Why Calcareous Soils Matter for Vineyards and Wine Grapes

What do regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Tuscany, Alsace, the Loire, Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape all have in common? They've all got soils that are variously described as chalky, decomposed limestone, and calcareous. In chemical terms, all are high in calcium carbonate, the basic building block of marine life.

So too does much of the Paso Robles AVA, particularly the sub-AVAs of the Adelaida District, Willow Creek District, Templeton Gap, El Pomar, and Santa Margarita Ranch. In all these regions, if you find a road cut, the rocks will be chalky and white, and if you dig into them you'll find marine fossils, from fish scales to oyster shells to whale bones. Yes, ten million years ago, our part of Paso Robles was under the Pacific Ocean. This makes our land, in geologic terms, relatively young. When they make their way to the surface, the rocks are creamy white and surprisingly lightweight:

Calcareous Soil on Scruffy Hill

What Are Calcareous Soils?
Calcareous soils are formed from the crushed up and decayed shells and bones of sea creatures. These layers settle down to the bottom of shallow oceans and, depending on how much heat and pressure they're subjected to, can be as soft as talc or chalk, or as hard as limestone or even marble. Of course, in order for plants to be able to access the calcium carbonate, it needs to be friable: soft enough for roots to penetrate. This means that even when you hear about a region having "limestone soils" the value to the plants isn't in the limestone itself, but in areas where the limestone has decayed into smaller particles.

From a grapevine's perspective, it doesn't really matter if the calcareous soils come from the erosion of limestone (as in Burgundy) or whether they never quite got heated and compressed enough to become rock (as in Paso Robles). The net impact is the same. There are four principal reasons why these soils are so often good for wine quality.

Wet limestone
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture,
turning dark.  Note the roots that have pene-
trated between the layers of clay.

Benefit 1: Water Retention & Drainage
Calcium-rich clay soils like those that we have here have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines. Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots. But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.

The porosity of our soils mean that they act like a sponge, absorbing the rainfall that comes in the winter and spring months and holding it for the vines to access during the growing season. We've done backhoe cuts in late summer, after it hasn't rained for several months, and while the top few feet of soil are dry, there's moisture in the layers six feet down and more.

At the same time, we never see water pooling around the vines. Part of that is that our whole property is hilly. But hillside vineyards in other regions still end up with standing water at the bottoms of the hills. We never do. That balance of water retention and drainage is ideal, and it allows us to dry-farm in the summer months of what is essentially a desert climate. 

Benefit 2: Higher Acids at Harvest
We've had anecdotal evidence of calcium-rich soils producing wines with more freshness for years. At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted last decade, producers from non-calcareous regions (from Napa to the Sierra Foothills to vineyards in eastern Paso Robles with alluvial soils) consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us from calcareous regions like west Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. But the chemistry of why this was the case has only become clear in recent years. 

It appears that the key nutrient here is potassium, which is central to the processes by which grapevines lower acidity in berries as fruit ripens. High calcium levels displace potassium in the soils, inhibiting this chemical process and leaving more acidity at any given sugar level. Of course, this can be a challenge. I have friends in other parts of Paso Robles whose pH readings are so low at the sugar levels that we like to pick at (say, 22-24° Brix) that they have no choice but to wait for higher sugars. This can produce wines that carry massive levels of alcohol. But in moderation, it's a wonderful thing. I'm grateful that (unlike in many California regions) we can let malolactic fermentation proceed naturally, producing a creamy mouthfeel without unpleasantly high alcohol levels. In much of California, the higher harvest pH readings mean that they have no choice but to stop the malolactic bacteria from working to preserve the sharper malic acids in the finished wines, for balance. 

Tablas Creek - calcareous rock cut
The calcium-rich layers of the mountain behind
the winery shine bright white in mid-summer

Benefit 3: Root System and Vine Development
Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems. This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil. It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers. 

Grapevine roots are remarkable. They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives. This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output. Calcareous clay's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces in which water can be stored. In addition, the softness of these soils means that as they dry out, they shrink, creating fissures through which roots penetrate to where more residual moisture can be found. As they get wet, they expand again, opening up yet more terrain for the vines' roots to access. This process repeats itself annually. In our vineyard we've routinely found grapevine roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.

Benefit 4: Disease Resistance
Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries. Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion. However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.

Where Are California's Calcareous Soils?
When my dad and the Perrin brothers were looking for a place to found the winery that would become Tablas Creek, calcareous soils were one of three main criteria they were looking to satisfy (the others were sun/heat/cooling and rainfall). But they quickly realized that soils like these are rare in California, except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south. The portion of this this area that is on the western slope of the coastal mountain ranges is too cold to ripen most Rhone varieties. The western and southern pieces of the Paso Robles AVA, on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, are home to the state's largest exposed calcareous layers, and it's largely because of this that in 1989 we bought property here.

There's a great story about how they went about finding soils. As they tell it, they decided that it was a lot cheaper and faster to look at road cuts than to hire backhoes and dig their own. They looked for the better part of four years around California without finding soils that excited them. Until they were driving along Peachy Canyon Road one afternoon in 1989, saw one of the many switchbacks where CalTrans had dug into the hillside to make the roadbed, and pulled over to see if the white rocks that they noticed were really what they'd been searching for. The composition looked right, the fossils looked right, and they then brought over a French geologist to confirm their impressions. They put in an offer on the property where we are now later that year.

We've thought since the beginning that finding calcareous soils would be a key to making great wines. Learning the science behind why only underscores the importance that the vineyard's founders put on this search.

Tablas Creek - Calcareous Rocks and Vines

Further Reading:
Thanks to Dr. Thomas J. Rice, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science at Cal Poly, for pointing me in the right direction on some of the trickier geology questions. See also:


Tasting Every Vintage of our Flagship Red, 1997 Rouge to 2017 Esprit de Tablas

As regular readers of the blog have probably gathered, we're spending much of this year looking back as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. As a part of this celebration, in advance of the 30th Anniversary Party we hosted here a few weeks back, we decided to open every vintage of our flagship red wines, from our very first Tablas Creek Rouge in 1997 to the 2017 Esprit de Tablas that is still sitting in foudre waiting to be bottled later this summer. While we're opening older vintages of Esprit fairly regularly, we only go through a systematic tasting every couple of years1. So, it would have been a special occasion for us anyway. But because we had Jean-Pierre Perrin in town, we thought it would be great to invite some other local regional Rhone Rangers winemakers to join us. In the end, about 18 of us, evenly split between Tablas folks and those we'd invited to join, sat down on a Friday afternoon to taste 21 different wines. The tasting mat tells the story:

Rretrospective Tasting Mat

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I was spending a lot of time coordinating the discussion, so some of my notes are a bit telegraphic, but I hope that you will still get a sense of the differences. I have also linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.

  • 1997 Rouge: A nose that is minty and spicy, still quite fresh. On the palate, bright acids, earth, and still some solid tannins. I'd never have guessed that this wine was 20 years old, or made from grapevines that were just three to five years old. 
  • 1998 Rouge: Older and quieter on the nose than the 1997. The mouth has a cool elegance and nice leathery earth. A little simple perhaps, but still totally viable. From one of our coolest-ever vintages, where we didn't start harvesting until October.
  • 1999 Reserve Cuvee: Dramatic on the nose, dark mocha and meat drippings. On the palate, still quite intense, with coffee, red berry fruit, and big tannins. A long finish. Still vibrant and youthful. I remember selling this wine when it was young, and it was a bit of a tannic monster. Those tannins have served it well in the intervening two decades.
  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely meaty nose with eucalyptus, licorice, red currant and chocolate. Similar flavors on the palate, with a velvety texture and a long finish. Right at its peak, we thought. We've consistently underestimated this wine's aging potential, and each time we open a bottle we like it more.
  • 2001 Founders Reserve: From lots we'd set aside for Esprit and Panoplie that we blended for the wine club after deciding not to make either wine in the frost-depleted 2001 vintage. On the nose, more savory than fruity, dark eucalyptus and black pepper. A touch of alcohol showed. The mouth is vibrant, with great acids, mid-weight texture, and a long finish. A little rustic compared to the wines around it, but intense and fun to taste.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: Dark and chocolaty on the nose, with black fruit and balsamic notes. The mouth is similar, with cocoa powder, black cherry, luscious texture, and a long finish. My favorite of the older vintages.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: Round on the nose and lightly meaty, with a sweet cola character that I've always loved in this wine. On the palate, lively, with milk chocolate and tangy currant fruit. Really nice but I thought a touch less outstanding than we thought in our last tasting in 2017. Drink up.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A spicy balsamic nose nicely balanced between fruity and savory elements. On the palate too I found it right on point, with no element sticking out, but less dramatic than the vintages before and after. Still fresh. 
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: Leaps out of the glass with a meaty, smoky nose, deep and inviting. On the palate, spruce forest and meat drippings, black licorice and dark red fruit. Dramatic and long on the finish. A consensus favorite, and right in the middle of what looks likely to be a long peak.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely wine that paled a little after the 2005, with a nose that is lightly meaty, with both black and red currant notes. On the palate, it feels fully mature and resolved, with a nice sweet clove/cumin spice notes, and nice freshness on the finish.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A dense, inky animal nose, with iodine and cherry skin coming out with time. On the palate, luscious and densely tannic, with a creamy texture and a dark cherry cola note vying with the tannins on the finish. Still young and on its way up, and definitely helped by time in the glass. Decant if you're drinking now, or hold.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very different from the previous vintage, much more marked by Grenache's openness and red fruit. A high toned red berry nose, with a palate that is open and lifted and medium-bodied. This had a lovely translucency and freshness that made it a favorite for many of us of the 10-15 year old range.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel: Sort of split the difference between the two previous vintages, with a dense eucalyptus and cola nose, with pepper spice notes. Plush but still tannic on the palate, with red raspberry fruit and some dusty tannins that are a reminder of its youth. Lots there, and still fleshing out.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: A pretty nose, with leather and spicy boysenberry. On the palate, nicely mid-weight on entry, but good tangy purple fruit and these nice tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. In a good place, and reminiscent of the 1998, from a similarly cool vintage.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas: Like the 2010, with the volume turned up slightly. A creamy cherry candy nose, with Syrah's dark foresty character a bit toward the forefront. Savory and textured on the palate, with black cherry coming out on the finish. More open than my last tasting of this wine, which suggests it's on its way out of its closed phase.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas: A high toned nose, almost all red fruit at this stage. Candied strawberry on the nose, then red plum on the palate, with a tangy marinade note that I've always found in the 2012. Medium weight. Still fleshing out and deepening; I'm very interested to see where this goes during and after its closed phase.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas: A darker nose than 2012, with a spicy Mexican chocolate character. The mouth is savory with black raspberry and black cherry fruit, new leather, soy marinade, and some youthful tannins. Seems more on a black fruit 2010/2011 trajectory than a red fruit 2008/2009/2012 one.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas: I wrote pure multiple times on this one: a nose like "pure wild strawberry" and the "mouth too, with crystalline purity". Nice texture, generously red fruited. We've been thinking of the 2014 vintage as something like 2007, but tasting this wine it was instead more like 2009.
  • 2015 Esprit de Tablas: A nose of spiced red fruit, like pomegranate molasses. The mouth is pure and deep, purple fruit and spicy herbs, a little leathery soy note provides savory counterpoint. Long and expressive. My favorite of our recent vintages.
  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas: A dense, savory nose, bigger and denser than the 2015, yet still expressive. Blackberry or black plum, pepper spice, chewy tannins, and a long finish. A hint of meatiness like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. Should be incredible to watch evolve. A consensus favorite of our younger wines. 
  • 2017 Esprit de Tablas: A nose like black cherry and smoke, with a concentrated juiciness that despite its power doesn't come across as sweet. Elderberry and new leather. Long. I am excited to show off this wine, which seems to me too be the closest thing we've blended to the 2005 in the years since.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and 14 of the 21 wines got at least one vote. Those with four or more included the 2000, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2016, with the 2005 and the 2016 sharing the top total. 

A few concluding thoughts:

  • What a pleasure to taste with the combined hundreds of vintages of experience in that room. A few (including Jean-Pierre Perrin, and Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Estate Wines) had to leave before we thought of taking the photograph, but what a room of winemaking talent to share the experience with:
Rretrospective Tasting Guests
From left: John Alban, Alban Vineyards; John Munch, Le Cuvier Winery; Jason Haas; Kirk Gafill, Nepenthe; Aengus Wagner, Nepenthe; Steve Edmunds, Edmunds St. John; Steve Beckmen, Beckmen Vineyards; Neil Collins
  • I was really pleased that the favorite wines stretched from the beginning of the sequence to the end, and included warm years and cool, low-production years and plentiful ones, and blends that included unusually high percentages of Mourvedre (2005, 2015), of Grenache (2008, 2014), and of Syrah (2009, 2016). I thought that the older wines showed great staying power, while the younger wines were open and felt already well mannered. John Munch from Le Cuvier commented, in his typically pithy style, "the older wines didn't taste old, and the younger wines didn't taste young".
  • The longevity of the wines from even our very early vintages gives me a ton of optimism about how our current wines will age. Look at a wine like the 2000: for a decade, we've been commenting at every tasting that it's the best showing we've seen yet. Our oldest vines then were 8 years old, with the majority of the vineyard between 3 and 5. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, but I think we've consistently underestimated how well our own wines age. Hopefully, events like this help recast our expectations.
  • It is always fascinating the extent to which the wines are alive, and do move around over time. Last time we held a tasting like this, in 2017, our favorites included 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015. All of those showed well at this tasting, but only the 2000 was among our top-5 vote-getters this time. 
  • At the same time, the tasting supported by contention that the run we're on now is the best we've ever seen. If you tally the votes in 3-year increments, the top range was 2014-2016 (15 votes), followed closely by 2008-2010 (13 votes) and 2003-2005 (11 votes). If I had to make a gross generalization, in our early years (say, up until 2007), we were making wines that had robust power but were a little rustic and needed age to come into balance. And they mostly have. In our middle years (say, 2008-2013) we were working to build elegance into the wines, trusting that they would deepen with time in bottle. And they mostly have. What we're getting now, with its combination of power and purity, is what we've been aiming at all along, and I think that watching them age will be fascinating.

Flagship red vertical

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

What I would have said if I'd given a speech at our 30th Anniversary Party

On Friday night, we hosted an industry party to celebrate our 30th anniversary. It was a wonderful evening, with about 350 friends and colleagues, beautiful weather (we got lucky), great food by Chef Jeff Scott, music by the Mark Adams Band, and masterful coordination by Faith Wells. I'll share a few photos, all taken by the talented Heather Daenitz (see more of her work at www.craftandcluster.com). We brought in some chairs and couches, and converted our parking lot to space to sit, mingle, and browse the memorabilia we'd pulled together.

Seating group on parking lot

Expanding to the parking lot spread the event out, making sure that no area felt cramped, and gave the event two focuses: the food, near our dry-laid limestone wall, and the wine tables, on our patio.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Food and Solar Panels

We decided to open every wine we're currently making, as well as several selections out of our library. We figured if not then, when?

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Wines

Chef Jeff's menu focused on things that were raised or harvested here at Tablas Creek, including lamb, pork, honey, olive oil, eggs, pea tendrils, and herbs. The egg strata, made from 16 dozen of our eggs and flavored with our olive oil, was one of my favorites: 

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Egg Strata

One of my favorite things that Faith suggested we do was to put together photo walls, each representing a decade of our history. This gave us an excuse to go through our massive photo archives and try to pull out pictures that showed how things had changed.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Photo Wall 3

In the end, though, the event was, as most events are, really about the people who came. We had winemakers from around California, almost the whole current Tablas Creek team and many of the former employees who helped bring us where we are, local restaurateurs and hoteliers, members of the community organizations and charities we support, and even local government officials. Jean-Pierre Perrin (below, left) made the trip from France, and I know it was fun for people who had only heard his name to get to meet the man so responsible for the creation of this enterprise.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - JPP & Michel

The Paso Robles wine community is remarkable for the extent to which it really is a community, made up of people who live here and are involved in the broader local community, from schools to restaurants to youth sports and charities. Getting a large group like this together isn't so much an industry party as it is a gathering of friends. And I couldn't shake the feeling all day that this was like a wedding, with old and new friends arriving from far away, and people stopping me again and again to say, warmly, "congratulations".

It was this aspect of Paso Robles that I'd been intending to highlight in the brief remarks I had planned to give to the group. But I decided in the middle of the event that doing so would have interrupted the event's momentum and turned something that felt like an organic gathering into something more staged and self-centered. And that was the last thing I wanted to do, so I just let the evening take its course. 

That said, looking at the photos makes me feel that much more confident in what I had planned to say. The event wasn't the right moment. But I thought I'd share them now. I didn't write it out, but these are, more or less, the remarks I'd planned to share:

Thank you all for being here. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that it's been 30 years since my dad, as well as Francois and Jean-Pierre Perrin (who is with us here tonight) celebrated the purchase of the property with a lunch from KFC on the section of the vineyard that we know call Scruffy Hill. And not just because all the great restaurant folks here this evening are a case in point that the Paso Robles culinary scene has come a long way from those days.
I wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago about 10 things that we got right (and wrong) at the beginning of our project. [Note: that blog can be found here.] Things we got wrong, like that we were only going to make one red and one white wine each year, or that we didn't need a tasting room. And things we got right, like that the climate and soils in this place was going to be great for these varieties, and that if we planted the right grapes, whites could thrive here. But the biggest piece of our success isn't something that we got right or wrong; it's really neither of those things. It wasn't on our radar at all. In my opinion, the biggest thing that has allowed this crazy project to succeed is the wine community that we joined here in Paso Robles. It is this community that has become a destination for wine lovers and for some of the most talented winemakers in the country. It is this community that has embraced Rhone varieties, and blends, both of which were major leaps into the unknown for an American winery 30 years ago. And it's this community which has welcomed us, interlopers from France and Vermont, to be a part of its vibrantly experimental mix.
I often think, when I reflect on the anniversary, that 30 years old is the age at which, in France, they finally start taking a vineyard seriously. I am proud of what we've accomplished, but even more excited about what we're working on now. Thank you for your support over the first generation of Tablas Creek. I look forward to celebrating many future milestones with you.

The idea that for all we've done, we're just getting started, was the inspiration for the party favor we sent people home with: a baby grapevine from our nursery. We may have been here for a generation. But it's really still just the beginning.

Tablas Creek 30th Anniversary Party - Vines

So, if you came, thank you for helping us celebrate. If you couldn't come, thank you for helping us make it 30 years. We couldn't have done it without you.


30 Years of Tablas Creek: 10 Things We Got Right (and Wrong)

I find it hard to wrap my head around this fact, but this year marks 30 years since my dad, along with Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, bought this property and began the process of launching what would become Tablas Creek Vineyard. To celebrate, they stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was before it became KFC) and took their purchases as a picnic lunch onto the section of the vineyard we now call Scruffy Hill to talk about what would come next. Amazingly, last year we turned up a photo of that lunch:

KFC Lunch on Scruffy Hill in 1989 with Jean-Pierre Perrin  Robert Haas  Charlie Falk  and M Portet

1989 was a different time, and not just because not-yet-called-KFC was the best option in town for lunch. Paso Robles itself had just 16 bonded wineries. None of them were producing Rhone varieties. The entire California Rhone movement had only about a dozen members. And yet the founding partners had enough confidence in their decision to embark on the long, slow, expensive process of importing grapevines, launching a grapevine nursery, planting an estate vineyard from scratch, building a winery, and creating a business plan to turn this into something self-sustaining.

I was thinking recently about how much of a leap into the unknown this was, and decided to look back on which of those early assumptions turned out to be right, and which we had to change or scrap. I'll take them in turn.

Wrong #1: Paso Robles is hot and dry, and therefore red wine country
This is a misconception that persists to this day among plenty of consumers, and (if it's not sacrilegious to say) an even higher percentage of sommeliers and the wine trade. But it's hard to be too critical of them when we made the same mistake. Our original plan was to focus on a model like Beaucastel's. There, the Perrins make about 90% red wines, and many Chateauneuf du Pape estates don't make any white at all. And yes, Paso Robles is hot and dry, during the day, in the summer.  But it's cold at night, with an exceptionally high diurnal shift, and winters are cold and quite wet. The net result is that our average temperature is lower than Beaucastel's, and the first major change to our vineyard plans was to plant 20 more acres of white grapes. Now, our mix is about 50% red, 35% white, and 15% rosé. 

Right #1: Obscure grapes can be great here
In our initial planting decisions, we decided to bring in the grapes you would have expected (think Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, or Viognier) but also some that had never before been used in America, like Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We thought that they would provide nice complexity, and our goal was to begin with the Beaucastel model (in which both of these grapes appear) and then adjust as our experiences dictated. It turns out that we liked them enough that not only are they important players in the blends that we make, but we even bottle them solo many years. This meant a relatively quick decision to bring in Picpoul Blanc in 2000, and to eventually import the full collection of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. If you've been enjoying new grapes like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, you have this early decision to thank.

Wrong #2: We're going to make just one red wine and one white wine
This is a decision we realized we needed to revisit pretty quickly. As early as 1999, we decided that in order to make the best wine we could from a vintage, we needed to be able to declassify lots into a second wine (which at that point we called "Petite Cuvee"). Having this declassified wine also gave us some cool opportunities in restaurants, which could pour this "second" wine by the glass, exposing us to new customers. And the wine, which we soon rechristened "Cotes de Tablas", proved to be more than just a place to put our second-best lots. Many of the characteristics that caused us to declassify a particular lot (pretty but not as intense, less structured and perhaps less ageworthy, good fruit but maybe less tannin) make a wine that's perfect to enjoy in its relative youth. Although we've been surprised by the ability of these wines to age, having something that people could open and appreciate while our more tannic flagship wines were aging in the cellar proved invaluable.

And we didn't stop there. We realized within another few years that there were lots that were either too dominant to be great in a blend, or so varietally characteristic that it was a shame to blend them away. Opening a tasting room and starting a wine club in 2002 (more on this below) meant that we had recurring educational opportunities where having, say, a varietal Mourvedre, was really valuable. At the time, many fans of Rhone grapes had never tasted even the main ones (outside of Syrah) on their own. Having a rotating collection of varietal bottlings beginning in 2002 not only gave us great options for our wine club shipments, but I think helped an entire generation of Rhone lovers wrap their heads around this diverse and heterogeneous category.

Right #2: Importing new vine material would be worth the costs
Nearly the first decision we had to make was whether we would work with the existing Rhone varieties that were already in California or whether we would bring in our own. And it's not as though this decision was without consequence. Importing grapevines through the USDA's mandated 3-year quarantine set us back (after propagation) five years, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But it also came with some potentially huge benefits: the opportunity to select our clones for high quality, the chance to work with the full complement of Rhone grapes, and eventually the privilege of supplying other wineries with high quality clones. I remain convinced that for all the different impacts Tablas Creek has had, it is this proliferation of clonal material that will go down as our most important.

Wrong #3: Vineyard and winery experience is enough to run a nursery
With fifteen years' distance blunting the anxiety, it's easy to forget just how steep the learning curve was for us in the nursery business. But I know that when I moved out here in 2002, it was the perennially money-losing nursery that was the source of most of our headaches. The nursery business is difficult for three reasons, particularly for a startup. First, it's technically tricky. Expertise in grapegrowing is only tangentially relevant to things like grafting and rooting, or dealing with nursery pests. This is made more challenging by the fact that the same things that make this place good for quality wine grapes (that it forces vines to struggle) made all the nursery challenges worse. Second, it's subject to supply shocks that are largely outside of your control. If you get a spring frost, or a summer drought, you'll produce smaller vine material, get a lower percentage of successful grafts, and produce fewer vines. I know that in our first few years we often had to go back to our customers and cut back their orders because of production challenges. And third, on the demand side, it's incredibly cyclical and prone to boom and bust. Because it takes three to four years for a new vine to get into into production, you tend to have cycles of sky-high demand for scarce grapes followed by periods where everyone has the same new varieties in production, which causes demand for new vines to collapse. We lost quite a lot of money overall on our nursery operations before realizing the right response was to outsource. Our partnership since 2004 with NovaVine has been such an improvement, in so many ways.

Right #3: Organic viticulture works
The Perrins have been innovators in organic viticulture since Jacques Perrin implemented it in the 1960s. By the time we were starting Tablas Creek, it was taken as a given that we'd farm the same way, partly out of a desire to avoid exposing ourselves, our colleagues, and our neighbors to toxins, but more because we felt that this was a fundamental precondition for producing wines that expressed their place. At the time, there wasn't a single vineyard in Paso Robles being farmed organically, and the studied opinion of the major California viticulture universities was that doing so was pointless and difficult. It has been wonderful to see a higher and higher percentage of our local grapegrowers come around to our perspective, and to see the excitement locally and around California as we push past organics into the more holistic approach of Biodynamics. But that idea -- that organic farming is key to producing wines with a sense of place -- is as fundamental to our process today as it was in the beginning.  

Wrong #4: Tasting Room? Wine Club? Who needs 'em!
At the beginning, our idea was that we would be in the production business, not the marketing and sales business.  Our contact with the market would be once a year, when we would call up Vineyard Brands and let them know that the new vintage was ready. They would buy it all, take care of the nitty gritty of selling it, and our next contact with the market would be a year later, when we would call them up again and let them know they could pick up the next vintage. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we'd initially imagined. We were making wines without an established category, from grapes that most customers didn't know and couldn't pronounce, in a place they hadn't heard of, and blending them into wines with French names that didn't mean anything to them. By 2002, inventory had started to build up and we had to radically rethink our marketing program. The two new key pieces were starting a wine club (first shipment: August 2002, to about 75 members) and opening our tasting room on Labor Day weekend that same fall.

The opportunities provided by both these outlets have fundamentally transformed the business of Tablas Creek, giving us direct contact with our customers, an audience for small-production experimental lots, a higher-margin sales channel through which we can offer our members good discounts and still do better than we would selling wholesale, and (most importantly, in my opinion) a growing army of advocates out in the marketplace who have visited here, gotten to see, smell, and touch the place, and take home a memory of our story and our wines. I don't think it's a coincidence that our wholesale sales grew dramatically over the first five years that our tasting room was open, or that each time a new state opens to direct shipping our wholesale sales improve there. Still, we would never have predicted at the outset that nearly 60% of the bottles that we'd sell in our 30th year would go directly from us to the customer who would ultimately cellar and (or) drink it.

Right #4: Building (and keeping) the right team is key
Long tenure was a feature of his hires throughout my dad's career. I still see people at Vineyard Brands sales meetings who remember me coming home from little league games in uniform, 35 years ago. And I'm really proud of how long the key members of the Tablas Creek team have been here. That includes David Maduena, our Vineyard Manager, who is on year 28 here at Tablas Creek. Denise Chouinard, our Controller, worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and moved out here to take over our back office 23 years ago. Neil Collins will oversee his 22nd vintage as Winemaker here this year. Nicole Getty has overseen our wine club, hospitality, and events for 15 years, while and Eileen Harms has run our accounting desk for the same duration. This will be 14 years at Tablas Creek for Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and 13 for Tasting Room Manager John Morris. 

I say all this not because longevity on its own is the point, but because of what it means to keep talented and ambitious people on your team. It means that they feel they're a part of something meaningful. That they're given the opportunity and resources to innovate and keep growing. And that you don't have to reinvent the wheel every few years. 

Wrong #5: People will buy it because Beaucastel 
Much of our challenge in the early years was self-inflicted: we hadn't done the work to create a consumer base for Tablas Creek, so when the wines got onto shelves or wine lists, they tended to gather dust. We assumed that if we made great wines, somehow the news would get out to the people who always clamored for Beaucastel (coming off a Wine Spectator #1 Wine of the Year honor in 1991), and the sales would take care of themselves. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. While our association with Beaucastel helped get the wines onto the shelves and lists, the boost it provided in sales wasn't enough to overcome the wines' unfamiliar names and lack of category, and the winery's own nonexistent track record. In the end we had to do the hard work of brand building: telling the story to one person at a time in our tasting room, to ambassadors in the trade, and to the masses (such as it was) through press coverage.

One caveat: a key piece of this turnaround was our decision in 2000 to bestow the name "Esprit de Beaucastel" on our top white and red blend. Unlike the names "Rouge", "Blanc", "Reserve Cuvee", and "Clos Blanc", having Beaucastel on the front label instead of in the back story was one of the early keys in reminding consumers who might have some vague awareness that the Perrins were involved in a California project that this, Tablas Creek, was that project. So, the Beaucastel name did matter... but people needed a more explicit reminder.

Right #5: Fundamentally, this place is great for these grapes
Ultimately, we got right the most important question, and Paso Robles has turned out to be a terrific place in which to have founded a Rhone project. The evidence for this is everywhere you look in Paso. It has become the epicenter of California's Rhone movement, with more than 80% of wineries here producing at least one Rhone wine. It became the home to Hospice du Rhone, the world's premier Rhone-focused wine festival, for which high profile Rhone producers from France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, Washington, and all over California convene every other spring for three days of seminars, tastings, dinners, and revelry. And the range of Rhone grapes that do well here is exceptionally broad. You can taste some of the state's greatest examples of Syrah, of Grenache, of Mourvedre, of Roussanne, of Viognier, and of Grenache Blanc all here in Paso. In this, it even surpasses the Rhone. You aren't generally going to taste world class Syrah or Viognier from the southern Rhone; it's too warm there. And Grenache, Mourvedre, and Roussanne all struggle to ripen in the northern Rhone. But the cold nights and the calcareous soils found in Paso Robles provide freshness and minerality to balance the lush fruit from our long growing season and 320 days of sun. Rhone producers here have enormous flexibility in how long they leave the grapes on the vines, which allows them to be successful in a wide range of styles.

And I haven't even mentioned yet the happy accident (which I'm pretty sure my dad and the Perrins didn't consider in 1989) that Paso Robles has proven to be an incredibly supportive, collegial community, which has embraced its identity as a Rhone hub and turned enthusiastically to the business of improving its practices, marketing its wares, and becoming a leader in sustainability.

Conclusion: The next 30 Years
Ultimately, what makes me so excited about where we are is that we've had the opportunity to work through our startup issues, and to make the adjustments we thought Paso Robles dictated, without having to compromise on our fundamental ideas. We're still making (mostly) Rhone blends from our organic (and now Biodynamic) estate vineyard, wines that have one foot stylistically in the Old World and one in the New World. And we're doing it all with grapevines that are only now getting to the age where the French would start to really consider them at their peak.

Buckle up, kids. The next 30 years is going to be amazing.

Unnamed


Giving Robert Haas the Send-off He Deserved

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.

RZH IG Collage

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.

LRG_DSC05201

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.

JH speaking at RZH memorial

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.


Robert Haas, 1927-2018: A Life Well Lived

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:

RZH & JCH

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 GougesMongeard-MugneretDomaine 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:

Parents at their wedding

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.

Jacques Perrin & Bob Haas 1970s

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 KistlerJoseph PhelpsChappelletSpring 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:

Robert Haas with Jean Pierre and Francois Perrin at Beaucastel c 1985 larger

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:

RZH in Vermont 1985

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. 

Group shot at TCV groundbreaking

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.

Haases  Perrins and Neil

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.

RZH at 90


Checking in on our first ever Tablas Creek red: the 1997 Rouge

In the early days of Tablas Creek, we followed a very simple model: one red wine (which we called "Rouge") and one white wine (which we called "Blanc").  In 1999, we got really crazy and added a pink wine, which we called (of course) "Rosé".

Things have changed since then, as we've come to know both our vineyard and the market better, and this year we'll bottle, by my count, 29 different wines: 13 reds, 13 whites, 2 rosés, and one sweet wine.  These include our three tiers of blends, a pretty wide range of varietal wines, particularly on the white side (thank you, rainy 2016-17 winter), some small-production wine club-only blends, and one special project we're doing in conjunction with the team at Bern's Steakhouse.  I'm grateful to have the flexibility and opportunity to make these different wines, which I feel show off the uniqueness of our grapes and the talent of our vineyard and winemaking team.

That said, when we get to the blending, Neil and I always look at each other and remark that it used to all be so easy: as long as we liked the lots, they all went to the same place.

So, it was with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation that I opened a bottle of our 1997 Rouge while I was back in Vermont for the holidays.  This was where it all began, and it was not just the reflection, or the essence, of the vineyard that year, but the entirety of our red production.  Even so, we only made about 2000 cases.  It was the first harvest off the Beaucastel cuttings we had brought into the country, as they were kept in quarantine between 1989 and 1992, and then required two years of propagation before we could plant our first block in 1994. To this, we added small amounts of fruit from our American-sourced one-acre blocks of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, most of which we have since grafted over to French clones.  And even these older blocks were only planted in 1992, so the oldest vines in the vineyard were five years old in 1997.

Jason decants 3

Given the youth of the vineyard, it was very much to our surprise that the 1997 Rouge ended up in Wine & Spirits Magazine's "100 Best Wines of 2000", receiving 94 points and the following notes:

"The scent of this wine draws you in, then the texture holds you effortlessly. What’s great about this Rhône blend, however, is not just the deep, dark scent of dried cherries and wet stones, not just the succulent red fruit flavor and voluptuous feel. When it’s gone it leaves a memory of earthiness and a clean, refreshing taste. The wine isn’t about complexity. It focuses on perfect ripeness, and the delicious savory flavors and textures that come with such impeccably balanced grapes. A joy to drink. This is the first release from Tablas Creek, a joint venture between Château de Beaucastel’s Perrin family and their longtime importer Robert Haas."

Because it was so long ago, because we no longer make a "Rouge", and because there wasn't much of the wine to begin with, I don't get to open the 1997 Rouge all that often.  So, it was a treat to see that, even as it approaches its 21st birthday, it's still going strong.

Jason decants 2

My notes from the dinner:

"A deep, rich nose of hoisin, pine forest, currant, green peppercorn, nutmeg, and a coolness that's surprising from such a warm vintage. The mouth is full of sweet fruit: red raspberry and cocoa powder, and a rich texture with tannins that feel like powdered sugar. A little mushroomy earthiness is the wine's best hint of its age.  Shows nice tanginess on the finish and some still-substantial tannins that linger.  Fully mature, but nowhere close to over the hill."

 What a relief that it's finally old enough to drink.


A Wonderful Article on Robert Haas's Remarkable Career and Legacy

My dad generally avoids the spotlight. So it was particularly nice to read a wonderful article on his career that was published this week by Warren Johnston in the Valley News, a daily newspaper serving the portion of the Connecticut River Valley where he and my mom spend their summers. 

Most readers of the Tablas Creek blog likely know him from his impact on the world of Rhone grape varieties, both from his long history representing Beaucastel and the other wines made by the Perrin Family, and from his work with the Perrins in bringing Tablas Creek Vineyard into existence. That work -- and particularly the decision to make available the high quality Rhone clones that we imported into the United States -- was influential enough to earn him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 from the Rhone Rangers

This article focused equally on other aspects of his career, particularly his time with Vineyard Brands when he ran one of America's most influential wine import companies out of a converted barn in a Vermont town of 2700 residents.  We still have this poster hanging in our tasting room:

Robert Haas Selections poster

His career in wine has spanned nearly seven decades, and has included stints in nearly every aspect of the industry.  A few highlights:

  • As a retailer, he worked with his father at M. Lehmann in Manhattan to offer the first-ever futures offering on Bordeaux.
  • As a broker, he represented some of the top estates in Burgundy and Bordeaux, like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus.
  • As an importer, he built a company in Vineyard Brands that added dynamic brands like La Vieille Ferme and Marques de Caceres to his venerable list of estate producers. This balance of estate wines and larger brands (unique at its time) gave the company the diversified range of products that allowed it to thrive across different economic cycles.
  • When he was ready to retire and invest in Tablas Creek, rather than sell the company, he was one of the first American small businessmen to use an employee stock ownership plan to turn the company over to its employees. Today the company continues to thrive, with much of the senior leadership hired two and even three decades ago by him.
  • An early advocate of California, he represented wineries like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s.
  • He co-founded Winebow with Leonardo Locascio and Peter Matt in 1980, to provide Vineyard Brands with a high quality wholesaler in New York. Winebow has grown to be an influential importer as well as a distribution powerhouse.
  • His work in founding the Tablas Creek nursery -- and his decision not to keep the clones we'd imported proprietary -- has allowed California's Rhone movement to blossom in a way otherwise impossible.  More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings.
  • He's even growing grapevines at his house in Templeton to make our Full Circle Pinot Noir.

In writing that list, I was struck by the extent to which the things he creates (or helps create) outlive his involvement with them. That's a testament to his determination in putting companies on a firm foundation, as well as his judgment in choosing people to work with and, when necessary, to succeed him.

One of my great pleasures in working here at Tablas Creek has been to get to see my dad through the eyes of the many people he has influenced.  Yesterday's article was a good reminder for me that as he gets ready to enter his tenth decade, his influence is as enduring as ever.


The Early Years of Tablas Creek

We recently received a treasure trove of photos from our original Nursery Manager, Dick Hoenisch.  He oversaw the initial phases of Tablas Creek, from developing and building our nursery to planting our first vineyard blocks to our initial harvests and ultimately the building of our winery in 1997.  He's remained a regular visitor and correspondent ever since, but even I had never seen most of the photos that he sent us.  As by the time I moved out here in 2002 the property had assumed more or less the shape it has now, these photos feel to me like a time capsule, and most definitely worth sharing.

So, without further ado, and with thanks to Dick, I'm sharing some of my favorites of the photos.  Dick gets pride of place in the first photo, posing next to two other firsts: our first vineyard truck, which we also think was the first thing ever to bear a Tablas Creek logo, in 1993:

Dick with truck

In 1993, nearly all the activity was confined to the grapevine nursery.  You can see our first two greenhouses, in which we kept and propagated the "mother vines" (those vines that came through quarantine, and whose progeny populate our vineyard and all the others who have planted our clones) and the small section of rootstock in the foreground:

First nursery buildings

Inside the greenhouses were the mother vines that we'd recently gotten out of quarantine from the U.S.D.A.  These are many of the same vines that you can see in pots today on the patio outside our tasting room:

Mother Vines

In 1992, we planted the top of our tallest hill to roughly two-acre blocks of the best quality California-sourced Rhone varieties we could find.  This photo, also from 1993, shows them at the time.  We have since grafted over the Syrah, Mourvedre, and Marsanne to French clones, though the Grenache (at the right) and Viognier (on the far side of the hilltop) remain.  I can't imagine how we farmed this, given that the road up to the top looks completely unimproved.  It must have been impassable all winter and most of the spring:

Original plantings, 1993

By 1995, we had come a long way in laying out the central part of the vineyard for planting, with vineyard on the hillsides and rootstock fields in the valley bottoms:

Vineyard Panorama 1995

We may not have had a winery yet, but by 1995 enough was going on in the vineyard and nursery that the Perrins and my dad were here for long stretches of the year.  I'm happy to see that, even if they had to do it at a plastic picnic table, they took the time to enjoy appropriate vineyard lunches.  That's my dad at left, with Dick in the middle and Jean-Pierre Perrin at right:

RZH, DH and JPP at lunch

Lest you think that the planting was easy, take a look at how much rock we uncovered just in digging the irrigation trench.  David Maduena, now our Vineyard Manager, is manning the backhoe:

Trenching

One of the cool early projects that I remember, since it took place in part when I was out here for a visit, was the 1997 construction of a beehive-shaped brick water cistern at the top of the property, which we still use as a fire suppression reservoir.  We dug into the hilltop, built the cistern, and then filled the earth back in:

Beehive cistern construction

The construction of the winery was, as you would expect, a major milestone for us when it was happening in 1997.  You can see its first framing stages in a photo from the spring of that year, from a vantage point more or less where our grafting and nursery education area is now:

Winery Framing 1997

We'd made quite a bit of progress on the winery building (back right) by the early summer, when we were planting the Chardonnay block that would produce our Antithesis each year between 2000 and 2011 (it was then grafted over to Mourvedre and Counoise):

Planting Chardonnay and Building Winery

The winery did get finished -- and, as seems axiomatic in winery construction, just a few days before the 1997 harvest began -- but the rest of the building was still being worked on as the grapes began to come in:

New winery

I'll leave you with one last photo, of the construction of the dry-laid limestone wall surrounding the original parking lot.  You can see clearly how little topsoil there is above the calcareous clay, as well as the work involved in the wall's construction:

Rock Wall

Thank you, Dick Hoenisch!


Robert Haas receives the Rhone Rangers 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award

This past weekend, a big Tablas Creek contingent made the trip up to San Francisco to cheer on my dad as he received the Rhone Rangers 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. I wrote about the significance of the honor when we first received notice of the award, so I won't delve too deeply into the background of his career, but I did want to share the remarkable tribute video that the Rhone Rangers put together and debuted at the awards dinner where he received the honor.  It features interviews with some icons of the California wine industry, including Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, Josh Jensen of Calera, Gary Eberle of Eberle Winery, and Bob Lindquist of Qupe, as well as a wonderful message toward the end from Jean-Pierre Perrin. The warmth of the comments from these titans is palpable, probably my single most memorable impression from seeing the video for the first time.  Take a few minutes to watch it, and then we'll pick back up after:

OK, welcome back.  The ceremony itself was wonderful, highlighted by a touching acceptance speech from my dad and an unexpected appearance by last year's award winner, Bonny Doon Vineyard's inimitable Randall Grahm. I got a photo of the two of them together: the first two Rhone Rangers lifetime achievement award winners:

Rhone Rangers 20141

This award dinner kicked off a full Rhone Rangers weekend, which included that night's dinner (wonderfully catered by the Girl and the Fig) and live auction, and two seminars and grand trade and consumer tastings the following day.  While the Winemaker Dinner remained on the grounds of the Fort Mason Center (at the nicely restored General's Residence) policy changes at Fort Mason, forced the seminars and tastings to move to the Craneway Pavilion, a gorgeous, newly renovated space in the East Bay:

Rhone Rangers 2014_15

On the one hand, it's too bad to leave Fort Mason, which has been home to not just Rhone Rangers for the last fifteen years, but had become the go-to venue for most Bay Area wine events.  But on the other hand, the Craneway's setting is even more beautiful than Fort Mason's, the venue is newly renovated and contains wonderful touches like sound panels on the walls so the hubbub of voices doesn't reach deafening levels, and the practicalities of getting there (freeway access, parking, and public transit) are all in its favor.

And, it wasn't like the organization had any choice.  The changes that the Fort Mason Center has made, all designed to discourage alcohol-related events because of worries and complaints from their local community, left the Rhone Rangers no choice.  Some changes were minor but inconvenient (like their new process for requiring food vendors to individually obtain permits to show their wares, which was so long and time-consuming that the first year it was implemented it cut the number of vendors in half). Others were financial, as they reclassified wine events as "for profit" rather than "nonprofit" (even though organizations like Rhone Rangers are all nonprofit) and raised the costs by some 50%.  But the final requirement, which eliminated a wine event from the long-standing option of holding their same weekend for the next year -- instead allowing them only to reserve a six months out, if they had in the interim been unable to sell the weekend to another event -- meant that organizations like Rhone Rangers couldn't plan or set their schedules, and had no assurance of continuity from year to year.  And there isn't really another viable venue in San Francisco for a tasting like this one of around 100 wineries.  Hence the move to the East Bay.

The good news is that I think that the event landed in a great home.  The venue really is gorgeous, inside and out, and the staff there was great to work with.  Rhone Rangers even ran dedicated ferries across the bay from Embarcadero, which on a day like last Sunday (mid-70's and sunny) would have been a highlight in itself.

I leave you with a few other photos of the wonderful weekend.  First, a photo of my dad, getting the award from Ridge's David Gates, current President of the Rhone Rangers Board of Directors:

Rhone Rangers 2014_08

Next, a photo of the lot we donated to raise money for the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund: a six-vintage magnum vertical of our signature Esprit wines, and a private tour, tasting and lunch or dinner with my dad and wines out of his cellar:

IMG_1638

A photo of the seminar space at the Craneway Pavilion, flooded with light:

Rhone Rangers 2014_11

And a photo of the Craneway's interior during the Grand Tasting:

Rhone Rangers 20144

And finally, a photo of me and my dad, taken the night of his award.  It was really an honor to be a part of the festivities, and see my dad get his moment in the limelight.

Rhone Rangers 20142