“Would you like to try it?” Jason asked.
“Sure.” I replied.
We were in a large green house at Tablas Creek Winery. At full capacity, as many as 200,000 grape vines call it a temporary home, before moving into shade-houses, and then finally their permanent homes in vineyards all across the west coast. However, at this time of year, the vast space is all but empty, other than the gray plant racks and the lone grafting table that we stood before.
The grafting tool, one of the originals at Tablas Creek, allows a varietal, such Grenache, to be grafted onto a specific rootstock. This process is known as bench grafting. Jason Haas, General Manger, and son of Robert Haas (Owner of Tablas Creek), walked my friend Jordan and I through the steps. 1. Select the desired cutting (maybe Syrah, or Marsanne). 2. Match up a graft piece to a rootstock to ensure they are of similar size. 3. Clip off the buds from the piece of rootstock to ensure it focuses its energy into producing new buds from the desired graft piece and not it’s own buds. 4. Place the rootstock into the grafting channel (if that’s what it’s called) and using the foot peddle below the waist high table, 5, push down to make the first cut. You now have a rootstock with the top cut to look like the Greek Omega symbol (Ω). This form of graft is known as an Omega graft, imagine that. After you marvel at that you 6, place the desired graft piece into the channel and again, 7, engage the foot petal and push it down, far, as if it were the lazy clutch on a worn-down VW bug. The grafting tool then 8, brings your rootstock, which it had been conveniently holding in its grip, and slides it into the new omega cut. The two have now become one and can start the long process of becoming a grape vine. You are now ready for the 9th and final step, smiling like an idiot as Jordan takes your picture and Jason laments agreeing to spend the afternoon with you.
A skilled individual with a support staff to assist can produce up to 2,000 grafts a day. We made two, one for Jordan and one for me. Personally, I am trying to grow mine, for my future empire you know; a prospect that prompted a hardy “good luck with that” from Mr. Haas. Jordan said he would shlack his and put it on his wall. I’m not sure if he was joking or not.
The greenhouse had been just part of our tour at the Paso Robles winery. Sitting on 120 acres, the landscape was drastically different than Wolff Vineyards in the Edna Valley we had left a few hours earlier. The management styles of the two vineyards however, appeared to be similar; at both vineyards, lush native and seeded cover crop grew in abundance between vine rows. Jason picked some Miners Lettuce for us to enjoy as we wandered the vineyard in the cool February air. As we walked, several dogs happily chased in an out of the vines, approaching on occasion for a head scratch. “That one is seventeen years old,” Jason told us, pointing to a particularly energetic member of the group. Vineyards are great places for a dog to live. Jason’s dog (which can be seen in the March Wine Spectator article on Rhône producers) was said to be the healthiest ten year old dog his vet had ever seen.
While the green house was just one aspect of our tour that day, in many ways the Tablas Creek story began there, with a few cuttings and a vision of what could be. And there was patience, incredible amounts of patience.
It took awhile and some additional research before it sunk in, just how lucky I was to get an interview with Tablas Creek. Not because they are an aloof cult winery that sells wine off the exclusiveness of their “members only” persona (you know who you are). Quite the opposite: Tablas Creek is incredibly welcoming to its visitors. Right from the start of this project, Jason invited me to do an interview at the winery. As I prepared over the coming months, I read nothing but praise for Tablas Creek. In fact, I started to read quotes from other winemakers praising them as a champion of Rhône wines in California and even the entire west coast. My mental prowess was correct yet again! Like the producer who decided to finance Batman Begins, even though he had previously passed on the one with George Clooney, I had selected a winner! In actuality though, I picked Tablas solely because of how much I liked their wine.
The reason for much of the praise they receive is due to what they have done for Rhône varietals in California. Tablas Creek, which is a partnership borne out of a long friendship between Robert Haas, and the Perrin family, Owners of Château de Beaucastel, the famed winery of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is responsible for much of the Rhône varietals grown in the West Coast today. Much of the Rhône wines produced in California have their roots in Tablas Creek’s green house, literally. If you have enjoyed any Rhône wines recently from the western United States (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Marsanne), there is a good chance the grape vines that produced the wines started as a graft at Tablas, maybe from the same table I used.
After a tour of the vineyard and winery and a tasting of their current offerings, and after Jason showed off his prized whale hip-bone (ask about it at the winery), we sat down on a patio over looking the vineyard.
Has your partnership with Château de Beaucastel , brought a French sensibility to your American operations?
“I think kind of, it has to a little bit, because that is where our background is. But we’ve never tried to make French wines here, or make French style wines here. What we want to do is make wines here that are appropriate for this place and for the grapes that we grow. I guess that’s kind of a French philosophy, if the Californian philosophy is “I’m going to make Cabernet damn it, I don’t care if it’s the right place for it.” We looked for two years to try to find this spot, knowing that we wanted to grow Rhône varieties, and wanting to find the right spot. Once we found the spot, our goal was to do right by the grapes.”
Are there lessons California winemakers still need to learn from their European counterparts, or vice versa?
“I think the idea that there’s such a thing as the average American winemaker, the average European winemaker is a little bit inaccurate. There are American winemakers who make wines, that I think are a little simple, that are all about fruit and don’t seem to have much in the way of sense of soils, or mineral, or acid, or balance. But, in most cases they are making what they like. You have opportunities in California that you don’t have in France. The weather is so reliable here, you get such good sun. The nights are cold, that is something people often don’t realize about California. Even though the days are sunny and warmer than what you would get in France, the nights are cold, so you get good acids. So, you have a lot of good opportunities here. I think some people push that opportunity a little further then they should if they want wines that are balanced, but some people don’t care that much about balance, they care about intensity, and power, exuberance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, just not what we are looking to do. There are…things that I know the Perrin’s have been excited to work with here in California, I mean you have a lot of freedom here…there aren’t a lot of rules the way there are in Europe…and that’s a luxury too, you are sort of given enough rope to hang yourself with if you want.”
Seems like you have spent a lot of time learning the rules before you break them
“Didn’t Picasso say something like that? Basically he spent the first seventeen years of his life learning how to draw and the rest of it unlearning it…It really helps to know the history, the background, and the fundamentals of how the grapes you work with are grown in a historical context before you set off and say I want to make a wine like this…”
So it’s more about the expression of the grape and you individual terroir than your vision for the wine?
“If you think of a wine as the product of a winemaker’s vision, you probably aren’t going to be as open to listening to what the grape is trying to tell you about where it is, and where it grows, and what it’s like, and what the vintage is like, and I think that’s a shame. We don’t try to make the same wine every year; we don’t try to make the same style of wine every year. We try to make the best wine that that vintage and this vineyard gives us.”
What did your family have to do to start Tablas Creek?
“Um it was long,” he began with a laugh.
“My Dad and the Perrin’s started talking about doing the project that would become Tablas Creek in the late 1970’s…In ‘85 they started looking occasionally. In ’87, they got serious about it and put together the partnership and started looking regularly…They looked from the northern border of Mendocino down all through the north coast, through the sierra foothills, all down through the contra coast and the central coast, and as far south as the hills just outside of Ojai. Ended up picking this spot in 1989, so they are already four years into the searching …At that point, they imported cuttings of grape vines from France and had to wait three more years to get them out of quarantine. When you get them out of quarantine you are only allowed to bring in six cuttings of each clone…Then you have to propagate those vines, take cuttings off of them, root them…grow them…and it took us another two years before we had enough vines to plant or first hillside…So started looking in ’85, bought the property in ‘89, got our vines out of quarantine in ’92. Finally had enough vines to start planting in ‘94…then it takes three years for those vines to produce their first crop. So, we had our first grapes in ‘97, then it takes a year to make your white wines and two years to make your reds wines. So we were already 12 or 13 years into it before we had any wine.”
Jordan and I were a bit stunned. “I’m stressed out just by thinking about it,” Jordan laughed.
“I saw the original business plan for the property. It called for the vineyard to break-even for a year…the first time in year 14…we missed it by a year, we finally did it in year 15…A lot of what we were doing was trying to be uncompromising about the choices we made upfront. We didn’t want to buy an established vineyard, because no one had exactly the grapes we wanted to work with. We didn’t want to start out buying grapes…we didn’t want to farm conventionally, we wanted to farm organically and again, that takes more time. But we tried to look at it from the perspective of, “OK, 30 years down the road, what will we wish we would have done?” My dad who started this when he was, he is 82 now, so he was in his 60’s when he started, he is fond of telling me, ‘I didn’t make this for me, I didn’t even make this for you, I made this for your kids.’…It’s something that is going to go down in the family for generations, hopefully.”
What does “sustainability” mean at Tablas Creek?
For us, the way that we farm is determined by our desire to make wines that kind of have our fingerprints off of them as much as possible. We feel like the best wines that we can make are the ones where you taste the place most clearly. One of the ways that we help allow the vines to taste like place is to avoiding putting stuff on them from the outside. Farming organically is a piece of doing that. We don’t want to add fertilizers and herbicides, and pesticides, because all of that is going to contribute to this sort of genericness of the grapes that are produced. the more we force the vines struggle with the elements that are here, and get their roots down really deep, develop resistance to the things that are naturally in the vineyard, the more distinctive they are going to be.”
So in other words, you occupy a unique space, but if you were to apply those other techniques, it would be in essence providing the same conditions duplicated in other places?
“That’s the same thing with the way we make the wine. It’s why we don’s use a lot of new oak, it’s why we use native yeast…the yeast are apart of this place. The oak is oak, these are trees that came from the forests of France. It’s the same trees you would be using if you were in Napa, or Bordeaux, or in Paso Robles. So if you layer this heavy dose of oak, it’s going to mask whatever uniqueness you have to a greater or lesser extent.”
Is “sustainability” going to be the future of wine?
It is going to be one future. I don’t know that it’s going to be the only future or the future of the majority of wine…It’s like the rest of culture, people are more and more conscious about the impacts of the ways they choose to live or the way they choose to work. I don’t think that’s going away …There are advantages, grapes are one of the easiest agriculture products to farm organically…they do best in soils that are relatively weak in nutrition anyway. You think of where they were first planted…they were being planted in places where the soils were too poor and the conditions were to rugged to plant things you could actually eat…it does its best in places that are kind of fringy anyway. So you don’t need to pack it full with lots of nutrition. There aren’t a lot of pests…You have it pretty easy if you want to farm grapes without a lot of chemical inputs, but that doesn’t mean people are going to necessarily do it.”
For me, the piece of the winemaking process I enjoy most is the blending process, because that’s the point in which you go from having potential to having actual. Up until that point you have components….but you don’t have a wine. I mean, yes it is wine technically, but you don’t have a wine that you are gong to be making and you are going to be marketing…we usually take…there is sort of a week we take to dedicate blending the reds and another week to blending the whites. In those two weeks you go from having anywhere from twenty to a hundred components down to making 5 or 6 blends and a couple of single varietal blends. It’s gone from things that which were theoretical….to things that are basically in their final configuration…and it’s that process that the vintage begins to make sense…During the blending process it stops being scattered and starts being unified …you get a sense of what the vintage is going to be like.”
Who do you look up to in California Wine?
“I think the wineries who have really worked on Estate vineyards and making wines of place in California for a long time. I think Ridge is a total icon of a winery. They make great wine now, they have made great wine for 40 years. I think the have probably been the leading component in vineyard designation in wine in California, they are just a great winery. I think some of the original pioneers in the Rhône movement like Bob Linquist of Qupe. He’s one of the nicest guys in the world, always has time if you have questions. He has been making terrific wines for a long time; his older wines have shown to age really nicely. One of my favorite wines out of California, I sort of stumbled across out of accident…is Varner out of the Santa Cruz Mountains…I think they make one of the best Pinot Noirs in California…I liked the wine first and then learned about what they were doing, and they do a lot of the stuff the same way we do, focus on the vineyard, vineyard is farmed organically…they’re making wines that are going to reflect that place and not their finger prints so much.”
We did not discuss social media when I was with Jason, although I regret it now and originally intended to. In the same way Tablas Creek made quality Rhône wines available to the masses, through social media tools (like Facebook), they offer a behind the scenes look to the world of wine. Jason writes, what some call the best winery blog currently being produced. He possesses a grace with words, both on page and in person. In 2008, Tablas Creek won the best winery blog from the American Wine Blog Awards. What he provides is a window into the world of the winemaker. Offered are not mere rants and anecdotes, but a real insight into the interests, concerns, and passions behind Tablas Creek.
As I took on this project, I did not know entirely what to expect. What I did know is that there would be challenges, insights, and rewards if I followed through. What I had not intended though, was for my understanding of wine to change so quickly and drastically. No one can say what true wine really is, that’s one of the beauties of it. But I can say, that as I meet people such as Jason that what true wine is for me is starting to take shape.
Tablas Creek Vineyard
9339 Adelaida Road
Paso Robles CA 93446