The Tablas Creek blog provides thoughts, reports, photographs and the occasional video from Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles, California. Tablas Creek is a vineyard and winery in north-west Paso Robles, and one of the pioneers of Rhone varietals in California.
Last week, after three weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 12 red wines we'll be making from the 2017 vintage. It was a treat. Esprit and Panoplie were rich, lush, and intense, but with good structure and no sense of heaviness. The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah were each powerfully evocative of what we love about each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache juicy and vibrant, and Syrah smoky and spicy. Counoise was ridiculously electric, with masses of purple fruit that in most vintages it only hints at. The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet loamy and pure, with a great expression of place, while Le Complice was both dark and bright, like Syrah with an extra application of translucency. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive. And, equally important, thanks to the plentiful 2017 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of all our wines. After five drought-impacted years, what a relief.
How did we get here? It was, as they say, a process. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the healthy crop levels that we saw in 2017, we had no choice but to separate our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:
Grenache (20 lots): A very good showing for Grenache, although there was more diversity here than in some of the other grapes. Eight of the lots received 1's from me, with three others getting provisional 1's (lots that I believe will become 1's with just a little cellar work). Only one 3. Pretty but powerful too, with excellent fruit and good acids that proved valuable in blending.
The Mourvedre portion of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
Mourvedre (18 lots): The best showing I can ever remember for Mourvedre. I gave eleven lots a 1 grade, and felt a little guilty that I didn't give a few of the 2's higher grades. Only one lot I even thought about giving a 3. Meaty and rich, great texture, lots of depth. A wonderfully powerful base for our many wines that are based on this grape, and thanks to the plentiful vintage, great prospects for an amazing varietal Mourvedre.
Syrah (19 lots): Really good here too, though because the other varieties were so strong, it didn't stand out as much as it did, say, in 2016. Seven 1's, with seven others that I gave 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Lots of smaller lots here as we experiment with different amounts of stem inclusion, which made for some fun and diverse expressions of the grape, from dark, inky, and plush to ones more marked by herby spice.
Counoise (7 lots): For the first time in years, multiple Counoise lots that seemed Esprit-weight. There were still some of the lighter pretty high-toned Gamay-style lots that lovers of our varietal Counoise bottling will recognize, but a greater quantity of rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise than I can ever remember.
Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, with tons of spice and nice tannic bite. It was the one grape that didn't increase its yield between 2016 and 2017, and there's not that much (2 puncheons) but it's enough to make a nice impact on the Le Complice.
Tannat (6 lots): Four of the six lots got 1 grades from me, and the others got 2's only because I thought they were so powerful they were a little one-dimensional. It's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, Tannat's signature tannic structure and acids, and a lovely little bit of violet floral lift.
Pinot Noir (4 lots): All these lots come, of course, from my parents' small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, but we were experimenting with different amounts of stems and whole cluster. The mix of the four hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the herbal elements by the roughly 50% whole clusters we used in the fermentation. A touch of oak was nice too. Should make for a delicious 2017 Full Circle Pinot.
We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the lack of evident weaknesses in the Mourvedre we weren't sure whether we wanted feature more Syrah, more Grenache, or a relatively equal amount of each in Panoplie and Esprit. And for the first time in several years, Counoise was powerful enough to include in the discussion for both wines. So, we went into blending determined to try a range of options. As always, we tasted these options blind, not knowing what was in each glass.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. We've only added Counoise once. We tried three blends and split pretty equally, with the only conclusion being that including Counoise sacrificed more in power than it gained in vibrancy. After a second round of trials, we settled on a blend with a fairly high amount of Mourvedre (69%) and a roughly equal amount of Grenache (17%) and Syrah (14%).
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Here came our first real surprise. Given that the Mourvedre was so good, we decided to try two Mourvedre-heavy blends, one with more Syrah and the other with a roughly equal percentage of Grenache and Syrah, as well as something of a control wine: one that matched the percentages of our 2014 Esprit, with 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. To all of our surprise, we universally preferred the last blend, with the least Mourvedre and the most Grenache. After ten minutes of discussion where we tried to rationalize this determination and figure out if we could think of anything that would improve the blend, we decided to trust the process and go with what we all liked best. Sometimes the wines surprise you in the glass, which is why we do things this way. Looking back, I can see why this might have happened. Knowing how good the vintage was, and how short our last two crops were, we decided to make a relatively high quantity of Esprit: 4200 cases. That's a lot of wine: roughly one-third of what we harvested. Even at 40% Mourvedre, we were committing nearly half of the Mourvedre we harvested. As we increased that and approached 50%, we had exhausted our 1-rated lots and were having to start using some 2-rated lots. But we could get to a full 35% Grenache with only 1-rated lots. So, increasing from 40% Mourvedre to 50% Mourvedre and decreasing from 35% Grenache to 25% Grenache meant that we were swapping out 1-rated Grenache for 2-rated Mourvedre. And our blind tasting results (rightly) told us that was a mistake.
On Thursday morning, we tackled our two small-production wine club blends -- one in just its second vintage, and one we've been making for a decade.
Our Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Last year, when we first made this wine, we realized that the two wines benefit from some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Given the limited amount of Terret from 2017, we knew that all of it would be going in this blend and account for about 13% of the 825 cases we were trying to make. So our trials were to find the right ratio between Syrah and Grenache, and the right percentage of the Syrah that was fermented using whole clusters. In the end, we picked the most dramatic example with the least Grenache (20%) and quite a high percentage of whole cluster Syrah (67%). It felt like a statement about what Syrah could be with a little added translucency: like a ray of sun shining through a deeply pigmented stained glass window.
For our En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed lots, in early years we used a relatively high percentage of Tannat to give backbone to wines that were otherwise mostly Mourvedre and Grenache. In more recent years, as we got some head-trained Syrah in production, our Tannat percentage declined. Given how good the Tannat was, and how luscious the vintage was, we thought it might be an opportunity to build more Tannat into the blend. And that was the wine we chose in the blind trials: one with 11% Tannat to go along with 39% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache, 11% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. It's important to us that all our wines taste distinct from one another, and we felt like Tannat's dark spiciness would set this blend apart from the similarly Mourvedre-heavy Esprit. Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.
After this, Cesar had to drive back to San Francisco for his flight to France, and we tabled the plan for the week while we all set to work excavating what had landed on our desks while we were sitting around the blending table. The next Tuesday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. Unlike some scarce years where the Cotes falls into place pretty quickly because of a lack of blending options, this year we had to answer some fundamental questions about what we wanted the Cotes to show. More Grenache, or more power? How much Counoise-driven vibrancy, or is that really lively Counoise more valuable as a varietal? And how much Syrah is just enough? Typically, Grenache without enough Syrah comes across with a candied edge. You keep adding Syrah until it cuts that edge, but add too much and it takes over and the wine loses the freshness and purity Grenache brings. In this vintage, we tried a couple of blends with around 50% Grenache and varied the Syrah and Counoise percentages, then one with less Grenache and more Syrah, and one with more Grenache and not much of the others. This was the longest debate we had, and in the end picked something in the middle, with 53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. It's delicious, with just enough depth and structure to balance Grenache's graceful fruit.
Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Terret Noir, but 450 cases of Syrah, 525 cases of Grenache, 550 cases of Counoise, 1100 cases (!) of Tannat, and a glorious 975 cases of the year's best grape, Mourvedre. What a pleasure to be able to show off varietal bottlings of all four of our main red grapes from such a terrific vintage (and for the first time since 2010). What's more, I'm convinced, after having tasted through everything this week, that it will be our best varietal Mourvedre (and best Counoise, and best Tannat) we've ever bottled.
A few concluding thoughts. First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2017. 2005, which was also a plentiful vintage following an extended drought, and which made robust and appealing wines, seems to maybe be the best, but the vines were so much younger then, and the tannins more aggressive. 2014 had some similarities, but I think 2017 was across the board more expressive, and the Mourvedre was much better. Just a great year overall, and so nice that it's plentiful too.
Second, while it will be impossible to tease apart what contributed the vintage's noteworthy lushness and expressiveness, it's fascinating to speculate the role that our move to apply Biodynamic farming played. Sure, the 43 inches of rain made a huge difference. And we've been farming increasingly biodynamically for years. But just as we noted in 2010 and 2011 the quality of the lots from the 20-acre swath we'd started farming Biodynamically in 2010, I think there's good reason to believe that at least a part of the quality of 2017 comes from the fact that we had finally extended those practices across the entire vineyard, not least that the early and plentiful rain allowed our flock to graze every vineyard block twice. Will we see the same impact in a drier year like 2018? Time will tell.
Third, it was great to have Cesar Perrin here for the blending. In recent years, we've mostly seen Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin during our spring blending sessions. But Cesar, who spent a couple of harvests here during the string of internships that he took at great wineries around the world, has really come into his own. He is the Perrin family personified, with a reverence for tradition tempered by a love of experimentation. For me, one of the great advantages that we've always had with the Perrins' involvement is that they come with an outside perspective but also with generations of experience with these grapes. As they move from 4th to 5th generation, it's clearer than ever that Beaucastel is in good hands, and with it Tablas Creek.
Finally, this was the first red blending week without my dad in the room. I spent a lot of the week thinking about him, trying to think about what he would have thought about the wines in front of him as well as what I was experiencing. Every blending session, there was at least one moment where he approached a question from a different perspective than the rest of us, and even when we were convinced that our solution was right, the change in perspective took us in a direction that was worth exploring. It's a new world for us, doing this without him. But at least I'm convinced with this 2017 vintage -- which he did taste when he came into the winery in February -- we'll do his memory proud.
After a burst of progress on wine direct shipping in 2016, in which Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Arizona all opened up, we've had a bit of a pause for the last 18 months or so. Some of that is because most states are now open, and most of the states that are left are relatively small wine markets without their own wine industries, which reduces the pressure both from consumers in that state and from job-creating wineries. Some of that is because the holdouts tend to be clustered in areas like the deep south (where cultural norms tend to resist the liberalization of alcohol laws) or the northeast (where arcane blue laws, most of which protect powerful distributor lobbies, are long-entrenched). But for the first time in over a year, we have a bill up for vote in a non-shipping state that has the potential of opening a formerly closed market to wine shipments. Sure, the state is Delaware, the 39th largest state in wine consumption and only 0.42% of the American wine market. But I identified it a few years ago as the likely next state to open up, and we'll happily take any progress we can get.
Enter Delaware bill HB 165. It contains pretty standard wine direct shipping language, establishing a reasonable annual permit ($100) for wineries wanting to ship wine into the state and requiring that wineries collect and remit taxes as though the sale were completed in the location where the wine was delivered. Common carriers are responsible for checking ID's at delivery. Reporting requirements are reasonable (quarterly). There is a quantity restriction (three 9-liter cases per household per year) that I don't think is necessary, but it shouldn't cause too many people much angst. In essence, it's a good bill, and would put Delaware in Tier 2 of the five-tier hierarchy I devised a few years back to evaluate the ease and cost of state shipping regulations.
Except for one clause. A restriction, found in Section d, Clause 5 (lines 61 and 62 of the bill's text) dictates that:
A wine direct shipper licensee may not ... Ship wine that is listed in the current publication designated by the Commissioner for sale by Importers in this State to retailers in this State."
What's the big deal here? Delaware is one of many states that require that any wholesaler register with the state any alcohol product that they offer for sale within the state's borders. States see a role for themselves here in ensuring that wine, beer, and liquor be offered equitably to different retailers and restaurants, and that it not be (for example) given away to prejudice an account into giving preferential treatment to one wholesaler or another. Again, this is fairly routine. But this shipping bill would eliminate any wine that a Delaware wholesaler is offering for sale from the direct shipping permit. Although this seems straightforward on its face -- you're opening access to the market for wines that aren't available in distribution, and wineries without a wholesaler relationship in Delaware would see this as a win -- it's a major headache for several reasons.
First, just because wineries have a wine listed with a distributor doesn't mean that this wine is actually in stock in retail anywhere. A quick search of wine-searcher.com for Tablas Creek in Delaware shows four wines available, all at one shop in Claymont. Only one is current vintage (the 2015 Patelin de Tablas), one is back vintage (the 2013 Esprit de Tablas) and two look like they're the Cotes de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas Blanc, but don't have vintages listed. I know that our distributor there, who also covers Virginia and West Virginia, also has Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Patelin de Tablas Blanc, and Patelin de Tablas Rosé available for sale. It's possible that they just haven't sold any recently (our total wholesale sales in Delaware in the last 12 months totaled just 24 cases), or that what they've sold has all gone to restaurants. But in either case, even the wines that aren't in stock wouldn't be eligible to ship to Delaware consumers.
Second, just because it's at retail, it doesn't mean it's convenient to a customer. I had to look up where Claymont, Delaware is, and learned that it's north of Wilmington, at the very northern tip of the state, right on the Pennsylvania line. If a consumer is in the middle of the state (think Dover) they're looking at a drive of about an hour, without traffic. It's a two-hour trip each way for a resident of a southern town like Laurel.
Third, wineries typically sell a different mix of wines in wholesale than they do direct. Our wine club shipments include early access to our top wines (like our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well as small-production wines that don't make it into distribution. A restriction like this means that our wine club shipments wouldn't be legal to ship into Delaware, which means that we couldn't sign up club members. Our point of sale system -- which is one of the most sophisticated winery platforms available -- isn't capable of restricting residents of certain states to only certain wines, so we wouldn't be able to take any orders online from Delaware, or would have to then cancel out the portion of orders that weren't eligible for shipment, which would be a nightmare.
Taken together, if that restriction stays in HB 165, it wouldn't make any sense for us to get a shipping permit. And there are many, many wineries like us out there, which means that the bill wouldn't do much to make available new wines to Delaware consumers, and will likely leave them frustrated and baffled as to why some of their favorite wineries will ship to them and others won't.
Why would this restriction have been entered into the bill? It's a case of wholesaler (and retailer) protection. Wholesalers (and retailers) are state-licensed companies, and contribute big money to state campaigns ($107 million in the last decade, according to one study) to protect their share of this $135 billion industry. Although some individual distributors have more progressive views, wholesaler associations see direct shipping as a threat, and have consistently opposed the liberalization of shipping laws. They tend to argue that restricting shipping combats underage drinking and ensures the orderly collection of taxes, but given that no one has ever shown a link between wine direct shipping and underage drinking, and that most shipping bills add revenue to state coffers, neither holds up, and it's pretty clear to me that this resistance is at its root protectionism, pure and simple.
Opposing these forces are an array of winery and consumer groups, most notably the Wine Institute and Free the Grapes, both of which support liberalized direct shipping and have seen a remarkable run of success in opening up one state after another since the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision struck down laws that protected in-state wineries right to ship to consumers but prohibited out-of-state wineries from doing the same. It was on the Facebook page of Free the Grapes that I found a remarkable exchange that included Paul Baumbach, the principal sponsor of HB 165. Free the Grapes was urging consumers to contact their Delaware representative and support an amendment to HB 165 (Amendment 1, proposed by Delaware House Rep Deborah Hudson) that proposed the elimination of lines 61 and 62 that restrict the shipping permit to non-distributed wines. Rep. Baumbach wrote the following (remarkable) comment:
This post is paid for, not by those concerned about Delaware vineyards, but by a California lobbyist organization. Why does HB165, which I am prime-sponsoring, prohibiting the Direct shipping of Delaware wines which are available in our stores? Because they are available in our stores! This bill s designed to help Delaware wine consumers have access to all wines? That means that it works to provide access to wines which aren’t legally available to Delaware residents? HB165 as filed accomplishes that, despite what a California group is spending money on Facebook to make you believe. Make sense?
The level of obfuscation here is pretty remarkable, and makes clear that the goal is not in fact to "help Delaware wine consumers have access to all wines". I would submit that it's in fact a delaying tactic, in much the manner that New Jersey has done, appearing to pass a shipping bill while not actually opening the market much and protecting as much of the state-licensed distributors' profits as possible.
I hope consumers see through this. If you live in Delaware, please make your voice heard, and support the bill provided it includes House Amendment 1. An interface on the Free the Grapes Web site makes it easy to contact your elected officials.
Neil, Jordan, Gustavo and I spent last weekend representing Tablas Creek at the International Biodynamic Wine Conference, up in the beautiful San Francisco Presidio. San Francisco was putting on a show, with gorgeous cool, sunny spring weather, and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge out the Golden Gate Club's windows was pretty much the best conference backdrop imaginable. The audience there was passionate and eager to share what they were doing. I was grateful that the show was mostly free of the mysticism (think lunar cycles and homeopathy) that makes many people leery of Biodynamic practices. Instead, it offered deep explorations of soil microbiomes, of the science behind the Biodynamic preparations, and of the costs and benefits of different farming practices like tilling (vs. no-till), composting (what's the right mix and what are the benefits of applying it in tea form vs. spreading solid compost), yeasts (what happens as different "native" yeast strains take lead), and pest control. It offered grand tastings for the trade and for the public. It was an inspiring mix.
The conference also offered a few different sessions on the marketing of Biodynamic wines. One such panel discussion featured Gwendolyn Osborn, wine.com's Director of Education and Content. They recently added a Biodynamic landing page (wine.com/biodynamic) for all the wines that they sell made from Demeter-certified vineyards. It’s great for the category to see such an influential retailer provide this focus. And people (at least some people) are asking about Biodynamic wines. In the archives they have from the hundreds of thousands of chats between their sales consultants and their customers, roughly a thousand contained the term "biodynamic". (By contrast, according to Gwendolyn, "organic" appeared about five times as often).
At the same time, the examples she shared suggested that wine.com’s customers, at least, don’t really distinguish biodynamic from organic. Most of the examples she showed that asked about biodynamic did so in a “biodynamic or organic” phrasing (as in, "I'd like to buy a Sauvignon Blanc around $20, and I'd prefer it be biodynamic or organic"). This is interesting to me in part because my elevator pitch introduces biodynamics in a very different way from organics. In fact, in many ways they are opposite approaches to sustainability.
Let me explain. Organics is, essentially, a list of things that you can’t do. Certification for organic status requires verification that you do not use the chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers that together have come to define modern industrial farming. As such, the practice of organics is preoccupied with the effort to find organic replacements for the prohibited chemicals you can’t use. Think organic fertilizer. Or the pursuit to make an organic Round-Up. In both cases, you're still controlling the application of fertility, and the systemic removal of weeds and pests; you're just doing it in less toxic, less chemical ways. That's a great first step, which we should be applauding.
A quick semi-aside: the sustainability certification movement came in for some pretty heavy criticism at this conference as in many cases offering little more than greenwashing. While I'm of the opinion that we should celebrate anyone's move toward greater sustainability -- whether that's moving from conventional farming to sustainable, or from sustainable to organic -- I think there's a lot of truth to one presenter's comparison of the average sustainability certification as cutting back from 20 cigarettes a day to 10, in that you're still applying chemicals and poisons:
Biodynamics, by contrast, is the effort to make a farm unit into a self-regulating ecosystem. It prescribes the conscious building of living soils through culturing biodiversity and adding preps that contain micro-nutrients. Together these encourage the growth of healthy microbiomes and (thereby) farm units. Yes, the elimination of chemicals is a prerequisite, but it’s not the goal. Instead, it’s a necessary step in the creation of a self-regulating environment. And that healthy environment, which is resilient in the face of pest or weed pressures, is biodynamics’ reward.
In our work at Tablas Creek, the self-contained farm unit appeals to us because we are dedicated believers in doing everything we can to express our property's terroir: the character of place that shows through in a wine. Each thing that we otherwise have to bring in from the outside that we can instead create internally through a natural process brings us one step closer to that ideal of expressing whatever terroir we have in our land. And that’s why biodynamics has so much appeal for us: on the one hand, we're building a healthy vineyard that will hopefully live longer, send roots down deeper, and be more self-regulating. On the other hand, the fruit -- and, assuming we do our jobs in the cellar, the wines -- will be as distinctive as possible, with their Tablas Creek personality shining out.
That's a win for us. And for our customers. And for our neighbors and the community we're a part of.
Continuing our Interview Series with members of our Tablas Creek Crew, we would like to introduce you to our new Tasting Room Sales Lead, Misty Lies.
She not only makes certain things don't get out of hand in the tasting room, but she also is a successful mother of two children as well as the mama to us all in the front of the house.
Plus, she's not only our recently promoted, kickass new Sales Lead, but she can also quite literally kick your butt. I’m not joking, the woman is trained in Krav Maga and tells the story of her making a citizens arrest with glee. Facing down a drunk bachelorette party in the tasting room? No contest.
Misty came onto our team Spring of last year, and if you have come out and tasted with us since then, odds are you’ve seen her behind one of our bars hoarding all the Tannat. I sat down with her recently to ask about her journey to Tablas Creek.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in La Jolla, but I grew up in Encinitas. Before my husband and I moved up here I was down in Temecula.
What drew you to Central California?
My husband is a Firefighter and so we moved up here for that. Truthfully it wasn’t wine!
How did you first hear about Tablas Creek?
I drove by it all the time and I would ask my friends what Rhone wines were. And nobody knew even though we were already drinking them, like Syrah’s and GSM’s! Apparently I loved Rhones before I even knew what they were, which is what I think a lot of California wine drinkers do. I started talking to John(our Tasting Room Manager) back and forth, and I told him I had retail experience with William Sonoma and tasting room experience for an olive oil company, and was interested in the wine industry. In my interview he asked me what I knew about wine and I told him that, “I know I like to drink it.” I figured what better way to learn about wine than to work in it?
When asked about Misty, John said, "Misty is a tremendous worker, has great character, and takes great care in everything she does. I sensed all of these traits in her interview, and thought that even though she didn’t have experience in the business, her interest in and love of wine combined with her character would make her a great fit here at Tablas Creek. She has been everything I hoped for and more."
What is your role at the winery?
I was working part-time in the tasting room as a pourer because my husband Nate and I were preparing to move up to Monterey, but now that is no longer occurring so I’m staying at Tablas and they offered me a Tasting Room Lead position! I believe in making a connection with the people you’re talking to on the other side of the bar, that’s what makes them want to come back at the end of the day. Plus, I used to teach Special Education down in Temecula and now I’m still doing what I love which is teaching, but now it’s about wine.
What’s your biggest challenge as Tasting Room Sales Lead?
Making sure people get to where they need to be when they walk through the door. It’s up to us to get them to a bar and proceed with a tasting and when things get crazy in the tasting room it’s easy to get distracted.
Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?
No official comment on the Temecula wine scene, even though I lived there for years. But I really love what they do at Brecon, not to mention they throw a heck of a pickup party. Lone Madrone is always fun, plus there’s the fact they have Tannat.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?
Tannat… well duh. But the new Cotes Rouge is awesome and I tried a 2013 at our pizza making party, and now there’s no going back. In terms of whites I would have to say just genuinely all Rhone whites. They’re so different than any whites we’ve grown up thinking about. I only drank reds before I came here and now helloo Picpoul!
You are quite the accomplished chef, do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I’ve been really into Paella recently. There are so many of our whites that go with that. The Esprit Blanc goes wonderfully, and is so versatile because of its creaminess.
How do you like to spend your days off?
Planning the next adventure. Life is all about seeing everything and tasting everything you possibly can. You should always ask yourself, “What haven’t I done yet?”
What would people be surprised to know about you?
Well if I ever won the Lotto I would want to buy socks for all the homeless, because there’s nothing quite like a new pair of socks.
What is one of your favorite memories here?
The tasting room pizza making class was awesome. But it’s like a family here in general. We look after one another and get excited for each other. And that sense of whole is what makes me excited to come to work. I get to talk to the people I work with but I also get to talk with the people who walk through the door.
How do you define success?
Success is doing something you like doing, because if you have fun doing it, then it’s not a job. And it’s also not about having all the money in the world, it’s about having an adventure along the way. Because the more money you make the more money you spend.
If you're as in love with her as we are(and want to pick her brain about the homeless sock answer), stop by our tasting room and she'll have you chuckling in no time.
At the end of February, we were looking at a potentially disastrous winter, with less than five inches of precipitation. A major storm that arrived March 1st and dropped more than three inches of rain in 24 hours marked a major pattern shift, and the rest of March continued wet, finishing with nearly 12 inches of rain, our wettest March since we put in our weather station in 1996 and the sixth-wettest month in that time frame. Although April was dry, we're in a much better place than it looked like we'd be. For a visual sense of how the winter has shaped up compared to normal, I've put together a graph by month:
You can see what an outlier March is, at 295% of normal. Still, following six drier-than-n0rmal winter months, we will end this winter season at something like 70% of average, a total much more like what we saw during our 2012-2016 drought than the gloriously wet 2016-2017 winter:
Still, while it was a below-average rainfall winter, it's neither particularly troubling nor particularly unusual. It ranks 13th of the 22 winters since 1996. And it follows our very wet winter last year, which produced healthy vines and replenished our underground water sources. Historically, the first dry year after a wet stretch hasn't been particularly hard on the vineyard, thanks to the accumulated vigor and residual moisture, and has in fact produced some fabulous vintages like 1999, 2002, 2007, and 2012.
It's also important to realize that the fact that the rain came late will have an impact on the growing season. It's unusually green right now for mid-May, and that soil moisture is relatively plentiful close to the surface, easily accessible even to relatively young grapevines. A few shots should give you a sense of what things look like. First, one from mid-April, before the Mourvedre vines in this low-lying area had sprouted:
Next, this photo of new growth in Grenache, from about a week back:
Because the rain came so late and we wanted to give the cover crops as much time as possible to build organic matter, we're behind in getting them tilled under. The vineyard at my parents' house is a good example; the cover crops are nearly as high as the cordons:
The other implication of the late beginning of cover crop growth is that we weren't able to have the animals in the vineyard as much as we would have liked this winter, because there just wasn't enough for them to eat until the beginning of March. But we're planning to harvest the cover crops in sections of the vineyard where we weren't able to have them graze, to supplement their forage from unplanted portions of the property.
The late rain and the consistent sun in April has made for a spectacular wildflower season. The mustard is blooming, adding an electric yellow blanket nearly covering the head-trained Grenache vines:
And, of course, the California poppies are the stars of the show. Anyone who is planning a visit to Paso Robles this month is in for some spectacular scenery:
Big picture: we're feeling cautiously optimistic about things. We've received enough rain to feel confident that our dry-farmed vineyards will do fine through the growing season, and in a concentrated enough period to have positively impacted our well levels. Budbreak was later than in recent years, and we're now largely through the frost season, with only one frost event (the morning of April 17th), which doesn't look like it did too much damage. The vineyard looks healthy.
Given where we were in mid-February, I don't think we could have asked for anything more.
This Sunday, we hosted a celebration of my dad's life here at the vineyard. We tried to make it an event my dad would have enjoyed: good food and wine, not too formal, a chance for people to tell stories in different ways, either to speak to the whole audience, to reminisce in smaller groups, or to record a video with Nathan, our Shepherd/Videographer. About 350 people came, from as far away as France and Vermont, wine folks from all over California, and a great representation of the local wine community. The mood was one of appreciation, not sadness, which I thought was great. Yes, we are all sad to lose him, but at almost 91 he had a great and long life, achieved so many goals that he had, and laid the foundation for many others to succeed after him.
I will forever be grateful to everyone who helped put this event together. There were many, but a few principal ones were Neil Collins, who did a masterful job organizing leading the storytelling; Chef Jeff Scott, who put together a great array of foods for the gathering including my dad's favorite East Coast oysters and Tablas Creek lamb; my brother-in-law Tom Hutten, who assembled a selection of music from my dad's favorite artists and eras, Nathan Stuart, who spent his day filming reminiscences and the breaks taking photos; the many volunteers from the Paso Robles wine community, who manned the food and wine stations so that the team here could participate fully in the event; and finally Kyle Wommack, Wonder Woman and master event coordinator, who pulled together all the pieces of this complicated event -- of a sort we'd never hosted before -- and allowed the family to focus on the guests who came and on what we wanted to say.
It has also been a pleasure to see the tributes that appeared in the national and international press since he passed away. If you haven't read these, and you have a half hour to spare, there are some wonderful stories in each of these pieces. My sincere thanks go out to all these writers, who gave him the tributes his long career deserved. In the order in which the stories were published:
A theme that came out again and again both in the articles that were written and in the tributes that people gave on Sunday was that my dad was a builder: someone who didn't just come up with ideas (though he did that, for sure) but oversaw the creation of structures that were set up to succeed long-term. The impacts of that foundation-building were in full evidence at the party, with people there to remember his work not just at Tablas Creek, but as an importer, as an advocate for the Paso Robles wine community, and as a patron of the arts. I thought it might be interesting for me to share the speech I wrote for the occasion. I didn't end up giving it verbatim, but this was, more or less, what I said to the group.
Welcome, everyone. I had an anxiety dream a few days ago where there were only about 40 people here and I had to slink up to the podium and announce that we were going to start, I guessed, since it didn’t look like anyone else was coming. I am so honored to see all of you here, and to have heard from so many of you – and so many people who couldn’t be here today – about how my dad had touched your lives. It’s been one of the really nice things in what has been a difficult month.
I remember, when Meghan and I were thinking about moving out here almost 20 years ago, that getting the chance to work with my dad while he was still actively involved in Tablas Creek was my main motivation in making the move when we did. If I’d waited a few years, and something had happened to him, I would have regretted that forever. But I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he did that had made him successful. After having the pleasure of working with him for 15 years, I think it boiled down to three things:
First, he generated more ideas per amount of time spent at work than anyone else I’ve ever worked with. This wasn’t always easy – there were times when it drove us all nuts, because he would have a new good idea while we were still trying to implement the last one – but what a great foundation for any business.
Second, he was willing to lead by example. Whether this was going out well into his 80s and carrying a wine bag up and down the New York subway stairs showing Tablas Creek, or being the first to stand up and put in money to get the 11 new Paso Robles AVAs off the ground, or in creating the winery partners program to support the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center, on whose board he served into his 90s, if the cause was something he believed in, he was willing to put his own time, effort, and money into making sure that cause succeeded.
Third, he believed in people. One of the hallmarks of all the companies he founded was that people stayed and made a career there. He did this by giving the people he hired the authority to make the right decisions in their area of expertise, by allocating them the resources they needed, and by providing them vision without micro-managing the details. There are people here today from Vineyard Brands who remember me coming home from little league games and walking through the sales meeting dinners that he and my mom were hosting, in uniform. A dozen of them made the trip out here, many of whom are still there 30 years later, running the company that he founded.
My dad also had a pretty clear sense of what mattered, and what didn’t. I remember once, getting a semi-critical review in a class I took in high school, that said (with the implication that my judgments were perhaps less nuanced than they should be) that I had “little use for fools”. He read it and said, “well, I’m not sure there is much use for fools. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
But in the end, what I’m going to hold on to most about my dad was his essential optimism. He started this vineyard when he was already in his early 60s. He did it in a way that guaranteed that we wouldn’t see any wine for a decade. And for him, none of that mattered. It was an interesting and worthwhile thing to do. He was confident that he could figure out the pieces he didn’t yet know. The fact that we would be making wine from grapes that most Americans didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce, and that we would be blending these grapes into wines that didn’t really have a category in the marketplace, were just details that could be overcome by perseverance and force of will. That perseverance and force of will hadn’t ever let him down. And they wouldn’t here either.
All kids, I think, grow up thinking that what they grow up with is normal. Your dad is “Dad”. He does the things he does because that’s the way the world works. I will forever be grateful that I got the chance to work with my dad as an adult, and see him through the eyes of the people he worked with and inspired. And I believe that the reason he was successful in business was the same as why he was a great dad and a great friend. You always knew where you stood. You always knew that if you needed his support, you’d have it. And you knew that when he said something, he meant it.
I have one story I’d like to end with. I remember, not long after we moved out here, walking out into the middle of the vineyard here with my dad. Most of the vines here were still young. He was in his mid-70s. He stopped for a moment and waved generally toward the vineyard and said, “you know, I didn’t build this for me. I’m not going to be around when it’s at maturity. I didn’t even really build it for you. But it should be amazing for your kids.”
Thank you all for coming today. I am really looking forward to hearing your stories. It’s been an honor to spend as much time inside my dad’s life as I have these last two decades. Thank you all for being a part of it.
Finally, one observation that really drove home to me what a lasting impact my dad had on not just the communities in which he lived, but on the people who he brought into the businesses he started. At the event, there were some 65 people who had worked for him either at Vineyard Brands or at Tablas Creek. By my rough calculations, those 65 people had combined for about 1000 years of tenure in his businesses. And that, I think, is the legacy of which he would have been proudest.
It's been a while since I took people on a photographic tour of what's going on in the vineyard. So, let's remedy that.
Spring is my favorite time in Paso Robles. The hillsides are green. The air is softer than it was during the winter, and the days warm and pleasant, but not yet the stark summer that can feel floodlit during the day. Nights can still be chilly, and we do worry about frost, but so far this spring we've had relatively stress-free nights and (other than a little testing) haven't even had to turn on our frost-protection systems. That's particularly nice because this week, both our winemaker and our vineyard manager are out representing the winery at Taste of Vail. Meanwhile, the vineyard is springing to life, with buds swelling, then opening, then bursting to leaf with remarkable speed.
But it's the explosion of color that is springtime in Paso Robles' calling card. The rain that came during the winter combines with the longer days to produce a month of proliferating wildflowers. The most visible of these flowers are the bright orange California poppies, our state's official flower:
Low to the ground, particularly in valley areas and those blocks where the sheep came through earlier in the winter and ate the taller grasses, you can find a carpet of tiny purple flowers covering the ground:
On hillsides, the wild mustard's yellow blooms give splashes of color that always make me think of a giant toddler let loose with a can of yellow spray paint:
Not all the growth is colorful. The green of our cover crop mix (oats, sweet peas, vetch, and clovers) combines with wild grasses to approach the height of the cordons where we haven't been able to get the sheep in to eat it down:
With bud break, we're approaching the end of the season where we can have our animal flock in the vineyard safely. We've moved them to the late-sprouting Mourvedre and Counoise blocks, including one easily visible from the winery itself. I love this photo, which shows the hillside with the sheep, the extent of the green growth, and the winery, complete with solar array, all in one shot:
The rain we got last month meant that (briefly, at least) Las Tablas Creek was running, and it filled up the lake on the new parcel we bought in 2011. We still haven't done anything about using that water to help frost-protect the vineyard, but seeing the lake full for the second consecutive year has rekindled our thinking about how we might:
But, of course, it's the vines that are the main event at this time of year. And the splashes of vibrant yellow-green are the most hopeful sign of all. While some varieties (like the aforementioned Mourvedre and Counoise, as well as Roussanne, Tannat, and Picpoul) are yet to sprout, early grapes like Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) are already well out of dormancy:
This explosion of spring color won't last long. Soon, the weather will heat up and dry out, and we'll turn to getting the cover crop incorporated into the vineyard so the vines can benefit from its nutrition and don't have to compete with extra roots for available water. But if you're coming in the next month, you're in for a treat.
Always on the go with a task list that extends beyond the length of your forearm, Charlie Chester has a diverse role here at Tablas Creek. From curating a collector's tasting for enthusiastic guests to transferring pallets of wine to keep the tasting room stocked, Charlie does it all- while also juggling the his son Brandon, now age two.
Charlie in our new seated flight tasting room
How did you learn about Tablas Creek? I was a wine club member before I was an employee. I visited the winery in 2011, right after the new tasting room was finished. I was on my way back from an extended ski season up north in Truckee and I wanted to pick up my wine club shipment. I was enjoying the new tasting room, newly released wines while chatting with John (Tasting Room Manager). I mentioned I was interested in working for Tablas Creek and he invited me back for an interview. The rest, as they say, is history!
Why did you choose to join the Wine Club at Tablas Creek? Before I worked for Tablas Creek I was working in the limousine industry, chauffeuring people around Paso Robles, I got to see it all. I really enjoyed visiting the different tasting rooms, observing like a fly on the wall. After visiting a winery more than once, I could gauge for consistency both in quality of wine and customer service. Tablas Creek stood out as having unique, consistently high quality wines plus their staff was always super friendly. The tasting room staff would go out of their way to show you something special and share their passion for the wines and the story.
Charlie (left) with Tasting Room Manager John Morris
What do you think is special about Tablas Creek? I like being part of something that is on the cutting edge of Rhone wines in California. I remember the first time I had Counoise on it's own, bottled varietally, and I thought that was really great. To be able to share these unique wines that are normally only found in blends one of my favorite things we do here. Last year we introduced Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche to the U.S and Paso Robles... how great is that?!
Your title here is Assistant Tasting Room Manager and Logistics- what does a typical day look like for you? I help things runs smoothly both in the tasting room and in our wine inventory. During the busy season we can have multiple tour groups, tastings, private tastings, group tastings- I help to make sure everyone has a good experience and all positions are staffed appropriately. We have a jigsaw puzzle-ish library storage area that I am constantly moving and shuffling wine around in. I also like driving the forklift around!
What is your most memorable experience here at Tablas? Oh man, last summer we had some fun with the sheep! That was crazy. We were finally heading home after a busy day in the tasting room when I noticed our herd of sheep on the road! We had to get them back on the property so my first instinct was to try to corral them back in and out of the road, so I grabbed a bucket of sweet feed (a mix of grain and molasses the animals go crazy for!). That usually works to lure them in. While I drove the gator, a few other tasting room team members were doing their best herd them. It took us about 2 hours to finally get the sheep in their pen.
Herding the escaped animals
When it comes to running the tasting room, what is your work philosophy? I want to make sure everyone is happy and taken care of. In the tasting room there's always something exciting to share with new guests, from someone who, say, knows the tasting room as it stands today, to someone who first tasted with Bob [Haas, our founder] "off of two barrels and a plank in the cellar".
What's your favorite thing about your job here? I enjoy the diversity of things that I get to do in the winery and on the property from taking care of the animals to driving forklifts and moving wine....All of it's awesome!
When you're not working, what are you doing? Spending time with my son, Brandon. He's two. Hanging out with friends, grabbing a beer and tacos, going to the beach. Go wine tasting!
Finally, how do you define success? Happiness!! Work isn't as meaningful if you don't believe in what you're doing and if you're not happy doing it.
Two months ago, I was worried. January, normally our coldest month of the year, had seen only four nights drop below freezing. After one decent storm on January 8th and 9th, the rest of the month was dry, leaving us at just 20% of normal rainfall by month-end. We ended the month with a week of sunny days, each topping out in the mid-70s. The beginning of February was more of the same: ten days of sun in a row, each topping out between 75 and 81, with lows dropping down only into the 40s. I was worried we'd see our vines start to sprout in February, setting the growing season off to an unprecedentedly early start and leaving us an unconscionably long period of frost risk.
Thankfully, mid-February brought a change in the weather pattern. Although the second half of the month remained dry (the 0.28" of rain is just 6% of what we'd expect from our second-wettest month) it got cold. We finished February with ten straight frosty nights, all but one dropping into the 20s. Only one of those days made it out of the 50s. And then, in March, it began to rain. We've seen fifteen days this month with measurable precipitation, totaling 11.94" for the month and bringing us to 16.54" for the winter, roughly 75% of what we would expect on this date. The vineyard has transformed, green cover crop springing from the ground as though it was making up for lost time. Now that we've passed the spring equinox and are in the middle of a week of sunny, increasingly warm weather, it's not surprising that I saw the first signs of bud break when I got out into the vineyard yesterday. Our viticulturist Jordan Lonborg provided photographic evidence with a photo of a sprouting Viognier vine this morning:
Budbreak, as you probably guessed from the name, is the period when the grapevine buds swell and burst into leaf. It is the first marker in the growing cycle, a point when we can compare the current season to past years. Upcoming markers will include flowering, veraison, first harvest, and last harvest. And like harvest, budbreak doesn't happen for every grape simultaneously. Early grapes like Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino tend to go first, followed by Grenache and Syrah, then later Marsanne and Picpoul, and finally, often a month after the earliest grapes sprouted, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre. And it really is just starting. Even Grenache, typically on the early side, was fully dormant everywhere except the very tops of the hills:
2017: Mid-March 2016: Very end of February 2015: Second week of March 2014: Mid-March 2013: First week of April 2012: Mid-April 2011: First week of April 2010: Last week of March 2009: Second week of April 2008: Last week of March 2007: First week of April
The timing of our cold and our rain was pretty much ideal. Grapevines (and all deciduous plants) pay the most attention to soil temperatures in deciding when to come out of dormancy. And wet soils retain cold better than warm soils. The double dose we received of cold and wet meant that despite the lengthening days, the vines' most important sensors were telling them that winter was still in effect, and sprouting would be a risk. And, in fact, budbreak does begin our white-knuckle season, since while dormant vines can freeze without danger, new growth is susceptible to frost damage. April frosts cost us roughly 40% of our production in both 2009 and 2011, and we don't feel truly safe until mid-May. So, we've still got more than a month to go before we can relax, and it will be a few weeks before our later-sprouting varieties and our lower-lying (read: more frost-prone) areas are out enough to be at risk.
But in general, if you could design a favorable winter weather pattern, it would look a lot like what we've seen recently. We'd ask for regular frosts and rain through the end of March, and then a switch to a warm, dry pattern thereafter. While we're always grateful for rain, since frosts tend to follow in the wake of frontal passages, the precipitation you get in spring storms isn't worth the risk of frost damage. And the current long-term forecast calls for the high pressure system that has dominated our area this week, bringing sun and increasingly warm days, to persist for a while.
That's just fine with us. Now that the first vines have begun to sprout, we'll see the scene in the vineyard change rapidly. Please join me in welcoming the 2018 vintage.
It is with sadness that I write to report that my dad, Tablas Creek's co-founder Robert Haas, passed away last weekend, one month before his 91st birthday. Followers of Tablas Creek likely know him from his time here at the winery, either at events like our blending seminars, or from his articles on this blog. He was a regular presence at Tablas Creek well into his tenth decade.
What many of you may not know is the impact he had on the American wine market before Tablas Creek ever got off the ground, or what he was like as a person. I hope to share some of each of these in this piece, as well as some of my favorite photos of him. And we may as well start here, from his 89th birthday party two Aprils ago:
My dad was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 18th, 1927. His father Sidney ran a gourmet butcher shop named M. Lehmann that he had inherited from his uncle Morris Lehmann. My dad would talk about going to visit his grandparents and walking over to Ebbets Field, and would remain a Dodgers fan for life. One of my favorite gifts I ever got for him was a ball signed by Sandy Koufax. Small but strong and quick, he also played baseball and was a good enough shortstop to get an invitation to an open Dodgers tryout from a scout while he was in high school, and a good enough athlete to win summer camp tennis tournaments despite never really playing the sport.
After the repeal of prohibition Sidney was on the ball enough to get New York's first retail liquor license, and turned M. Lehmann into a liquor store and eventually New York's top fine wine shop. Meanwhile my grandparents had moved to Scarsdale, NY, in the suburbs, and my dad had developed 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 300 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 Beaudoin in 1953, my dad and his two years of college French jumped at the opportunity. His goal on this first French trip in 1954 was ostensibly to find a new wine buyer. But I've always gotten the sense from him that he decided quickly that there was no way anyone but him was going to do that job. I asked him just a few weeks ago if that was true, and he responded "Yes, I pretty much knew at the end of my first day that this was what I wanted to do". So, at age 27, he became M. Lehmann's wine buyer, and soon after started cultivating relationships with distributors in other states, so he could be a better customer for the suppliers whose wines he was buying. Meanwhile, he had married, and had his first two children, my sister Janet and brother Danny.
It was in this period that he cemented his relationships with many of the Burgundy suppliers who are still crown jewels of the Vineyard Brands import book: iconic estates like Domaine Gouges, Mongeard-Mugneret, Domaine Ponsot, and Dauvissat. He also agreed to buy the lion's share of the production of Chateau Lafite and Chateau Petrus after their British agents balked at a price increase for the iconic 1961 vintage, and represented them exclusively over the next decade.
His relationship with my grandfather was not always smooth. I know there was tension where my grandfather wanted him to spend more time minding the store, and less time traveling around France buying wine and around America selling it. Sidney was at heart a merchant, not a wine lover. I believe he thought my dad would settle down at some point, and was surprised that when he announced that he was ready to retire, my dad suggested he sell M. Lehmann and my dad would take the contacts he'd made and turn them into an importing business. But neither backed down, and that's what happened. After an initial ill-fated sale to one of its employees, the rival Sherry Wine & Spirits bought M. Lehmann and merged the two to become Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, which remains one of New York's iconic wine shops to this day.
The late 1960s was a difficult period for my dad in a few ways. He was a one-man show, often advocating for wine in a market that didn't yet value it. He worked for a few years to build a wine division within Barton Brands, who had bought the inventory from my grandfather's import company, before he realized that they were so much more interested in liquor that getting them to focus on wine was hopeless. And his first marriage had ended, although he did meet my mom not long after, on a flight back to New York from Florida. When my mom Barbara first visited his apartment, she remembers the entire contents of his fridge being a few condiments and a bottle of vodka. A photo from their wedding, in January 1968:
It was in this period that he first met Jacques Perrin and convinced him to sell him some wine from the Beaucastel cellar. [The remarkable story where I found one of these bottles on the legendary wine list at Bern's Steak House is told in full in one of my favorite-ever blog posts, from 2012]. He built upon this relationship with Jacques' son Jean-Pierre, with whom he developed the La Vieille Ferme brand. From a beginning of a few hundred cases, sold as an exclusive to Sherry-Lehmann in 1970, it is now the largest French wine brand in the world. In the end he decided to set up shop on his own, first in New York and then, when they got tired of city living, from the converted barn of the 1806 Vermont farmhouse to which they moved in 1970. He incorporated Vineyard Brands in 1973, the same year that I was born. This photo of Jacques (left) and my dad is from that very same year, which I know because there's also a photo of me, age 5 months, sitting on Jacques' lap from the same visit.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, he balanced additions to the estate side of Vineyard Brands with new brands, championing Rioja (Marques de Caceres), Chile (Santa Rita), and New Zealand (Villa Maria). He also had his second daughter and fourth child, my sister Rebecca, and was active in the Chester, Vermont community, serving on the school board and as a little league coach. Long-time employees of Vineyard Brands still remember us coming back to the house in uniform as they were getting ready for dinner.
He was not infallible in his business judgments; he had an ongoing tendency to be ahead of the market, championing regions that are now critical darlings like Beaujolais, Languedoc, and Oregon a decade or longer before the market was ready to accept them. But he had a terrific nose for regions or wines that were punching above their cost, and was willing to put in the work to establish regions and producers at the same time.
This instinct was on full view in California, where he represented some of the greats of the first generation in Napa and Sonoma, like Kistler, Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Spring Mountain, and Clos du Val in the 1970s, and he helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer in the 1980s as the California Chardonnay wave was gathering. When he was in California with the Jean-Pierre Perrin or his brother Francois, he would bring them to visit California wineries to see what they thought, and they together came away both convinced that California was capable of making world-class wines and confused as to why no one was trying Rhone varieties in the clearly Mediterranean climate. Abstract discussions in the mid-1970s gradually became more serious, and they decided to start looking for property together in 1985, even as each was fully engaged in growing their own businesses. This photo of my dad with Jean-Pierre and Francois at Beaucastel is from around that time:
I first became aware that my dad was a big deal in certain circles when I read an article ("Have Palate, Will Travel") in a 1988 edition of the Wine Spectator. The photo below, which is one of my favorites of him, must have been from the same photo session, since he's wearing the same outfit. He's leaning against the gate of one of the gardens at our Vermont house. He hadn't yet started to step back from the day-to-day operations at Vineyard Brands, but he would soon, to focus on Tablas Creek:
By the early 1990's, my dad had turned over the running of Vineyard Brands to his second-in-command there, and the relationships with the French suppliers to my brother Danny. How he did so says a lot about him. He saw an ad in the Boston Globe about a seminar promoting a new federal program called an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) which could be used to turn a business over to its employees. And that's what he did: in essence, Vineyard Brands bought itself from him, and is now owned by its employees. This has allowed the company to remain independent, to continue to grow and thrive after my dad's retirement, and to enjoy a continuity and longevity from its team that is almost unheard of in this age. There are still significant portions of the senior leadership of Vineyard Brands that were hired by my dad, more than 25 years ago. And my dad was able to take the money and invest it in Tablas Creek.
The search to find Tablas Creek and the development of the property here is likely better known to readers of this blog, but I think the same willingness to be ahead of the curve was in evidence in the decision to settle on Paso Robles at a time when few people were talking about it, and the focus on blends when the marketplace was firmly oriented toward varietals. But in both cases, he was convinced that what mattered was the right raw materials (soils, climate, rainfall) and the right winemaking decisions. The rest was simply a question of perseverance. The photo of the ceremonial planting of the first vines released from quarantine in 1992 shows (from left) Jean-Pierre Perrin, my cousin Jim O'Sullivan, my mom and dad, Charlie Falk (who worked for my dad at Vineyard Brands and then helped with the search for Tablas Creek), Charlie's wife Gretchen Buntschuh, and Jean-Pierre's wife Bernadette Perrin.
As Tablas Creek grew from an idea into a business, so too did some 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 fund, we were able to make the changes that eventually allowed Tablas Creek to thrive.
Perhaps most important to Tablas Creek's legacy will end up being the partners' decision to bring in grapevine cuttings rather than live with what was already in California, and to make the clones we'd imported available to the community. More than 600 vineyards and wineries around the United States use Tablas Creek cuttings, and my dad was always convinced that our decision to bring in vines spurred the reversal of a long-standing policy by ENTAV (the French national nursery service) against partnering with out-of-country nurseries. This policy change has led to the import of hundreds of new varieties and clones, and a new flowering of diversity in American grapegrowing, Rhone and otherwise.
My dad maintained an active role at Tablas Creek up until the very end. I often heard from his friends that they thought that his passion for this project kept him young, and I believe that. In the period in the mid-2000's when we were pushing to establish Tablas Creek in the market, he was out there (in his 70's and 80's, mind you), riding around with our distributors, making presentations to restaurants and retailers, up and down subway steps during the day and hosting dinners and tastings in the evening. A quiet retirement this was not. But he was always willing to put his own effort behind the things he believed in, and if this was what needed to be done, he was going to do it. And the example of the Perrins, who are now on their fifth generation running their estate, is an inspiring one for all of us. The photo below, from 2009, shows my dad at lower left, and then (continuing counter-clockwise) me, Francois Perrin, Francois' son Cesar, and our winemaker Neil Collins, who has been here so long he might as well be family. It's not only in Vineyard Brands that the longevity of the employees my dad hired is in evidence; it's a hallmark of every business he's been a part of.
By the early 2010s, my dad had cut back a little but was still coming into the vineyard 3-4 days per week, and had stopped going out and working the market but was still hosting 4-6 wine dinners a year around the country. He led the 2015 Tablas Creek Rhone River Cruise with my mom. And he was starting to be recognized as the living icon that he was. One of the nicest windows I got into how others saw him was in the production and ceremony for the lifetime achievement award he received from the Rhone Rangers in 2014. The video incorporated his story with interviews with many of the wine industry titans whose lives and careers he impacted. I've been re-watching it a lot this week.
Robert Haas Tribute - YouTube
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.
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