Of America’s up-and-coming wine regions, Paso Robles seems to be gaining quite a lot of recognition.
Hauling a yellow bin filled with grapes, Justin Smith of Saxum graces the cover of Wine Spectator, reaping the benefits of having his wine named Wine of the Year. The cover story article chronicles his ascent to stardom, tracing his expertise in the vineyard and the cellar back to his days working in his father’s vineyard.
Another article in the same issue profiles other newcomer winemakers in the area, who are putting their collective thumbprint on the area’s prowess for Rhone styled wines. So while the coverage will undoubtedly bring a fair amount of recognition to the region, it begs the question: how did Paso Robles arrive at this point? That is, who laid the groundwork for this new generation of winemakers?
While there are certainly numerous entrepreneurs and innovators to thank, one of the key players in the rise of Paso Robles is Robert Haas of Tablas Creek Vineyards. How a kid from New York City came to influence an entire Californian AVA is quite an interesting story and we were lucky enough to learn about it from the man himself on a sunny Californian day amongst the vines that he first planted.
After returning from duty in the Navy following World War II, Robert decided to attend college at Yale University. After studying a bit of everything, as the eighty-year old likes to say, he decided to take a job with his father’s import company, M Lehmann Inc., in New York City. The recipient of the twelfth license given by the city after Prohibition, the Manhattan based retail company specialized in selling fine wines and spirits. Shortly after he began helping his father, they lost their employee who was in charge of buying French wines. It was Robert’s job to find his replacement.
Off to France he went, with a mission to find a suitable replacement to continue the supply of the best French wine for his father’s company. As he roamed the countryside, he also met with winemakers and vineyard owners to not only represent the company, but to assure current suppliers that they would continue to buy wine from them. The more he traveled, the more he liked talking to proprietors and buying their wine. So after traveling all over France and searching tirelessly for a French buyer, he eventually found the man for the job: himself.
It was during this period that Robert met Jacques Perrin, owner of Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Rhone region. The two struck up a quick friendship that Robert reminisces was similar to a father-son relationship, one that was as solid as it was unexpected. Under Jacques’ wing, Robert toured the whole of the Rhone and began to see who was making the highest quality wines and the techniques they were using to make them.
After his Rhone experience and travels in France, Robert began to grow less enamored with the retail side of the business and more intrigued with the import side of things. So in 1955 he opened Leeds Import Corporation and began to sell wines throughout the United States. Throughout the years of criss-crossing the country, he maintained his tightly knit relationship with the Perrin family, which would serve both well.
It was in 1987 that the two families decided to take on a joint venture and plant vineyards stateside. The only question was where. The obvious choice was Napa Valley, established as a producer of fine wines for a couple of decades. Yet the fertile soil north of the San Francisco Bay wasn’t what the entrepreneurs were looking for. They were searching for a location similar to Chateau de Beaucastel where they would have success with the classic Rhone varietals grown there. The quest to find a suitable site took them from the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in the north all the way down to Ventura County near Los Angeles in the south. It was in 1989 that they finally found a place for their vines to thrive: Paso Robles. Twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean lay the 120-acre parcel of land with calcareous soil high in pH levels, similar to the Perrin’s land back in France. The climate was, of course, quite suitable for the varietals they had in mind as the hot, sunny summer days and cool nights allowed for the grapes to ripen fully while maintaining sufficient acidity levels to achieve balance in their wines.
So now that they had the land to plant their vineyard, the decision of where to get the actual vines to grow the grapes had to be made. Because they were using Beaucastel as a template to create a similar environment in California, they decided to import cuttings from the French vineyard. Unfortunately, the expediency of planting them in the vineyard was slowed by the USDA’s three year certification program, which had to verify that the plants were disease free. Although some of the vines did not survive the less than ideal conditions in quarantine, the ones that made it to Tablas Creek were then used to not only plant the vineyard but to foster a nursery program as well.
Upon receiving them in California, Tablas Creek then began to propagate the vines in their greenhouse, to not only reach the goal of having 110 acres planted on their own property, but to offer others in the region with authentic Rhone vines. As the vineyards proved to be quite suitable for the varietals planted, their neighbors began to take notice and came to Tablas Creek for vine material. Before long, the demand had increased to a point that the Greenhouse operation became burdensome and distracted the families on what they really wanted to focus on: growing grapes and making wine. So after turning over the vine duplication aspect of the business to NovaVine, they continued to organically grow grapes (certified in 2003) and make acid-driven wines.
As with the majority of the decisions made at Tablas Creek in the beginning, the model for their wines would be the highly successful French winery of Chateauneuf Du Pape. Blends would be the rule while single varieties the exception as the focus would be leading with a specific variety and using other grapes to balance them, leaving the final product rich and complex. The lineup now includes three different tiers of blends as well as small productions of single varietals with limited release.
So as more and more attention is paid to the latest winemakers and their high scoring wines, it is noteworthy to think that it may never have been possible without the foresight of their predecessors. As the critics continue to laud these new vintners, most often deservedly, it is interesting to observe that the fruit they have used to create their masterpieces were propagated by some of those first vines imported over twenty years ago. I think the kid from New York deserves a bit of credit too.