One week from today, wine scribes from across North America will gather in the Paso Robles region of California for the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference pre-conference excursion. Sponsored by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, the pre-conference excursion will provide participants an educational two-day immersion into the Paso Robles AVA.
The pre-conference Paso excursion will include a tasting and lunch at one of the most notable wineries in the region — Tablas Creek Vineyard.
In this third installment of the series of interviews intended to introduce Wine Bloggers Conference attendees to the wines, wineries and winegrowers they may meet during the conference, we visit with Jason Haas of Tablas Creek.
I reconnected with Jason last month at the Rhone Rangers tasting in Washington, DC, where we talked a little about the WBC pre-conference visit to Tablas Creek. Based on our conversation, this group of wine bloggers is in for a memorable experience.
Your family and Tablas Creek play an important role in the California wine narrative. Tell us about your background.
I grew up around wine, with a dad who was a wine importer. When I was little, the whole family went with him on his twice-annual month-long trips to France, and I grew up playing with the kids of his proprietors. A little later, in high school and college, I tended to get sent to France to work at a vineyard (most often Beaucastel, since the Perrins had kids my own age, and they and my dad were close) for the summer when I didn’t have other plans. So, I grew up in it. I don’t have formal winemaking training, and I’m not in fact our winemaker, though I get involved at the evaluation and blending stages, and have to know enough to set the right strategy and evaluate the progress and choices of our team.
Describe your winegrowing philosophy?
We inherit many things from our partnership with Beaucastel, chiefly that we should do everything we can to make sure that whatever character of place we can pull out of the soils has the chance to express itself in our wines. That dictates most of our practical choices: to focus on wines of balance more than wines of sheer power, to farm organically and biodynamically, to dry-farm, to ferment using native yeasts and larger/older rather than smaller/newer barrels. Blending is also a key piece of what we believe, for several reasons. It is traditional with the Rhone grapes we grow; it tends to be how they’re happiest, as each shores up weaknesses and emphasizes strengths in the others; it allows us to make wines that are better balanced and more consistent from vintage to vintage; and by de-emphasizing the signature flavors of any individual grape, it emphasizes the character of place, which all the grapes share.
How has the wine narrative in California, and the larger wine world, changed since your first vintage?
I think that the narrative has gotten a lot friendlier to what we do. The American wine consuming public is more knowledgeable, more experimental, and more open than ever before, which benefits us residents of less-established categories and less iconic regions. I remember visiting restaurants and wine shops in the early days of Tablas Creek (this would be right around the turn of the millennium) and having them look genuinely baffled as they asked where I thought they should put this wine from a new producer, made from a blend of grapes that they didn’t much know, from a region they had barely heard of, on their shelves and wine lists. That just doesn’t happen much any more.
What is the one myth about wine that you would like to see ended?
Oh, man, there are so many. Maybe the one that gets me the most is that there is the customer shouldn’t be let behind the curtain: that there are trade secrets and wine is best left mysterious. I’ve always believed in being open about what you do and how you do it, and in demystifying the process and the choices that you make as a winery. That’s one of the reasons that I started the Tablas Creek blog (http://tablascreek.typepad.com) and one of its greatest values to us: that we invite people behind that curtain, into the winery, the vineyard, and our marketing discussions, and share with them what we’re excited about, what makes us mad, and what keeps us up at night. I always feel that this is the best way to make long-term converts, and best in the long run for the wine community as a whole.
The Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC) is a fast-paced, wine-soaked weekend with many wines, stories and experiences. What would you like WBC attendees to know about you, your wines, and/or your winery?
That we make real wines that try to be as true to the grapes and the land as we can.
What do you hope to gain from the WBC pre-conference excursion experience?
I always try to get people out to the winery, and this is a great chance to get a large group of influential, enthusiastic people to visit. We’re also sharing this visit with other Paso Robles producers of Rhone varieties, and I hope that everyone who comes leaves with a better understanding of the vibrancy of the Rhone Rangers movement, and of Paso Robles’ place at its epicenter.
What wines will you be sharing with the WBC group during the pre-conference excursion? Why did you select these particular wines to share at the conference?
We’ll share our flagships (the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc) because they’re the best things we make. We’ll probably also pick out a few things that we’re guessing people have never had before (maybe a varietal Terret Noir, or Clairette Blanche, which we just bottled today from the first American harvest of each grape) because we take seriously our mission to carry the standard for the Rhone movement, and feel that importing and sharing these new grapes are a part of continuing to build that movement’s momentum.
What is the most exciting grape variety you work with, and why?
I think that what is exciting is that we have a variety of grapes to work with. In different years, different grapes shine. That we get to experiment with grapes like Terret Noir, where our half-acre planting from 2011 is the world’s first in some half a century, is incredibly fulfilling. Will all these grapes be great? Of course not. But some, I’m sure, will be terrific, and show in ways that they don’t in France. Picpoul, Counoise, and Grenache Blanc all show aspects of their California personality quite differently than they do in the Rhone, and it’s been a fascinating process to get to know each of them here. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche are just the first two of our last wave of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes, which also includes Picardan, Bourboulenc, Muscardin, Vaccarese and Cinsaut, all of which we’ll be getting to know in the next five years.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making wine?
I was managing a tech company before I moved out to join the family business, so maybe that? Or maybe teaching, which I did for a while and still love to do when the occasion presents itself. Or maybe architecture, which I studied as an undergrad, and whose combination of vision and precision I have always found appealing.
What vintners or regions do you look to for inspiration (and favorite wines)?
I grew up surrounded by European wines, and I am still inspired by wines where I feel I can taste the land in the wines. This leads me toward regions like Burgundy, Chablis and the Loire, toward German Rieslings, toward Rhone reds. And I spend plenty of time wines from our own neighborhood. But the thing I like best about wine is that it’s not a zero-sum game, and you can enjoy it for its diversity. It’s not like buying a car, where if you buy a Subaru you’re not also buying that Mazda. One exciting wine often leads to the next discovery, and it’s that process of exploration that I find the most appealing.
What is the worst (wine related) mistake you’ve ever made?
We started Tablas Creek without a marketing plan, and assumed that because Beaucastel was always in demand so would we be. It took us years to correct this initial mistake, and led to some dicey times at the beginning as we had to reinvent our marketing almost from scratch, doing things five years in that we should have done at the beginning: opening a tasting room, starting a wine club, going out and participating in events where we could meet the public, working with our distributors so we could meet the trade, and making a conscious outreach to media, who are often the gateway to both. Should we have done all this in 1997 rather than 2002? Absolutely. But we made it work.
What wine do you not currently make but would like to? (or, what variety do you not currently grow but would like to)?
I think we’re doing well at getting access to the grapes that we would like to work with but haven’t yet. That said, were we in a different climate, and with different partners, I’d love to be able to work with Riesling. It’s a grape I find so compelling: rich but vibrant, expressive of soils, viable in a wide range of styles, and amazingly ageworthy. But, not realistic in Paso Robles, or relevant for who we are at Tablas Creek.
What did you drink last night?
A margarita at Villa Creek Restaurant. They have a great wine list, but their margaritas are the stuff of local legend, and for a quick dinner with the kids, it hit the spot.
Thank you Jason for your time and insights.
Please check back on Saturday for our next winemaker interview — Steve Fennell, winemaker at Sanford Winery & Vineyards.