represent something far beyond climbing gear and backcountry men with a penchant for beards.
Not only is Patagonia a leading example on sustainable, green business practices with their Footprint and Worn Wear programs, but they are also one of the leading corporate voices in the fight for preserving our lands for generations to come.
They are known for radical moves such as donating 100% of their Black Friday sales to grassroots nonprofits ($10 million in 2016 alone). And their recent fight with the federal government on behalf of our national parks. The fact that they are a B Corp -- a for-profit company that is using the power of business to solve social or environmental problems -- says a lot. Their mission statement is "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
You could say we’re fans.
Late last year, we became one of the companies in the United States that Patagonia has been willing to co-brand with. Co-branding happens when two brands agree to join forces to share a product indicative of both their identities. Upon learning this, I was eager to unpack what the process was that led to this move by both our companies, as well as why we were chosen to be one of the companies to share brands on their gear and be able to resell it in our tasting room. I can also safely say, the Tablas crew has never looked more dashing battling the frosty morning winters here in Paso.
Basically it all boils down to two words: carbon sequestration.
If that phrase makes you scratch your head as much as it did me, have no fear because that is where our indomitable shepherd Nathan comes in, along with our Viticulturist and resident vine whisperer Jordan Lonborg to explain the science behind it. But first, some context.
Since our inception, Tablas Creek has made it a priority to farm with as positive an environmental impact as possible. We have been organic since the day our first rootstock touched the soil and certified Demeter biodynamic as of last year. As Nathan says in his characteristically blunt way, “at Tablas we were organic before it was popular. We’re certified biodynamic which is just taking that to the next level. We’re holding ourselves to a higher accountability and pushing to create something that goes beyond us.”
Our flock of some two-hundred sheep and alpacas, plus a llama and donkey or two, is the core of our vineyard's holistic management program. According to Nathan, "holistic management encompasses organic, biodynamic, mob grazing, rotational and regenerative grazing, and asks how we can best benefit the land. We use varied processes depending on the acres, so we are responding directly to the land and listen to what it needs from us to build the relationship." The sheep are moved every couple days to a new section of the vineyard, where they fertilize and till the soil, providing nutrients for our vines and controlling weeds. "The way we manage the sheep on our land is attempting to mimic the buffalo of the plains in centuries past" Nathan continues. The American plains were amongst the most fertile soils in the world, massive repositories of organic carbon, and the rotational grazing provided naturally by the vast, moving herds of American buffalo were a large part of why.1
While our grazing plan falls into Nathan’s sheepish hands, the care of the vines themselves is the responsibility of Jordan Lonborg, our Viticulturist. Upon joining the Tablas family in 2016, one of Jordy's first goals was to move forward with biodynamic certification. He broke down the soil and vine management in a way that didn’t leave my right-oriented brain spinning:
"We are creating a self-sustaining ecosystem right on the property. In order to do this we need to maintain the balance of the land. All of our grape skins, stems, and vine prunings are incorporated into our massive compost program and are returned to the soil on a yearly basis. We capture native bee swarms on the property and raise them to assist in pollination of our cover crops. There are large swaths of beneficial insect gardens planted throughout the vineyard to attract predatory insects, as well as providing a source of nectar and pollen for the honey bees in this arid climate. We also have an ever increasing raptor program on our acres as well. To enhance biodiversity we plant at least one fruit tree for every acre of grapevines on the ranch. Most importantly, we employ a group of 8-10 people throughout the entire year for vineyard work rather than hire random crews for labor as we need them. Our footprint is already smaller than most in this industry and we only plan on continuing to make moves to decrease it.”
So how do regenerative grazing and bee swarms and all these holistic processes tie into carbon sequestration? Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing it in another form to help slow or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the vast majority of which are released by the burning of fossil fuels. Soil that is treated with anthropogenic fertilizers or pesticides is not able to accumulate or break down the organic matter that holistic soils can. Organic matter equals carbon in the soil, rather than the atmosphere. And there are other benefits. In Nathan's words: "Soil holds carbon. Carbon holds water. So if we hold more carbon in the soil instead of the atmosphere, we’re pulling more water out of the air. And water vapor is another greenhouse gas. Think of it like a holistic raindance if you will, which is attempting to slow the heating of our climate. The carbon is in the wrong place at the wrong time and we’re working on doing what we can to set us on the right path once again." Carbon sequestration is the key, ultimately, to reversing the most critical environmental impacts of the industrial revolution, and is the ultimate goal of the new wave of sustainable agriculture.
A short video that Nathan referred me to called The Soil Story by Kiss the Ground proved to be immensely insightful. Kiss the Ground is a nonprofit working on creating greater public engagement with the pervasive issue of global soil restoration. And not to mention their graphics guy has some serious skills.
Between our holistic approach to vineyard management and Patagonia's stalwart belief in the fundamental importance of sustainable green business practices, the co-branding is something we can all be proud of. When I asked Jordy why he thought the Patagonia co-branding made sense he replied,
"When it comes down to it, it’s about trying to be the best stewards of the land we could possibly be. I think that’s the bottom line of both companies, obviously there’s a profitability side to it and everyone’s got to be able to run a business and make money, but that’s not the reason we come to work everyday. We use our position in the wine industry to shed light on important sustainability processes. And in the end we do spend more money than most wineries to achieve that stewardship and I think Patagonia’s probably right along the same path."
Leslie Castillo, our Tasting Room Team Lead as well as the wife of our shepherd Nathan, and avid reader of everything Yvon Chouinard, was our point woman in reaching out and building our relationship with Patagonia. “I 100% believe in what we do here at the vineyard with our wines, and so I also wanted to start working with people and companies that are like-minded, people that care about the planet in an intentional way and not just for marketing. I see that in Patagonia.”
She, along with all of us here at Tablas who strive to uphold the ideals we think a business should embody, are fortified all the more by the decision to co-brand with a company such as Patagonia.
We are merely two companies amongst thousands in our respective fields. But we each try to do our part individually. If we can work together to accomplish more, we should.
If you have ever visited the Tablas Creek tasting room, it is more than likely that you are familiar with Evelyne Fodor. We hear, again and again, that you cannot help but fall in love with the world she creates, and with her velvet French accent. She is also in charge of the merchandise of our tasting room as well as the training of our new tasting room associates.
Not only could I listen to her speak about wine for hours, but (needless to say) she is also my go-to for not screwing up the pronunciation on our more obscure varietals. One of the first things she ever told me was that wine is “pure emotion. It is about the relationship that you have with not only your glass but from the place the wine came from. Don’t ever forget that.”
I caught up with Evelyne recently to ask her about her journey from Lyon, in the Rhone Valley, to Paso Robles.
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Lyon, France. Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France and is also conveniently located between the Beaujolais and Rhone regions, which are the wines I grew up drinking. I moved to Los Angeles after meeting my husband in the South of France and became fascinated with Paso Robles while visiting winemaker friends. In 2012 we decided to take the leap and sold our house in LA and moved to Paso.
Tell me about how you started working at Tablas.
Just a few weeks after moving to Paso, a sommelier friend from NYC came to Paso to visit wineries in the area and I went along with her. She had a long list of wineries on her agenda, one of which was Tablas. We came and did a Collector’s Tasting. At the end of it we were both so charmed that my friend ended up joining the club and I applied for a position in the tasting room that very night.
What is your role here at Tablas?
I serve as a wine consultant and Tasting Room Sales Lead. My role is to bring my wine expertise, my educational skills, and sales experience to promote our wines. Recently, I also took over responsibility of tasting room merchandise as well.
How would you describe the style of what we offer here at Tablas in terms of merchandising?
I have the opportunity to shop and select merchandise that reflects the integrity and style of our brand. That’s why we promote local artists such as Heidi Petersen and her beautiful organic pottery, the eco-friendly Tablas branded clothing from Patagonia or our French influences with books by French-American cookbook writer Pascale Beale, Patrick Comiskey’s American Rhône, and an assortment of books on our Châteauneuf-du-Pape origins. I also have introduced unique French manufacturers including Gien tableware and fabrics from Le Jaquard Francais, high quality, distinctive gifts that pair well with our own Tablas wines.
What do you think is a great visitor experience?
I like to remind visitors that while wine can be complex and intimidating, its focus is all about the good things in life; good food, great company, and wonderful memories.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
Locally, I am a huge a fan of Lone Madrone. Here again Neil Collins delivers wines that are unique and distinctive; characteristically balanced with structure and finesse. I especially like his take on Nebbiolo and Chenin Blanc. I also recently had two very interesting tasting room experiences outside the Paso area. I found the staff very engaging at The Ojai Vineyard and immensely enjoyed a food and wine pairing at Ridge Vineyard. These wineries and their wines have in common with Tablas integrity and craftsmanship.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
For the red, I would pick Terret Noir. We served it at our tasting room’s pizza party last week and I was in awe. I found the wine elusive, mysterious and hugely attractive, very different from my typical red experience. For a white wine, I would select a Picpoul Blanc which I love to pair with roasted root vegetables, perfect for this time of year.
You are quite the accomplished chef, do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I grew up eating Mediterranean food usually paired with a Côtes du Rhône. A roasted chicken with herbes de provence and a ratatouille, paired with our Cotes de Tablas, is so beautiful and perfect it’s my go to dish for an easy dinner with friends.
How do you spend your days off?
I teach French online for UCLA graduate students. I also experiment at producing my own wine [Author's note: I’ve tried one of her GSM’s and I can attest to their ability to leave you speechless]. I am also a voracious reader and lately my reading is all about wine. I am currently reading American Rhone, by Patrick J. Comiskey, an exploration of how the Rhone movement started in California.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
One of the first classes I took when I returned to UCLA for my Ph.D. was an accent reduction class in which I failed miserably. I ended up with the worst grade of my entire academic career.
What is one of your favorite memories here?
Oh I have so many. But one of my best happened on a Saturday afternoon in the tasting room. I was pouring for a group of nine members of a chorus specialized in the singing of ancient Gregorian chants. I was explaining the complexity, balance and creativity of our blends using the analogy of music which led to an impromptu live performance. Needless to say, it was a magic moment for both guests and staff alike.
How do you define success?
For me, success is about reinventing yourself and becoming who you want to be. Reinventing yourself can sometimes be a conscious move, or it can be something you just stumble upon. I was lucky to stumble on Tablas. Being immersed in the world of wine is one of the most rewarding things I have yet to do.
I am a sucker for Thanksgiving. Between the excuse to get together with friends and family, the delicious food, and the fact that the whole event centers around being thankful for the opportunity to get together with friends and family and eat delicious food, it's pretty much right up my alley. The fact that it is still our least commercialized holiday only makes it better.
What's more, it's always fun for me to see which of our wines will get recommended for Thanksgiving in the press. There are plenty of options. With a traditional turkey dinner, I tend to steer people toward richer whites and rosés, and fruitier reds relatively light in oak and tannin. There are a lot of the wines that we make that fit this broad criteria, from Roussanne and Esprit Blanc to Dianthus Rosé to Counoise, Grenache, or Cotes de Tablas. Richer preparations open up a world of Mourvedre-based reds, from Esprit de Tablas to Mourvedre to our Panoplie. This year, we've seen Cotes de Tablas recommended in Sunset, Esprit de Tablas Blanc recommended on Alcohol Professor, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé recommended on Maker's Table. And that's normal. I remember one year a while back where we were lucky enough to have the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Chicago Tribune each recommend Tablas Creek with their Thanksgiving article... and each picked a different wine.
So, this is a long way of saying that if you're planning to stay in the Tablas Creek ecosystem, you've got options. But of course, there's a world of wines out there, and it seems a shame to limit yourself. So, I thought it would be fun to see what a broad cross-section of our team were looking forward to drinking this year. Their responses are below.
Dani Archambeault, Wine Club Assistant This year my husband and I have decided to have an ‘Old Fashioned’ kind of Thanksgiving! So High West Double Rye Whiskey it is! We enjoy this Rye because of its spicy-woody richness with tastes of cinnamon & roasted sugars. I am sure it will pair perfectly with my mom’s sweet potato casserole & soften the impact of the Fox News blaring in the background ;)
Janelle Bartholomew, Wine Club Assistant For Thanksgiving this year we will be enjoying a Domaine Weinbach Riesling, and the 2015 TCV Counoise. The peach and apple that resonate with Riesling along with the bright acidity are perfection with Turkey. The cranberry and clove stand out for me in the Counoise which makes such a harmonious balance with all the yummy baking spices in both the main dishes and desserts.
Leslie Castillo, Tasting Room Team Lead We are going to enjoy a couple of wines I discovered while I worked harvest in the Southern Rhône Valley a few weeks ago.
I am specially excited about my favorite Tavel, Domaine de la Mordorée's 2016 "La Reine des Bois". This wine has beautiful and complex aromatics, bright acidity, spice, textural minerality and captivating depth. It is wild yet elegant and powerful, I think it will bring a nice contrast to the traditional thanksgiving meal components like; sage, turkey, mashed potatoes, etc. The wine I chose is all that while still respecting the environment as it is organic.
Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker Thanksgiving again! as I think about just which beverages to enjoy with this annual feast I realize how many wonderful options there are in the Tablas Creek stable, Terret Noir, Pinot Noir, En Gobelet, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Roussanne, referencing just a smattering. This is not even thinking of non-Tablas, non-California wines. I will have quite a table of folks this year so there will doubtless be plenty enjoyed. As always as we cook and prepare, as people start to arrive we will have a growler or two of Bristols Cider open for all. When we come to the vino I have chosen three main players, 2016 Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling this seems the perfect match for the day, second La Ronze 2015 this Gamay from Beaujolais was produced in the Regnie appellation, the newest of the crus, and should be fruity and delicate for the food at hand. As that big bird lands upon our table I will break out a Magnum of 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, a big bottle for a laden table and the wine the perfect pairing. Bon Appetit to you all!!
Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager I’ve reserved a hyper local wine duo of 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc - to be drunk out of massive Pinot Noir goblet stems (which I’ve found shows off its wild, evolved pedigree) - as well as a mystery magnum of 2002 Talley Estate Pinot Noir that turned up at my family’s pizzeria fully sealed at some point in the year. At the most, both bottles will please any wine sipping palates at my brother’s table, and at the very least, using the same stems will slightly cut down on dishwashing duties.
Brad Ely, Cellar Master This Thanksgiving I will be opening a Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir from Central Otago, New Zealand. It is light on its feet, very textural, and won't over power any of the various flavors on the dinner table. I tend to stick with lighter wines made in a fresh style for Thanksgiving, and this fits the docket quite well. I am sure there will be a few bottles of Gamay making an appearance as well!
Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker For me, bubbles are an absolute must for any celebration – or, if I’m being completely honest – a must for any gathering. This means that the availability of something sparkling over the holidays is non-negotiable. My husband and I had the great honor to meet up with the members of the Tablas Creek riverboat cruise this summer, where one of the pre-cruise excursion destinations was the Champagne cellars of Roger Coulon. We brought a few bottles back home with us and I think this weekend would be the perfect time to examine the difference between tasting Champagne IN Champagne and tasting Champagne in California. All in the name of science, naturally.
For the dinner portion of the evening, the two bottles I’m most excited to crack into are my Smith-Madrone (dry) Riesling from the Napa Valley and one of the bottles from my Cru Beaujolais stash; probably the Jean-Michel Dupre Vieilles Vignes from Morgon. Both of these have enough structure, beautiful roundness of body, as well as infinitely enticing aromas, to support the wide array of diverse dishes we’re going to be enjoying. With these three lovely wines, I’ll have to add three more spaces to my long list of things I’m thankful for!
Robert Haas, Founder This year my cellar choice will be a 1985 Trapet Chambertin. The Trapet family was the largest single proprietor in Chambertin. He mostly sold his wines to negociants in barrel. Raymond Beaudouin convinced him to bottle some and I later represented him personally and through Vineyard Brands. The domaine has subsequently split up in the family. 1985 was a great vintage, and it should be fully mature.
Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker For my family dinners there is generally a good amount of open bottles on the table. A couple of the wines we will be choosing will be Tablas 2015 Counoise with plenty of cranberry and light fruits tones along with the baking spices that fills in, it should be a winner. Another wine we will be opening will be A 2014 Hilltop Syrah from Stolpman Vineyards. Cheers and happy holidays.
Jordan Lonborg, Viticulturist Thanksgiving is without question my favorite holiday of the year. Family, friends, WINE and good food are all that is needed for a successful holiday. It’s a celebration of being thankful for all that we have. That said, my list is long!!! In the spirit of giving thanks, I will be drinking (and sharing) the 2015 Tannat.
As a grower, if I had to choose one varietal to work with for the rest of my career, it would be Tannat. Hands down it is one of the toughest, most disease resistant, insect pest resistant, (most importantly) virus tolerant plants I have ever encountered. It is one, if not the only, variety I know on the the property that needs little assistance and ripens beautifully year in, year out! So in the spirit of paying homage, I raise my glass to you Tannat! Thank you for being the rock that you are! Also, you know what makes you a tad bit cooler than the rest? You are a palindrome! Happy thanksgiving to all of you! Love your families, love your friends, and think about those who are not as fortunate!!! Happy thanksgiving!!!!
John Morris, Tasting Room Manager This year's pairing should be a cinch as we're serving lamb chops, a natural partner for many Tablas Creek wines. Still there's some narrowing down to do. Single-varietal Mourvedre or a blend? A Côtes de Tablas to bridge some of the lighter food on the table? Which vintage? Something young and fresh, or maybe a bottle mellowed and deepened with time? Hmm, maybe this isn't so easy after all. We’ll open with some bubbles of course, but after that we’ll get straight to the reds. After some thought I’ve decided on our 2015 En Gobelet, which is both fresh and vibrant, and deep and complex. If I only had one bottle, I’d hang onto it for some years to let it develop and open something else, but I happen to know where to get more. Cheers to you and your family!
We’ll toast with a Gruet Blanc de Noirs, a pleasant and refreshing sparkling from New Mexico - certainly called for on such a warm autumn day. I have a bottle of 2013 Perrin & Fils Gigondas La Gille which I’ve been saving for the right occasion, and it will go beautifully with our paté, cheese and other savory starters. With our meal, I have finally decided on the 2012 Esprit Blanc, a perfect complement to the lobster and citrus beurre blanc sauce, with its Roussanne richness and gentle acidity to round out the meal.
I am so grateful to be able to share these beautiful wines with my friends and family who will soon be filling my home with warmth and laughter. Happy Thanksgiving!
And as for me... My general rule is to open the biggest bottle that I have on Thanksgiving. That automatically makes for a festive gathering. As for wines, my personal favorite for the traditional turkey and fixings is Beaujolais. So this year, although I'll be over at my parents' for the meal (and will therefore get to share some of that 85 Chambertin) my contribution will be procuring a magnum of 2016 Domaine Marcel Lapierre Julienas, which my dad tried and reported was terrific this summer. Julienas is one of the lesser known "cru" appellations in Beaujolais, and typically produces wines that balance between classic Beaujolais juiciness and the more savory, serious aspect that comes from the cru terroirs. Hopefully, it will hit the spot. If not, we might just have to open a third bottle of that Chambertin.
Wherever you are, we wish you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving, and that you be surrounded by good food and great company.
[Editor's note: With this post, we are happy to welcome Linnea Frazier to the Tablas Creek blog. Linnea was one of our cellar interns for this years harvest, fresh from Portland’s Lewis and Clark College. This was her first cellar experience. This won't be the last you hear from her, as we are also happy to announce that she will be staying on with us working as our Marketing Assistant, as well as in the Tasting Room.]
By Linnea Frazier
I glanced at the clock. It was 8:13 pm and I had just trudged through the door after yet another twelve-hour cellar work day. After grappling with my juice-stained, water-logged boots and eventually winning the battle, I flopped onto the bed and contemplated my grape induced state of affairs.
To shower or not to shower? Eh, that’s what the glory of dry shampoo was invented for. To eat something besides oatmeal for dinner and make a decent meal fit for a person? Hmm, if I put enough chia seeds in it that means I’m healthy right? To attempt to stay up past 9:30 for once and get a drink with the friends who were threatening to file a missing persons report on me? Hard pass, because that would probably entail staying awake long enough to understand basic human social cues (plus the whole shower thing). Then I should probably FaceTime my Mom and placate her that I haven’t fallen into a fermenting tank yet. Perhaps not, because she would demand to check the state of my Harvest Hands.[i]
That glorious night ended as most every night of Harvest did, with my feet in fuzzy socks and a glass of my one true love, Syrah, in hand. There I rested, falling asleep by nine like the 23-year-old harvest Grandma that I was more than happily content being.
Looking back at this year’s harvest I can’t help but chuckle at my preconceived notions going into it, and how much that changed into the new reality I have emerging from it. To describe working harvest at a winery in a mere blog is no easy task. Words almost seem to fail when I think about the evolution of what those unoffending, little grape clusters do to make their way to be imbibed and dissected at our dinner party tables, and what we need to do as winemakers to ensure they don’t stray that path. Perhaps it’s the influence of our heavily moustached shepherd Nathan, but there’s a sheep-dogging metaphor in there somewhere.
For what happens in a winery's cellar is worlds apart from the warmth and comfort of its tasting room. The environment of a cellar is raw, almost carnal in nature, with the cellar crew itself verging on animalistic at times amongst the frenzy of a Harvest. It is cold, damp, and amongst the constant heavy whir of machinery you can readily lose sense of time and place. The fervid smell of fermentation clings to everything, including you. It is this living, breathing entity with the cellar crew tending to it as worker bees tend to their hive. And it is one of my favorite places in the world.
Harvest was not about my reversion to a 9 pm bedtime. Nor was it about learning how many espresso shots your body can take in twelve hours. Nor even how alright you are with leaving a veritable crumb trail of grape skins wherever you go. No, in the end, it was about falling in love with not only the people who make Tablas Creek what it is, but also with a process that has been one of the most gratifying and humbling human experiences my minimal years have yet to afford me.
To walk through the rows of vines in the vineyard, to feel the buildup of sugar between your fingers in a berry, knowing that countless man hours and spreadsheets and lab work have the exact time and date of picking down to the minute, is humbling. To watch the picking crews leave after a night shift to sleep and rest as we come in to start our days, is humbling, for I am convinced these men and women are some type of superhero. To be standing at the sorting table and plucking unlucky creepy crawlies and debris from grapes about to be destemmed and ready to begin the long journey of fermentation is humbling. To watch the seasoned veterans of the cellar let their experience out to play as they debate amongst themselves what direction they want to take a blend, is humbling. To punch down[ii]the cap of skins that inevitably forms in our fermentation tanks and watch the CO2 escape from it in a witchy cauldron type of way, is humbling.
To test alcohol densities daily and watch the contents of the tanks make the slow progression from a juice to a wine, and then to jump into action and transfer it into barrels at the last possible nanosecond, is humbling. To clean out the metal grates that collect the cellar debris and runoff after the end of a heavy fruit day, let me tell you, is humbling.
So you learn there is no shortage of lessons in the life of a harvest intern, there is no job you are unwilling to do, there is nothing you want to say no to because you want to be involved in it all, as simple as it sounds. You fall in love with it, the process of it. You are there for the beginning, middle, and after a year or two you get to taste the end to the manifestation of your blood, sweat, and espresso.
And the cellar crew at Tablas Creek has everything to do with that ease of falling in love.
The best sleep of my life has been after work days spent with the most ridiculously hilarious, vivacious people I could have ever even imagined. These people, these people made every day of harvest something I was eager to wake up for. From making fun of the men for their slow decline into caveman status as their harvest beards began to overrun their faces, to the inevitable glitter bombing and water wars of Kesha Fridays (shout out to my cellar gals), to the endless rounds of slow clapping if someone would be a bit too eager with a forklift, to the vineyard dogs that would intuitively sense you hitting that wall after hour nine and come up to let you lean into them for a moment, and most fondly to the five-star lunches our Winemaker Neil’s wife Marci (also known as Harvest Mama of the Year) would create, there are countless memories I now carry with me when looking back at my time in that cellar.
So as this years Harvest closes and my incentive to make hygiene a priority comes back, I can safely say that as sad as I am it is over, I am also utterly content because I get to continue existing here with those that have become family.
As the years have progressed I have grown to understand that the people make the place, the place does not make the people. And Tablas Creek feels at times otherworldly in its sense of community, its altruistic desire to extend that shared sense of self and love for cultivating wines to others in a manner I have never seen before. Before joining this company, yes I enjoyed wine and loved the nuance of it, its seductive fluidity that all wine drinkers can appreciate. But now wine is emotional to me. Seeing how much the Haas family has melded with this land, what they have done to ensure the honesty of their grapes is again, humbling. It is not about what could be easier, more cost-efficient, more along the lines of instant gratification that are all unfortunate aspects of vineyard management, and agriculture in general. For the Haases it is about ensuring that this place, and this type of winemaking will be here for our grandchildren and then their children after them. I believe that to strive for a better future that you will not even see, is true generosity. That generosity is why Tablas Creek has become what you see today.
So cheers Tablas Creek Harvest 2017, you didn’t always smell great but you sure changed my world.
Harvest Hands, the decline of decent cuticles due to the inevitable blistering and blackening of your hands (and soul) as Harvest progresses.
Punch downs, a form of Cap Management which is physically turning the grapes in the tanks to ensure the skins and the juice evenly ferment. Also the process that gave me my new biceps.
Craig Hamm, Assistant Winemaker, is living the dream and savoring every moment. We get the inside scoop on what's it's like making wine in the cellar at Tablas Creek and what inspires this fifth generation farming native to evolve his skills into winemaking.
Where were you born and raised? I was born in San Luis Obispo and raised in Templeton. We spent a couple years in Shandon. My dad farmed hay on a couple flats around where the Target is now in Templeton. My brothers and I started helping my dad when we were really little. My twin brother and I were the youngest of four. I remember how we couldn’t use the hay hooks, because we were too small, and my brother and I would push the bales to get them closer to the truck so our bigger brothers could help pick them up. Eventually we got big enough that we could throw them up into the truck with hooks. Then as we got older we’d get into the truck and help from there. Growing up in this area, that’s just the kind of stuff we did.
When and how did you get into wine? 1996 was my dad’s first year of getting fruit off his vines so I started helping out with that when I was young. Later, when I was in my twenties, I worked at a steakhouse and met a lot of winemakers. I was bartending and they were always a really cool crowd of people, so I figured I wanted to try working in the wine industry. I started my wine career in the barrel room at Meridian where they put me on a machine spinning and washing barrels all day- that’s all I did, it was very monotonous. From my work station, I could see the guys on forklifts, which looked like a lot more fun, so I eventually moved up to a position that allowed me to drive alongside them. The forklift work was essentially racing around as fast as I could; it was intense, trying to go faster than the other guys without dropping barrels- it was a challenge but it was a blast. I took two years off after that harvest and then got a job working in the cellar at Justin Winery where I worked for a couple of years.
What has been your career path to where you are? While working at Justin I would do weekend events with Chef Jeffery Scott. We did a few events at Tablas Creek, which is where I met the Tablas Winemaker, Neil Collins. Neil was a really nice guy and we got along well. After a few years I was looking to work somewhere where there was more variation and smaller lots to work with. I reached out to Neil, who said there was an opening at Tablas Creek. I got the job in 2013, and I worked my way up from Cellar Assistant to Cellar Master and now Assistant Winemaker.
In your view, what makes working in the Tablas Creek cellar special? It’s got to be working with new varieties, and being with a winemaker and crew that’s open to experimenting. We don’t have any sort of regimentation in the cellar here, so we’re able to figure out what we like on our own terms. We’re working with wines that don’t have an established legacy here in the United States and we’ve been given the opportunity to help write their history. It’s really fun seeing what comes in the doors every day during harvest.
What’s your biggest challenge as Assistant Winemaker? My biggest challenge is part of what I really like about working at Tablas. It’s working with these new grape varieties and building a log of history and maintaining it with each new vintage and with each variation we try in the vineyard and in the cellar. My challenge is noting these details, because up to this point all we had was what was in Neil’s head, his knowledge and experience. I’ve been challenging myself to learn more about these varieties and organizing written notes that we can use for years to come.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world? I prefer rustic, country style wines, you know- easy drinking country wines. I love Tablas, so I drink a lot of our wine. I like Pinot a lot, I’ve worked a lot of World of Pinot events and I really like tasting those. Papapietro from Sonoma Coast makes killer Pinot Noir. And I really like Demetria in Los Olivos, they’re really fun and nice to visit and big fans of Tablas too.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose? I'd probably pick the Grenache Blanc for the white because it maintains a great balance between richness and texture without going too far in either direction. For red, I’d choose En Gobelet not only because I love the wine, but also because I’m really into the story behind the wine. The farming technique employed to make that wine is really important in the narrative of the future of California winemaking, I think. Those would be two solid wines I could drink with each meal.
How do you like to spend your days off? Now my days off are pretty much spent taking Jackson, my two-year-old son, to the beach. We play soccer, kick the ball around a little bit. It’s something we’ve both been into. My free time is spent hanging out with the little man. I used to love to go surf, once he gets old enough I’ll get him out on a board. My fiancée Annika and I spend a lot of time traveling and even more cooking together and learning to pair wine with the new cuisine.
What would people be surprised to know about you? I guess probably that my Great-Great-Grandfather lived out in the Adelaide. They were part of the Mennonite train that came out here. So my family’s been here six generations. That’s a lot of history, and roots in the farming community.
How do you define success? You’ve got to be happy with the people you work with and the job you do and I think Tablas does a great job at creating that atmosphere. It’s amazing. When you walk around working and you just smile and realize, hey I’m at work and I’m really happy, I think that’s success.