One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive at Tablas Creek Winery’s tasting room is the directional sign that stands outside the front door. It points to the vineyard itself (9 yds to the left) and then in the opposite direction toward its partner, Domaine de Beaucastel, 9009 km away–a symbolic representation of its partnership with the Perrin Family of the prestigious winery in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And when you decide to partner with such a respected house to establish a winery on US soil, not only are expectations high, but the inevitable comparisons tend to follow. Robert Haas, importer and founder of Vineyard Brands did just that in 1989 with the Perrin family and the result is Tablas Creek, a winery making impressive wines that more than stand on their own merit.
The relationship between the Perrin family and Robert Haas started two decades before the founding of Tablas Creek, with Robert as their importer. For years both parties believed that California had potential in terms of both the climate and soil to grow Rhône varietals of distinct quality. They ultimately found the terroir they were looking for in west Paso Robles and purchased 120 acres in the ‘Las Tablas’ district to start their new venture. The climate was similar to that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but it was the soil that sealed the deal. They found limestone-rich, calcareous soil almost identical to what Chateau de Beaucastel built its reputation on. In fact, while touring the winery, you can see exposed slopes bearing the rich limestone foundation that attracted them.
With a strong belief that great grapes make great wine, the Perrins imported the 9 main varietals from their vineyards in the Southern Rhône: Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, Counoise and Picpoul Blanc. According to the winery this diversity allows them to “…replicate the clonal selection of an established French vineyard.” They did this not only to ensure quality but also because some of these varietals simply didn’t exist in the United States, let alone California.
The winery then created its own nursery to multiply, graft and prepare the vinifera for planting in the vineyard as well as making it available for sale to interested growers. Producers who have planted Tablas Creek clones read like a who’s who in the industry—L’Aventure, McCrea, Bonny Doon, Qupé, and Ridge, just to name a few.
To prevent the high probability of phylloxera (a common insect problem as a result of planting French vines in US soil), Tablas Creek grafted all their French vines with American rootstock. Their onsite grafting machine cuts an omega shape into both the vine and the rootstock resulting in a much higher rate of success.
What is evident while touring around the winery is the emphasis on quality and sustainability throughout all aspects of the property. Marketing Coordinator Lauren Phelps, tells us they have been Certified Organic since 2003 and are influenced by the Beaucastel example in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Like their French partner, they don’t use any pesticides and do use considerable composting. Lauren further explains that they started biodynamic farming practices in 2010 which is easily illustrated by the herd of sheep and the Alpacas that live on the property!
The winery is largely powered by the solar panels outside and there’s not a plastic bottle to be seen. They opt instead to offer visitors the use of environmentally friendly water bottles for free to minimize hazardous waste and encourage recycling. A relatively small but symbolic gesture reflecting the importance at every level to respect the environment and ensure they are doing everything they possibly can to minimize their carbon footprint.
At Tablas Creek, while finding the right terroir was the first major component of their winemaking philosophy, reflecting this ‘sense of place’ in their finished wines is the second. Only native yeasts are used in fermentation, and each grape varietal is fermented separately before being blended in the traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape method. All pruning and harvesting of the vines is done by hand with the vines more spaced out, resulting in less yields but higher quality fruit. For some of the vines they use the ‘Goblet’ pruning method from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Gobelet vines are so-named because they end up goblet-shaped, with the stock resembling the stem and cordons and leaves curve upwards in a shape that resembles a goblet. This type of vine training is used in very warm and dry areas as this system allows the plants to better survive the more extreme hot and arid conditions.
The winery divides their wines into 3 categories. Patelin de Tablas represents their every day, value wines that are ready to drink. The red is based on Syrah and the white on Grenache Blanc from both their own estate along with fruit purchased from other vineyards in Paso Robles. The second category is their Côtes de Tablas, wines which are a little more complex and will evolve over the next few years. The red is based on Grenache while the white is based on Viognier. And finally, Tablas’ top tier category, Esprit de Tablas, consists of their signature red and white Rhône blends. The red is based on Mourvèdre and the white is based on Roussanne. These are the wines you want to leave in the back of the cellar and forget about for several years!
Their tasting room was recently expanded and has a large open format layout including large windows throughout offering a peek inside their winemaking process. We happened to be there during harvest which made for a terrific experience tasting through their outstanding lineup of wines while at the same time watching the grapes being brought in and sorted.
Partner and General Manager of the winery (and son of founding partner Robert), Jason Haas explained to us that when they produced their first vintage in 1997, the winery’s biggest challenge was educating consumers about Rhône varietals in a region unfamiliar with grapes other than Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “You’d look on the shelves and even the sellers would have a tough time knowing where to put them. This category of wine simply didn’t exist in California.”
Today, not only are you likely to find Rhône varietals amongst most of the growers, the region itself has become known for producing some of the best in the world, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Tablas Creek and the influence of Chateau de Beaucastel. And while that influence has certainly brought with it a heavy responsibility, the wines Tablas Creek are producing clearly demonstrate that they have successfully stepped out from their French partner’s shadow and are creating a reputation of their own to make their Châteauneuf-du-Pape family proud.
This medium bodied Rosé has a rich mouthfeel with lots of strawberry on the nose and palate. Its fuller style balances out nicely with some great acidity and minerality producing a nice long, crisp finish. Terrific value!
Very Good + – USD$27 at the winery
A traditional southern Rhone varietal used more frequently as blending grape, this was our first time tasting it on its own. Lauren explained it’s known for its bright acidity and minerality and that came through in spades. Acidic with citrus notes of grapefruit but also some pineapple came through to round it out. We could easily enjoy this on a warm, sunny afternoon.
Excellent (wine club member exclusive)
Green apple and pear on the nose and a lovely juicy acidity, this wine also has the body to back it up. This is a big, creamy white that had a lot going on. Would love to re-visit this in a year or two.
Excellent – USD$27 at the winery
If you’re a Grenache fan, you will love this wine. The nose revealed classic old world earthy, peppery and savoury notes with a fruit forward palate that was superbly balanced. A lush, soft mouthfeel and long finish suggests it’s going to age well.
Excellent – USD$35 at the winery
This wine is the quintessential example of balance. Rich, smooth, and creamy yet not overdone in any way. Butter, cream, and honey notes in perfect harmony with stone fruit and mineral. Drinking beautifully now, it demonstrates an enormous amount of complexity so it will definitely age well.
Extraordinary – USD$45 at the winery
A big, structured wine revealing a nice proportion of fruit, earth and spice notes. A medium plus body with a rich mouthfeel and a very long finish, yet still incredibly elegant for a wine with this much power.
Excellent + – USD$55 at the winery
Amazing what a difference a year makes! Quite different to the 2012 yet similar in its meatiness and minerality. Full bodied yet elegant, this wine’s complexity revealed something different with each sniff and swirl. This is one of those wines you wish you had a case of to taste its evolution through several years!
Extraordinary – USD$60 at the winery