Reflecting on 15 Years at Tablas Creek – An Interview with Three Familiar Faces

By Ian Consoli

2007 was a big year for Tablas Creek. It was a blockbuster vintage, one of the most intense (and highest-scoring) in our history. It was the first year we could ship to five new states (Florida, Maine, Michigan, South Carolina, and Vermont) as unconsititutional state laws were changed following the Granholm v Hield Supreme Court decision. Ohio and Nebraska would join the group later in 2007. Behind the scenes, the TTB was working through its internal issues that the submission of the Paso Robles sub-AVAs brought to light, and paving the way for the AVA map we know today. Our founder Robert Haas turned 80, and we saw great articles like this one in the San Francisco Chronicle celebrating his influential career.

It was also a milestone year because of who we brought on board the Tablas Creek team. Three people you likely know today started working here that year: including Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Tasting Room Manager John Morris, and Director of Biodynamics Gustavo Prieto. They came to us from all over the world at different stages of their personal and professional lives. We decided to ask each of them to reflect on the past 15 years, from how they came here initially to how it's going today. Thank you, Chelsea, John, and Gustavo, for your 15 years of dedication to everything Tablas Creek!

Chelsea Franchi  John  Morris  Gustavo PrietoChelsea Franchi, John Morris, and Gustavo Prieto

Please state your name and position.

My name is Chelsea Franchi. I am the Senior Assistant Winemaker.

My name is John Morris. I am the Tasting Room Manager.

Gustavo Prieto, I am the Biodynamicist.

 

What brought you to Tablas Creek 15 Years ago?

I came tasting here with a friend from Cal Poly, which was a super mind-blowing experience. I was talking to somebody years ago at a Rhone Rangers event about how people tend to lean towards either Rhone reds or Rhone whites. Of course, you can love both of them, but one sucks you in early on. For me, it was Esprit Blanc here at Tablas. It started an absolute obsession with Rhone whites. So yeah, decided a few weeks after I came tasting here that I should apply for a job.

A couple of things. I had talked about working at Tablas Creek a couple of times, but there was nothing full-time available. When a position did open up, I went for it. I wanted to be here because the wine was more up my alley than most in Paso back then. I had come from Seattle, where I was mainly drinking European wines with lower alcohol and more nuance and finesse.

I was impressed by the wines and I wanted to learn more, so I decided to apply for a position. It was like all roads led to Tablas Creek.

John  Gustavo  and Chelsea working

What was your position title when you started?

Greeter? <laugh>. Basically a glorified hostess.

Tasting Room Manager! So, you know, I've made no progress in 15 years  <laughs>. I feel like I've had three jobs within the same position, really. There was my role before we expanded the tasting room in 2011, post-expansion, and now with the changes COVID-19 brought about. The job has evolved as we have grown.

Tasting room attendant.

Chelsea in TR 2007Chelsea working the register in our old tasting room

 Did you think you would still be here 15 years later?

I was still in college and didn't have the imagination to begin to dream that I could have ended up in the position I am in. So no, no I did not.

No. No, I didn't. If anybody would've told me when I walked in the door that I'd still be here in 15 years, I would've probably not believed them.

I hoped so!

Gustavo and John at a tasting in 2007Gustavo and John at a tasting in 2007

What kinds of wine were you drinking then and what are you mostly drinking now?

That's a really interesting question. To look back on it and try to compare and contrast. Back then, I drank a lot of entry-level reds from France, Spain, and Italy. They were less expensive, higher toned, with that brighter acidity and a little bit of grip to them. Cost was a huge factor because I was a college student. Now I'd say I probably drink more domestic stuff and explore more California wines. But obviously still plenty of wines from other countries.

I was mostly drinking red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. Now I enjoy Rhone blends and varietals, reds, whites, and rosés. Also, red and white Burgundy, but I'm very open to all kinds of wines.

 What is the biggest change you have witnessed at Tablas Creek since you started?

I think the change at Tablas Creek is, more often than not, a progression of our core values. Seeing the introduction of new varieties in the vineyard and coming into the cellar. There is a harvest elation when a new variety hits the cellar door for the first time. Everybody has their camera phones out, taking videos of it going onto the sorting table and its first pump over. That excitement is so cool and so real. Also, the biodynamic and ROC certifications. And none of these beliefs are new to Tablas Creek, but we're making them bigger and better, continuing that ideology.

The size. I feel like the integrity has always been there and still is, which is super important to me. And the reason for being is the same, but, you know, when I started in the tasting room, I had six or seven employees. That has now grown to eight full-time employees and twenty-five total.

The continual evolution of our farming practices that keep pushing us toward greater sustainability, and seeing the evolution from organic to biodynamic and now the ROC certification.

Tasting Room team in 2007Tasting room staff at Tablas Creek Vineyard in 2007

What is the most significant change in your life over the past 15 years?

I feel like some of the biggest, most important things a human can do have happened since I started here. I got engaged, bought a house, got married, and had a baby. Yeah, like all of the great things <laugh>.

I got married and took on a few stepkids. No question, that's the biggest change.

Please share one of your favorite stories/memories from the past 15 years at Tablas Creek.

When I had been working here a week or two as a greeter, I was standing outside one sunny Saturday morning, and a… gruff-looking gentleman <laugh>, approached the front doors. It was a bustling weekend day and I, as kindly as I could, told the gentleman that we were busy and that he would need to come back some other time. He brushed past me without a second glance and said, "I'm the winemaker" <laugh>. It turned out to be winemaker Neil Collins, who lives on the property. I thought, 'well, it was a really good two-week run. I had a really good time, and now I'm fired.' Clearly, I wasn't fired, and now I work with Neil and I've worked with him for 15 years. He is like a father figure to me. Oh, the things we've overcome <laugh>.

This was some years ago, on a perfect Spring day during Hospice du Rhone, before we opened the new tasting room and things weren’t quite as busy or tightly scheduled as they are now.  10 or 12 French men and women, some with limited English, some with none, strolled into the tasting room and asked for a tour. Why not!  As we walked into the vineyard doing our best to communicate, it was revealed that I was hosting winemakers and vignerons from Domaine du Gros 'Noré, Domaine Clape, and another prominent property that escapes me, in town for Hospice.  Bear in mind that I was relatively new at this time, and certainly didn’t have the depth of knowledge to answer deep technical question about the vineyard or winemaking.  Good thing there was a language barrier!  Anyway, I did my best, I believe they were happy, and I again thanked my lucky stars for landing at Tablas Creek.

About 5 years ago, during our annual pig roast party, all of the sheep managed to knock down their fence, run down Vineyard drive, and up the neighbor's hill. Neil and I spent an hour chasing after them, finally bringing the last ones in after dark. It's funny now, not so much then!

Significant Life events in the past 15 yearsSignificant life events for Chelsea and John in the past 15 years

You have one Tablas Creek wine from any vintage to take to a deserted island. What's it going to be?

That one is really difficult, but I think it would have to be the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel. That was one of the Esprits we were pouring in the tasting room when I started here. To this day, it still has the lushness, velvety texture, and chewy fruit, all of the elements that I loved about it then I still love about it today. And it's one of those really cool wines that just, I mean, all wines have the ability to transport you if you give them the opportunity, but that one especially takes me back to where I was in that moment of time. It's funny to look back on that wine and think how many things have changed. But that wine, the way I feel about it, has not.

2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. The Esprit Blanc tends to be my favorite wine in general because it is so unique and is almost always the best white wine in the region, and possibly even California some years. The 2017 is so complex. It's waxy, herbal, and spicy. But it's not too big or too rich. Good acidity, just super balanced wine.

Uf, that's a tough one, but if I have to choose one, it would be the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel rouge.

Any parting thoughts?

The fact that I've known Gustavo and John for 15 years, and Neil, Jason and all of these people for 15 years is really special. Even people I met working in the tasting room that I still see today. Every time I walk into the tasting room or attend a Tablas Creek event, I meet somebody new and look forward to seeing them the next time they visit. We have such a great audience, and it's a true delight to make friends with everybody who comes through these doors. It's a really unique and special experience and I absolutely love that.

Yeah, I feel lucky to be here, to be part of the contributing team. It's been a really great 15 years.

2007 Chelsea Franchi  John  Morris  Gustavo PrietoThe earliest archived photos of Chelsea, John and Gustavo at Tablas Creek Vineyard

 


From Music to Management- Q&A with Tasting Room Manager John Morris

By Lauren Phelps

I spent a lovely, spring afternoon on the wisteria-adorned patio discussing with John Morris the journey that has brought him to the role of Tasting Room Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard.  John has been with Tablas Creek since 2006, was instrumental in the design of our new tasting room, and continues to lead a growing and diverse team of tasting room personnel as we try to keep providing memorable experiences to the over 30,000 people who come to visit us each year.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, a town that’s been in the news a lot lately. Later I actually lived on the Flint River; the river in question was in our backyard. We canoed in it, we skated on it, we fished in it (but we didn’t eat the fish), we hunted snakes and frogs down there but we didn’t swim in it, it was too polluted.

John Little


When and how did you get into wine?
I first got into wine when I was living in Seattle, where I lived most of my adult life. I started getting into wine because I lived in a neighborhood with a nice little wine shop. I was most interested in European wines because they were inexpensive. Washington wines were available but they were expensive so I drank a ton of Rhones. Buying Cotes du Rhones were my go-tos; I could spend between $10 and $15 for wines that were quite good.


What has been your career path to where you are?
Because I didn’t plan at all and didn’t go to college, I wanted to be a musician and ended up in retail. Which led me into the coffee business, because I lived in Seattle and eventually into management in that field and did that for quite a while. The little coffee chain I worked for got bought by Starbucks and I worked for them for a short time but it quickly became untenable. So I went to work at DeLaurenti, an Italian import store that friends of mine had bought, which had a wine department that I talked myself into working at. I did that for about a year before I moved here to Paso. I knew I wanted to move to a warmer place, I knew I wanted to stay on the west coast, I knew I wanted to live somewhere rural but kind of cool, so wine country made sense. And it was just a matter of which location, so I moved to Paso and jumped right into the wine industry here.


In your view, what makes the Tablas Creek tasting room special?
The history of who we are and where we came from, working with Bob Haas, the people who work here, the wines. I guess that’s what makes it special to me. What makes it special to visitors may be more of your question. I think the way we’re set up, not just one long bar, makes a lot of sense. I think the customer service ethos that has trickled down from management to me to my staff makes it special.


What’s your biggest challenge as a Tasting Room Manager?
Making a schedule juggling up to twenty people, with many people who are part time or work in other departments, they’re seasonal, and they’re needed at different times in the wine club or the cellar. We all have different needs at different times. You know, managing people is both rewarding and can have its challenges so that’s a big challenge- having a big crew and keeping them together on the same path. Saturdays (our busiest day of the week) trying to let people come in to enjoy themselves without it getting too loud and disruptive for the serious wine buyers is key.


Which are your other favorite wineries and tasting rooms locally or around the state?
I don’t get out as much as I used to now that I’m a parent. There are a lot of great wineries, I think Denner is making really great wines, Terry Hoage is making great wine. The new tasting room at Halter Ranch is pretty spectacular. When I’m out looking for wines I’m looking for things you can’t find here, European wines that I miss. I love Arcadian down in Santa Barbara county, I still love what Bonny Doon does. Those are just a couple that stand out.


What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I would choose one region only is would be Piemonte in Northern Italy, home of the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcettos, Barbera, Arneis. I love how they tend to be light in weight but heavy in flavor if that make any sense… I love the acidity of Italian wines: the fact that they don’t coat your palate but they have great depth of flavor and they go well with a lot of the foods that I like.

How do you spend your days off?
Working around the house and in the garden. We’ve had a hobby farm, a little market garden for the last several years. I like working outside more than anything.


What would people be surprised to know about you?
I used to play really kind of obscure free-jazz/Prog-rock music and it used to be the main part of my life. I played electric bass in Seattle starting when I was about 25 until I was about 45. I’m attracted to pretty obscure music which is probably why I never made any money at it.


If you weren’t managing a tasting room for a living, what would you be doing?
What would I like to be doing? If I had started earlier and owned more property, maybe an organic farmer. Maybe if I had been a starving farmer like I had been a starving musician, I could have made that happen.


How do you define success?
Success is happiness. That’s all there is to it… finding what makes you happy. The thing that’s really interesting is when you get older, you find that that changes. I’ve found that a couple of times in my life, what was working beautifully, I couldn’t understand that it wasn’t working anymore… so you have to shift. I think staying on that path where you’re satisfying what makes you happy which I think is having enough good friends, making enough money to live comfortably and enjoying what you’re doing every day to make a living.

  John


A Memorable Reserve Tasting

By John Morris

Last week I hosted a Reserve Tasting for a unique group, which included a long time, fervid VINsider and three of her friends, as well as a couple who’d never visited before and didn’t know much about Tablas Creek.  It was a terrific tasting, one I think I enjoyed as much as our guests.  As the tasting room has grown, I’m less apt to find myself pouring for guests, as I have to focus on other things, but this was a reminder of why I came to work here in the first place, and what’s special about Tablas Creek.

[For some background, we began offering a seated Reserve Tasting in our private room just over a year ago.  It seemed a perfect opportunity to show off some of the library wines we’d been saving, and an answer to the queries we'd begun receiving for an elevated experience.  We offer this twice daily, at 11:30 and 3:00 every day except for Saturday, when we offer it at 10:00 only.  We encourage appointments, as we can accommodate a maximum of eight guests per tasting, but are happy to take walk-ins if space is available. We have details, including cost and how to reserve, on the Visiting Us section of our Web site.]

My favorite part of this format, aside from the opportunity to taste older wines, is the leisurely pace.   Watching guests truly get the wines in a way they might not without the vertical nature of the tasting is a huge kick.

Tablas Creek Vineyards 11_500 pixThe private tasting room where we host our reserve tastings 

The first order of business was introducing the two parties as they seated themselves at the bar, out of the bustle of the main tasting room.  We find this makes it easier to speak to the group as a whole, and people often become fast friends by the end of this tasting.   Our proud club member was delighted to take the newcomers under her wing and sing the praises of Tablas Creek, which made my job fun.

The focus is on our flagship wines, with both current and library Esprit whites and reds shown and discussed.  The tasting this day included our 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, 2012 Esprit de Tablas, 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel, 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel, and a special treat, the 2011 Panoplie.  In addition to these wines, we encourage guests to choose a couple of other wines to round out the tasting.

This day was quite warm, an early indication of the summer ahead, so I suggested we all start with the crisp 2014 Vermentino and follow with 2014 Dianthus Rosé before getting to the main event.  Everybody was on board with this suggestion, so I opened fresh bottles of these two wines to whet the palate for what was to come.  I've always loved the Vermentino for summertime drinking, and this vintage is no exception, crisp and fresh but with a little extra lushness characteristic of the 2014 vintage.  Enjoying the wine sparked a discussion of why we have Vermentino planted here, which led me into the story of Tablas Creek, the search for the proper site, and how we imported clones from Chateau de Beaucastel.  We next tasted the remarkable Dianthus Rosé, perhaps my favorite vintage to date, which we savored as we continued the discussion.

Picture1The mise en scene, with two of the showcase wines

The first wine on our list for the day, the magnificent 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, was showing beautifully, with the early promise of beeswax, honey and a gorgeous salinity.  Sometimes it's difficult to convince guests that this wine will age and evolve for many years, but the silence that came over everyone as we next tasted the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc left no doubt that the point was well made here.

And so it went as we tasted through three red Esprit vintages, starting with the youthful 2012 and watching secondary characteristics arrive and flavors deepen with the 2010 and 2006, and then finally the Panoplie, appreciating the wines that the Haas' and Perrins came here to make, comparing and contrasting, discussing the merits of the different vintages, and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. 

We hope you have the opportunity to treat yourself and take advantage of this special experience on one of your visits.   With questions, or to reserve your seat for this tasting, please contact visit@tablascreek.com or call 805.237.1231 x45.  We have some corks we’d like to pull with you.

John Morris has been Tablas Creek's Tasting Room Manager since 2007


Tasting Room, Then and Now

By John Morris 

I recently ran across this photo of our tasting room staff from an outing in December of 2007.  The thing that strikes me most about this shot is the size of our group.  Our entire tasting room staff at the time consisted of 8 people.  Now, 3 and a half years later, we’re 16 strong.  Pictured from left to right are David, Phil, myself, Zach, Sylvia, Brian and Gustavo.  Absent due to a school-related commitment is Chelsea, then a member of our tasting room staff, now our assistant winemaker.  Since that time three of us have gotten married, one has become a father, another a step-father, and two have moved to the east coast.  Tellingly, five of the eight are still employed at Tablas Creek, six if you count the occasional guest appearance by Zach. 

New Image

David, on the far left, was my first hire, and is perhaps our most energetic, even as he is our oldest.  Everyone else pictured predates me.   Phil recently moved to the Boston area to help with his grandchildren after a lifetime in California.  He exuded an oasis of calm in the tasting room for over five years.  Zach completed training at the fire academy last year as he juggled shifts here, and became a father a few weeks ago.   Sylvia has been our assistant tasting room manager since before I moved to Paso, if that says anything.   Brian joined the Peace Corps and was posted in Morocco after a year-long stint here, and now resides in Washington D.C.   Gustavo (originally from Chile, but commonly mistaken as Frenchman) came aboard just before me, and has been a rock for the last four years.  He spent two months interning in the cellar at Chateau de Beaucastel last fall, and returned even more knowledgeable than before.  Much of the rest of our staff, including Steve, Cindy, Tedde and Mary have been here going on three years.  Deanna worked here some years ago and returned last year.  Recent additions are Alex, Lisa, Joelle, Charlie, Teri and our dynamic new assistant manager, Jennifer.  Austin, our winemaker’s son, now helps out on Saturdays.

A lot has been made of our splendid new tasting room, with good reason.  It’s much roomier, beautiful to look at, quieter, supremely functional, and has been a dream to work in.  The cellar crew loves it because we aren’t setting up tables in their space every weekend.  We love it because we aren’t setting up tables in their space every weekend!  If you haven’t been in, you owe it to yourself to check it out. 

But in even in this striking new space, it still comes back to people.  Behind the gorgeous new bars, reflected in the huge glass windows that allow a glimpse into the cellar, you’ll see most of the same faces you’ve come to know, doing our best to provide welcoming, personal service with an educational twist, pouring wines we never forget we are blessed to work with.  Here’s to my crew.