Dec 20, 2016
Organic techniques aid award-winning winery
Ana Olvera

The mantelpiece over the Tablas Creek Vineyard fireplace is crowded with trophies attesting to the fact that while some vintners make wine, Tablas Creek Vineyard makes award-winning wine. Repeatedly.

Nestled in a 120-acre organic estate in the hills surrounding Paso Robles, California, the warm days and cool nights work hand-in-hand with the care and professionalism of the growers responsible for Rhone varietals, reds like Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache Noir and Counoise, with whites including Roussane, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Picpoul.

“Great wines can only come from great grapes,” said Vineyard Manager Neil Collins of Bristol, England, who has overseen both the organic vineyard and the winery since 1998. “The art of winemaking is founded on starting out with the very best grapes and bringing their juice through fermentation as naturally as possible.”

The winery emphasizes long-term vine health through cover cropping, mulching and other practices.

As the executive winemaker, Collins said his goal in winemaking, as in the vineyard, is “to minimize what we have to put on from the outside and allow the maximum expression of character-of-place from the vineyard itself. We believe minimum human intervention in our winemaking preserves the wine’s link to its place of origin, it maximizes the expression of our terroir, and we try to keep our fingerprints off our young wines.”

To do so, they farm organically (since 2003), with a viticulture that emphasizes dry farming and long-term vine health through cover cropping, mulching and moderate crop levels. Incorporating biodynamic techniques, they’ve converted 20 acres to that concept and use a mobile herd of sheep, alpacas and their two guard donkeys to eat down a winter cover crop and then fertilize the fields to maintain the status quo.

“The way we did it isn’t the way it normally works for a domestic winery. In our case, there was a huge amount of background work done – about four years of preparation – before we ever put our first vine in the ground,” said partner and General Manager Jason Haas. “We knew we wanted to bring southern Rhone varieties to southern California, but we didn’t know where, and we searched from Mendocino down to Ventura County before we settled here.”

Fromt let, Jean-Pierre Perrin, Fracois Perrin, Robert Haas and Barbara Haas, co-founders and co-owners of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California.

The backstory involves two families and a decades-long friendship – the fifth generation Penn family of Chateau de Beaucastel and the family of long-time importer Robert Hass. Initially working together as importer and producer, it was their shared conviction that the central coast of California was a perfect location for traditional varieties of the southern Rhone, a mutual belief that culminated in a partnership in 1985 that applies generations of experience in France’s Rhone region with America’s fine wine market.

The elder Hass, managing partner of Tablas Creek since its founding in 1989, has played a significant role in the domestic fine wine industry for over half a century. The Yale graduate began as a retailer of fine wines and spirits in New York before setting out on his own to import estate wines consistently speaking in favor of organic viticulture, minimum-intervention winemaking and the production of wines of terroir and sophistication. In recognition of his contributions as importer, vintner and advocate for quality, he is one of four American members of the Academie International due Vin and previously served as president.

Each vineyard block is hand harvested, typically with two to four passes during harvest.

Son Jason began his work career with a Cornell degree in archaeology before opting to join Tablas Creek in 2002, where he oversees business operations and marketing efforts. He was voted by his peers as Paso Robles Wine Country Wine Industry Person of the Year in 2015.

Awards and accolades have been consistent. The California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance awarded Tablas Creek a 2016 Green Medal for its sustainable field practices.

The lead grape in the Esprit de Tables category of signature red and white Rhone blends is the company’s Mourvedre, what the growers call “our most important and most planted grape” grown on 26 percent of their 105 planted acres and accounting for about 5 percent of the total Mourvedre acreage in all of California.

Mourvedre, black and dark purple in color, offers wine aficionados “structure, backbone, and aging potential.” The Tablas Creek Vineyard web page describes it as having “a taste of ripe plum and strawberries with animal flavors and a hint of mushrooms when young (but) changing in taste to leather and truffles as it ages.”

One of the reasons Tablas Creek has been so successful is not only what they grow, but how they grow it, with minimal human intervention.

Tablas Creek Vineyard uses a herd of sheep, alpacas and two guard donkeys to eat down winter cover crops and fertilize the fields.

“Each vineyard block is selectively hand-harvested, typically with two to four passes during harvest,” Collins said. “All our wines are fermented with native yeasts. Whites are whole cluster pressed with juice fermented in French oak barrels. Red grapes are sorted and destemmed, with juice and whole berries moved to 1,500-gallon wooden or stainless steel fermenters with the must pumped, punched and inundated twice a day before being pressed, blended and aged for a year in large French oak foudres.”

“Our success can be attributed to sweating the details,” Haas said. “We took the time to find the right spot to grow in, we brought cuttings from France … nine grapes not seen before in California. We had the luxury of being able to think long-term about the project right from the beginning.

“There are still some grapes that are not yet in production and they are in our future,” he said.

Toward that end, the company purchased an additional 150 acres in 2011 it has not started planting yet.

“We’re hoping to plant 10 acres this winter and then developing an additional five acres per year after that,” he said. “We want to have enough capacity so we don’t run out, but we don’t want our production to grow faster than our sales.”

— Lee Allen, FGN Correspondent

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