Mike Dunne on Wine

What's new, good and vintage from California vineyards

Dunne on Wine: Tablas Creek Vineyard

08/26/2014 5:40 PM

08/26/2014 7:22 PM

Who is Jason Haas and why are we about to play 10 Questions?

Haas is the public face and general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard at Paso Robles. Three decades ago, his father, American wine importer Robert Haas, linked up with members of the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Rhone Valley to see if they could create a New World wine with the authority and endurance of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

They started to plant vines imported from Beaucastel in 1994, and three years later began to make wine. Since then, Tablas Creek Vineyard has become recognized not only for showing that California is suitable for Rhone-style wines but for establishing a nursery to provide farmers and vintners throughout the state with imported vines for their own Rhone programs.

Jason Haas began our visit with a stroll through the vineyard about the winery, picking up chunks of surprisingly light and porous calcareous stone that explains to a large extent why his father and the Perrins picked this site 1,500 feet up the Santa Lucia Mountains, just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

After years of touring California in search of a spot for vineyard and winery, have the families had any second thoughts about picking Paso Robles?

No. If anything, this site turned out even better than we thought it would be. Paso has become the epicenter of the California Rhone movement. That’s an important testament that these grapes are well suited to this place. Also, wine tourism here is growing. Half of our wine is sold at our tasting room and through our wine club. We didn’t expect that at all.

What’s happened with grape growing and winemaking that you didn’t expect at the outset?

How well the white wines have done. We were confident it would be a good area for red wines, but we didn’t know it would get as cold at night as it does, and that whites would do well because of that. At first, we planted 80 percent of our vineyard for red wines, 20 percent for whites. We underestimated their potential. Now we’re at 65 percent red-wine varieties, 35 percent for white wine.

Your portfolio is heavy on blended wines, contrary to the American custom of emphasizing varietal wines; do you expect to make more or fewer of one style?

The blends come first, absolutely. When we started, restaurateurs complained that they had no place on their wine lists for blends. Retailers asked, How are we to sell them? We don’t hear that anymore. But we also make varietals, with the number depending on what the vintage tells us it wants to make. And for sure we make a roussanne and a mourvedre each year, to advance the cause (of Rhone wines in the United States.).

What sets apart Tablas Creek from other wineries in the area?

Because of our association with Beaucastel we come at winemaking with a more traditional sensibility. Our frame of reference is more European than New World. We aren’t copying European wines, but we’re focused more on balance than power. You can do either successfully in Paso. I love the super-powerful wines that people are making here with Rhone varieties, but we favor elegance over intensity.

Four years ago you began to farm biodynamically 20 of your 105 acres of vines; have you seen any differences in the quality or nature of wines from the biodynamically farmed plots?

It’s so hard to do a controlled experiment. For one, the areas are so different. Also, we began to farm biodynamically more for the long-term health of vines in this stressful environment than for wine quality. That said, we found that when we did our blending trials, tasting the wines by varietal, we favored wines from the biodynamically farmed blocks pretty consistently. At first, we thought it was a fluke. But we found the same thing the next year, so now we’re starting to expand biodynamic farming to the rest of the vineyard.

Do your various wines draw different kinds of consumers?

People who think of themselves as collectors are more likely to be attracted to wines with structure, like mourvedre and syrah. People who are more interested in near-term consumption are more attracted to lighter wines like grenache, which is so fruity.

On the Tablas Creek website you oversee one of the more frank, active, detailed and informative blogs in the wine trade. Why?

Because we are off the beaten track we figured that the more we can demystify the process and share our thinking the better off we would be. I believe in building communication with people in a different way, so we try to tell our story however we can. The more we can bring people inside our world, the better. And I also like to write. It’s a nice outlet for me, to process stuff I find troubling, exciting, confusing. The things that keep me up at night for one reason or another make the best blog postings.

What are your flagship wines?

Our “Esprit” blends. They are blended from the best lots in the cellar. They’re the best expression of our place in that vintage. We focus on the “Esprits” first, then the varietals and the Cotes de Tablas wines.

What’s next?

We hope to grow. Three years ago we bought the 150-acre parcel to the south of us. Of the potential 55 acres that can be vineyard, 12 already were planted. We’ve pulled out walnut trees and will start to plant five more acres next winter. We make between 25,000 and 30,000 cases a year, so maybe we will get to 40,000, but we’re not in any hurry.

For your biodynamic farming you have alpacas, llamas and sheep in the vineyard, but the herd also includes two “guard donkeys,” Fiona and Dottie. What do they do?

They scare off coyotes and bobcats. … We also get mountain lions and bears. … Those donkeys are big enough and stubborn enough to fight off predators. They bond with the rest of the herd, and they can kick and fight. We lost one sheep and an alpaca to a mountain-lion attack early this year on the new parcel, and the donkeys scared it off before it could start to kill and stash other prey.

About This Blog

Mike Dunne is a freelance wine writer and consultant who divides his time between Sacramento and San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur. He is a former food editor, wine columnist and restaurant critic of The Sacramento Bee and continues to write a weekly wine column for The Bee. Reach him at mikedunne@winegigs.com

Read his blog, A Year in Wine

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