Jason Haas looks to the future of Paso Robles winemaking while honoring Tablas Creek's Rhone roots.
Shepherd Nathan Stuart opens the gate and the blur of black and white and brown and grey spills out. Darting through the vines and under the trellises and up over the top of low rock walls, the sheep are on the move.
Two hundred bleating ewes and lambs, helped along by Stuart’s Border Collies, make their way to the next grazing location.
The vines at Tablas Creek might be dormant, but the vineyard is full of life on a chilly winter morning in Paso Robles.
Another Day Begins in the Vineyard
As the herd regathers and walks up the hill past the crush pad, Jason Haas, General Manager of Tablas Creek, reaches down to pat their guard dog, whose job is to take care of the herd. But he doesn’t have to reach very far. Not yet full grown, she’s already topped 100 lbs, with paws foretelling her full-grown enormity. Sadie, Haas’ own pretty Australian Shepherd, waits patiently for our tour to begin.
The sheep herd, the guard dogs, and the rotational grazing are all integral parts of the Biodynamic farming program at Tablas Creek — and the long-term vision for making some of the best Rhone wines this side of France.
Taking the Long View
Today, Haas oversees Tablas Creek Vineyard, following in the footsteps of his father and founder, Robert Haas.
While Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded in 1989, its roots go much deeper. In fact, they extend all the way to the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appelation in France’s Southern Rhone wine region. It’s there, in the 1960s, that Robert Haas met Jacques Perrin and his family (six generations deep as top winemakers for their Chateau de Beaucastel winery) and began a long relationship of importing their wines for his Vineyard Brands import business.
The two men’s foresight and shared passion of wines from southern Rhone nurtured the seed of what was to come two decades later, transcending generations.
As Haas explained as we started our walking tour, “it was as long and slow of a process to develop a winery as you could imagine.”
And they wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The drive to Tablas Creek Vineyard is part of the fun of visiting. As you exit Highway 101 at Vineyard Drive and head west, you pass under arches of live oak trees dripping with moss. Vineyards line both sides of the curving two-lane road as you pass many wineries along the way. Some are small; some are stately. But they all are home to the wines that each winemaker is passionate about sharing with visitors.
As soon as you pull through the stone gate at Tablas Creek and see the terraced patios ahead and head-trained vines just off the parking area, you start sensing the place — the terroir — of this special property.
Named after Tablas Creek that runs through the property, the 120 planted acres are dry-farmed. “The vineyard has been farmed organically since its inception,” says Haas, “but we didn’t bother getting certified until 2003. We got our Biodynamic certification in 2017.”
Biodynamic certification is a rigorous process that involves every aspect of vineyard and winery management. Some aspects of Biodynamic farming include the sheep, plus alpaca and guard donkeys (yes, they’re fierce protectors of the sheep), to graze the cover crops, control weeds, add natural fertilizer, and till the soil with their hooves.
“We use only what is found on the land to produce our wines, just as the Perrin family does at their Chateau de Beaucastel winery in France,” says Haas. That extends from the organic and dry-farming practices to fermenting the grapes only with native yeasts that occur naturally, rather than adding yeast to assist the fermentation.
Rhone Takes Root in Paso Robles
After Jacques Perrin passed away in 1978, his sons Jean-Pierre and Francois continued the relationship with Robert Haas, and they began to explore an idea: to create a new winery in the United States specializing in the Rhone varietals from Chateau de Beaucastel.
In 1985, the Haas and Perrin families formed a partnership and began their search for the right soil, climate, and terrain that would allow the Rhone varietals to prosper in the US.
“The partners felt that the climate in Croatia (where Zinfandel is originally from) was broadly similar to that of the southern Rhone,” recalls Haas, “They believed that if they could find where Zinfandel had succeeded, it would be a marker for where Southern Rhone varieties would thrive.”
Because California was producing quality Zinfandel, they started looking at land, from Ventura County to Napa and Sonoma. “At the beginning, Paso Robles wasn’t even on the radar,” said Haas.
On one scouting trip, they decided to head south. While driving along Peachy Canyon Road, they saw an excavated hillside. “There, they saw the calcareous limestone soils they were looking for and knew this was the place to find land for their vineyard.”
About six months later, the vacant parcel became available. Part of the MacGillivray estate, it had a variety of faces creating microclimates for grapes with longer and shorter ripening times. All this was crucial for the successful farming of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes, like early-ripening Viognier and late-ripening Mourvedre.
In addition to the limestone soils that can hold 40% of their weight in water, hot summer days, cool nights, a long growing season, and rugged terrain to challenge the grapevines to grow deep roots were all part of the package.
The raw land allowed them to implement organic farming from the start, and a vital aspect to their new winery.
The First Vines Arrive
After the land was purchased, one of the first decisions was how to find the Rhone varietals to plant. While Grenache had been widely planted in the Central Valley to increase production of jug wine, it was used for quantity, not quality.
The partners knew what they wanted their wines to taste like and the quality they wanted to be known for. It wasn’t long before they knew they had one choice. In 1990, they began the long process of importing the original vines from the Perrin family’s Chateau de Beaucastel winery and start the three-year quarantine period for each.
The first vine cuttings to arrive were Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. After quarantine, they were planted at Tablas Creek in 1994, and produced fruit for the first vintage in 1997.
“We also sold cuttings to wineries across the country that wanted to introduce Rhone varietals,” said Haas. “During those years, we sold more than a million cuttings to vineyards from the west coast to Texas.”
Over the years, more and more of the vines were released from quarantine and planted at the vineyard.
In 2003, the partners made the decision to import all 14 grapes. The last — Muscardin — was released from quarantine in 2018. “We hope to have it in the ground next winter, and in production by 2022,” said Haas.
About Rhone Wines
When Tablas Creek opened, just a handful of wineries were making Rhone wines. Now, there are hundreds, if not thousands.
And Paso Robles is now considered by many to be the epicenter of California Rhone production. All of this due to the importation of Rhone grapes by Tablas Creek.
While the stalwart Rhone varietals, like Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, are always popular, Haas is especially excited about the new varietals coming up.
For example, Picardan is rarely planted. For a time, the half-acre of Picardan vines at Tablas Creek Vineyard increased the world’s population by 40%. Today, with a few more acres planted, the winery probably represents some 20% of the world’s footprint.
“We’re excited about these obscure grapes because of how well some of the less-well-known varieties have done so far,” said Haas. “Picpoul, Counoise, even Grenache Blanc were relatively unknown when we started working with them, but they’ve been amazing… in many cases, even better than the examples we knew from France.”
Haas added, “That suggests that we’re just scratching the surface of what Rhone grapes can do here in Paso Robles.”
Tablas Creek’s winemaker, Neil Collins, has been at the helm for 20 years. His vision and shared passion for Rhone grapes and the Tablas Creek program means the wines only get better. Considering the wines have always been high quality and made with traditional French winemaking techniques, such as 1200-gallon oak foudres for aging, the future is exciting.
“Our ‘old vines’ are only 25 years old,” said Haas. A well-tended grapevine can be productive for decades more.
“The quality of the vineyard and the farming have never been better,” he said. “I believe we’ll look back to 2017-18 and see the best wines so far in our winery’s history.”
The animal program, the rainfall, and the Biodynamic farming are all part of that.
Haas also believes that winemaking is more than making wine. It’s about being a good steward of the land and leaving it better than you found it, being a good neighbor, and being part of the community.
“We believe in dry farming and Biodynamics, and using resources responsibly,” he said, “and we want to start conversations, share what we’re learning, and learn from others so the whole wine community can benefit.”
His vision is for Tablas Creek to be a hub for education and demonstration of critical sustainability features and how these ideas can be implemented. For example, the winery is hosting dry farming seminars for wineries that want to transition from irrigation.
“I hope the examples here will have a positive and lasting effect in the industry,” he added.
He believes this is an exciting time for the wine community. As a whole, he sees the industry exploring sustainability, vineyard management, and wine growing in a way that increases the quality of the wine, while caring for the land.
“And I love how the next generation is coming out of school, eager to explore working with what nature gives us — like native yeasts — rather than trying to control every aspect of the process.”
He also does all he can to advocate for and bring awareness to the Paso Robles wine region, whether it’s pouring at a grand tasting, talking with a wine writer, or presenting on an industry panel discussion.
And for those of us who simply enjoy the end result of the art and science of wine — a glass shared with friends or to celebrate a special occasion?
“I’m convinced better farming makes better wine,” he said, just as Jacques Perrin learned so long ago
To the Tasting Room
Haas and Sadie walk us through the barrel room on the way to our end-of-tour tasting. Here, huge 1200-gallon foudres age wine before bottling. Each holds 500 cases, so the 22 red wine foudres together hold 11,000 cases of wine.
A big black egg, taller than Haas, rests nearby.
“It allows some oxygen without the oak of a barrel,” he explains, and the round shape produces natural convection that stirs the fermenting wine.
Ashley Murphy in the tasting room shares that when she started thinking of working in a winery, Tablas Creek was her only choice. She loves the wines and the history of the place, and we can tell she knows both as she shares details and background during our tasting.
Tablas Creek creates several single varietals, such as Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Tannat, and Mourvedre that showcase each grape. Its flagship wines, both red and white under the Esprit de Tablas label, follow the Chateauneuf-du-Pape tradition of blending chosen varietals to produce wines that are more complex and elegant, better balanced, and richer than single varietal wines.
It also offers its Patelin de Tablas label, which uses grapes from Tablas Creek vines planted at 8-10 other Paso Robles vineyards. With a wider commercial distribution, this program helps spread awareness of Tablas Creek and Paso Robles wines to people who might not yet know about it.
As Ashley pours our first wine, 2017 Patelin Rose, she shares that it was recently listed on the Top 100 Wines in the World by Wine & Spirits. It’s a Southern Provence style Rose of 64% Grenache.
It’s a perfect ending to our tour, and good introduction of what is yet to come at Tablas Creek Vineyard.
805 Wine Country thanks Jason Haas and the Tablas Creek Vineyard team for sharing time and creating a great experience. And we thank the Haas and Perrin families for having the foresight to create Tablas Creek Vineyard so we can all enjoy the results of their friendship, partnership, and winemaking vision.
📷 Photo credits – Historical photos of Haas family provided by Tablas Creek.
Tablas Creek co-founder Robert Haas played a leading role in the American wine industry for over half a century. As a buyer for his family’s New York retailer M. Lehman starting in the 1950s, Haas developed lifelong relationships with premier French (and other) wine producers.
In the mid-1960s, he created Vineyard Brands to import fine wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône Valley and met the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel. He became the sole American importer of Chateau de Beaucastel wine.
During two decades of promoting French wines in the United States, he and Jacque Perrin knew that Rhone grape varieties that grew well in sunny Southern France would thrive in California’s Mediterranean climate.
The result was Tablas Creek Vineyard.
Haas remained active in winery operations and received numerous industry recognition’s, including 2007 Wine Industry Person of the Year from Paso Robles Wine Community and the 2014 lifetime achievement award from Rhone Rangers for his contributions to the American Rhone movement. Robert Haas passed away in March 2018.