Tablas Creek is one of the featured wineries in the Paso Robles Wine Alliance Tastings coming up at K&L SF and RWC this week on Thursday 7/14 and Friday 7/15 respectively.
Behind the Wine: Jason Haas and Tablas Creek
A joint partnership between the Robert Haas family of California and the Perrin family of Chateau Beaucastel in France’s Southern Rhone valley, Tablas Creek Vineyard has been dedicated to the production of classic Rhone-style wines from traditional Rhone varietals in California since its inception in 1987. Situated in the hills north and west of Paso Robles, the first vines were imported directly from Chateau Beaucastel and planted in 1990. Tablas Creek received organic certification in 2003 and today farms the 120 acre estate vineyard organically. The estate is also home the Tablas Creek nursery, where Tablas Creek manages the reproduction of their vines.
Q&A with Jason Haas of Tablas Creek
How did Tablas Creek get started? What is your role?
Tablas Creek started in 1989, when my dad and the Perrin family bought a 120-acre former alfalfa farm and cattle ranch in the hills west of Paso Robles. But the startup process was a long one; we imported grapevines from Beaucastel and had to wait while they underwent a USDA-mandated three-year quarantine. We got the first vines out of quarantine in 1992, spent the next two years reproducing these vines, and started planting our vineyard in 1994. Our first vintage of Tablas Creek was 1997.
My position is General Manager, which in a family business means to be the one who thinks strategically, who keeps everyone talking to each other, and who knows enough about all the different pieces of the business to evaluate whether we're making the right choices. I spend the largest share of my time on our marketing, but might equally be found in the cellar, looking at spreadsheets, talking to people out in our tasting room or on the road spreading the word.
Describe the Tablas Creek viticultural and winemaking philosophy.
Our winemaking philosophy is to allow the grapes, the terroir, and the climate maximum expression in our wines. To that end, we farm organically, keep yields low (2 to 3 tons per acre), dry-farm our estate vineyard most vintages (and several vineyard blocks every vintage) and harvest when grapes are in balance rather than striving for super-ripeness. To harvest ripe, balanced grapes we make several passes through most vineyard blocks, harvesting selectively and leaving underripe clusters out for a later pass.
In the cellar, We use entirely native yeasts, avoid new oak, and choose to focus on blends of our Rhone varietals, to produce wines that are more about balanced than expressing a single powerful character. Anyone who's interested in our thoughts on our winemaking can find lots more on the Tablas Creek blog.
Where is Tablas Creek Vineyard located? What is it about this site that makes it so well suited to growing Rhone varietals?
Tablas Creek is in the limestone-rich hills west of Paso Robles, about halfway between the town of Paso Robles and the Pacific Ocean. Paso Robles is a warm climate, shielded from the direct influence of the Pacific by the Santa Lucia Mountains, but we get lots of indirect impact, both in how much it cools down at night (45 degrees less than the daytime high is normal) and the amount of rainfall we receive in the winter months (nearly 30 inches annually). We're at 1500 feet in elevation, which further cools the vineyard at night, but we get wonderfully regular sunshine, which is important for the late-ripening Rhone varieties we focus on. Even better, our location in the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucias provides one of the richest limestone bands in California. We searched for four years up and down California before finding this site.
Where did the original vines come from? How have you been able to reproduce them while maintaining authenticity?
The vines came from Beaucastel originally, and the fact that we went through the USDA's quarantine process (rather than smuggling them into the country in a suitcase undeclared) means that we can have confidence in the vines' origin and quality. We have had good success reproducing the vines, and made what I think is a decision that doesn't get as much recognition as it should to make these vine cuttings available for purchase by other vineyards and wineries around the United States instead of trying to keep them proprietary. Since 1996 we've sold millions of cuttings to more than 400 different vineyards and wineries in California, Washington, Oregon, Texas and Virginia, and contributed, I think, to the renaissance in Rhone grapes that you're now seeing on the West Coast.
Do vines behave differently when grown on Paso Robles soil versus the "galets" of Chateauneuf-du-Pape? What is distinctly Paso about your wines?
Of course. Our climate here is more extreme than that of Chateauneuf du Pape; we're hotter during the day but even more colder during the night than Beaucastel. This lengthens the ripening cycle, which makes it a good thing that we also have a longer growing season. We typically harvest each varietal about two weeks later than does Beaucastel, with slightly higher sugars but also with higher acids. The galets are prized in Chateauneuf because they trap the day's heat and allow the vines to better ripen their grapes before the onset of the rainy fall in mid-October. We're happy to have our nighttime cooling since we can typically rely on good weather into mid-November. I'd say that our wines show a primary character, a purity to the fruit, that you don't typically see in Chateauneuf du Pape. Most Chateauneufs, even when they're young, show more earth and garrigue character than do our wines. As the wines age, they get closer and closer together in character, as the youthful fruit in our wines recedes a bit to allow the earth and spice tones to show. Overall, there are more similarities than differences, though.
What's your position on wine-pairing and what do you like to pair Tablas Creek wines with?
Actually, it depends totally on the wine. Our Mourvedre-based reds like our Esprit de Beaucastel pair great with richly flavored meats: think lamb, or boar, or beef on the grill (beef pairs well with nearly any red, which is one of its appeals). Grenache-based reds like Cotes de Tablas pair great with foods with spice and vibrancy: grilled sausages, stews, or pastas with meat sauces. Our Roussanne-based whites like our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc are great food wines; try them with crab or lobster, or even garlicky pork. The Cotes de Tablas Blanc and Patelin de Tablas Blanc are both naturals with simple fish preparations or shellfish (mussels marinieres is always a spectacular pairing), or on their own. And our Rosé is great with a plate of meats and cheeses, a bowl of gazpacho, or a mixed grill.
What advice do you have to offer people interested in learning more about Tablas Creek and the wines of Paso Robles?
Come and see us! It's a lot closer to the Bay Area than most people think; I can usually make it from San Francisco to Paso Robles in a little over 3 hours. And there's an amazing restaurant scene developing in Paso, as well as great places to stay, shop and visit. But even if you can't come (or while you're waiting for your plans to come to fruition) there are great ways to experience Paso in your own back yard. The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is planning a Paso Robles tour stop in San Francisco on July 17th, and there are lots of Paso Robles wineries who will be participating in the Family Winemakers of California San Francisco Tasting on August 21st. Anyone interested in an inside look into Tablas Creek should check out the Tablas Creek blog, which has been a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the American Wine Blog Awards each of the four years it has been in existence, or check out what we're doing on Facebook.
When: 5pm-6:30pm Thursday 7/14 in San Francisco and Friday 7/15 in Redwood City
Where: K&L SF and K&L RWC
Buy Tablas Creek Wines now on KLWines.com