Robert Haas, Founder of Tablas Creek Winery, 1927-2018

I never met Robert Haas.

I had very much hoped I would, at some point, as I continue work on my ongoing Year in the Life of Wine documentary project, which is set at his Tablas Creek vineyard in west Paso Robles.

He died this past weekend at the age of 90.

There have already been several beautiful remembrances of his exceptional life (the best of which, appropriately, is from his son and Tablas Creek General Manager Jason Haas—I highly recommend taking the time to read Jason’s piece about his father’s life, which ranged much more widely than just this storied Paso Robles winery).

But though I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, I have come to know his vineyard and his winery, which both say so much about who he was and what was important to him.

When I started thinking of places I could base a documentary where I could explore and photograph and write about how wine is made, Tablas Creek was my first and only choice because of what I’d come to know of it over preceding years.

It wasn’t just that Haas had a visionary (and, at the time, crazily optimistic) dream of producing high-quality Rhône varieties in California’s Mediterranean climate.  It was also his approach to and sense of responsibility in the way the wine grapes are grown that will be an important part of his legacy.

But first, those wines.

Haas and Tablas Creek probably have more to do with my becoming an evangelically devoted Rhônehead than any other experience I’ve had with wine–an experience that is surely true for legions of other oenophiles who’ve made their way to the Tablas Creek tasting room.  I had turned my nose up at Rhônes for years, preferring the predictable comfort of the Bordeaux varieties I tasted my way through in the early 2000s in Sonoma County.  I found Syrah, especially, too harsh and funky and often just plain weird.  When my husband suggested we check out Tablas Creek a decade ago, it was specifically because of all those Rhône varieties that neither of us had really gotten to know well before.

I’ll save the extended exegesis on what a mind-opening, palate-expanding experience those wines were for me, but they have been critically important in the development of my wine knowledge and preferences.

Over on my documentary website (which I promise I will update soon, because I have a huge backlog of really amazing things to share from Tablas, with much more to come), you can read a quick history of how Haas decided to import Rhône vines from France, patiently waited through the long quarantine period, and ultimately decided to share those vines with other growers.

That decision is part of what cemented his place as an icon in the wine world, and especially in introducing American-grown Rhône wines to American audiences.

Rhône varieties were not that prevalent in California before Haas planted his Tablas Creek vineyard with them, and the clones that were being grown were often not the best quality.  Haas was now making available for anyone else who wanted to purchase them the very best vinestock from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  As a result, hundreds of acres in California are now planted to the Tablas clones.  That’s quite a legacy.

Vineyard marker at Lodi's Acquiesce estate, noting that the vines are Tablas clones.
Vineyard marker at Lodi’s Acquiesce estate, noting that the vines are Tablas clones.

But that’s not the only thing Haas did that captured my interest.

From the very first time I visited, I began learning about Haas’ commitment to caring for the land.  Tablas’ tasting room staff are some of the best-informed and most passionate you’ll find; they understand and are happy to enthusiastically educate visitors on their approach to growing wine grapes—organically, and as of a few months ago, officially certified biodynamically. They care for the land on which their grapes are grown, and it just shines through when you see this up close.

The Tablas Creek farmily.
The Tablas Creek farmily.
Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg checks on the Tablas bee hives.
Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg checks on the Tablas bee hives.

Sustainability is something of great importance to me, and it’s one of the first things that really resonated with me about Tablas (besides the delicious wines).  While I could (and just may, as the end result of my project) write a book on all the things involved in such an approach in a vineyard, you don’t really need to know all that detail to appreciate Haas’ dedication to sustainable practices.  It’s there in the sheep herd and the dry-farmed, head-trained vineyard blocks; it’s there in the wild-caught beehives that dot the vineyard; and it’s there in the great care and love those who work that land have for it.

Sunrise at the vineyard.
Sunrise at the vineyard.

I’ve now spent many mornings all by myself in that vineyard as the sun rose.  That’s my favorite time to observe any landscape, watching it come alive as the dawn first touches here, then there, before bathing the entire scene in soft morning light.  My favorite spot to do so is at the top of a hill behind the winery, under an old oak tree with an owl box, and a big block of Grenache vines spreading out before me.  I always spend a few minutes thinking about how this place must have looked when Haas first saw it—a 120-acre parcel carved out of the dense tangle of chaparral and scrub oak and rolling green hills of west Paso.

What a vision that must have been, and what vision it must have taken to dream of what now stands there.

Some photos from California’s 2017 harvest

Just because California (mostly) broke its five-year drought this year did not mean it was a perfect year for growing winegrapes.  Growers dealt with devastating floods early in the season–leaving some of Lodi’s most storied vineyards submerged in water until early summer!–and an unprecedented heat spike just as harvest began, with almost two weeks of 100-plus-degree days across the state (which made for an all-hands-on-deck kind of insanity for a while with seemingly everything coming in at once).  And then there were the devastating wildfires that tore through Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties at the end of harvest (which reminds me–have you bought your 2018 California Wine Country calendar yet? $5 from each sale goes to fire relief in those counties).

Still, reports from across the state show that it’s been a pretty good year with a harvest that has most winemakers looking very positively on the results of the 2017 vintage.

We’ll have to wait a while longer to taste these wines, so until then enjoy some images from this year’s harvest.

Harvested grapes arrive at the winery, ready for the winemaker to work his magic.
Harvested grapes arrive at the winery, ready for the winemaker to work his magic.
A portrait of the historic Bechthold Cinsault vines
A portrait of the historic Bechthold Cinsault vines
At work before dawn for the last day of harvest at Tablas Creek
At work before dawn for the last day of harvest at Tablas Creek
No-longer-used grape boxes at Jessie's Grove Winery
No-longer-used grape boxes at Jessie’s Grove Winery
Freshly hand-harvested Grenache clusters
Freshly hand-harvested Grenache clusters
Out of the microbin, into the macrobin
Out of the microbin, into the macrobin
Hand harvesting the last of the Tannat on some of the steepest slopes at Tablas Creek.
Hand harvesting the last of the Tannat on some of the steepest slopes at Tablas Creek.
Ivy and old barn, Jessie's Grove Winery
Ivy and old barn, Jessie’s Grove Winery
Tannat clusters on vines already changing into their fall colors
Tannat clusters on vines already changing into their fall colors
Winemaker Mike McCay checks out the spent grapes fresh out of the press
Winemaker Mike McCay checks out the spent grapes fresh out of the press
Moody skies over vine in their autumn attire in west Paso Robles
Moody skies over vines in their autumn attire in west Paso Robles
Post-harvest sunset at Bokisch Vineyards
Post-harvest sunset at Bokisch Vineyards
Perfect Grenache clusters awaiting harvest
Perfect Grenache clusters awaiting harvest at Heritage Oak
Roussane drying on straw for Tablas Creek's amazing Vin de Paille
Roussane drying on straw for Tablas Creek’s amazing Vin de Paille
Evening light on the vineyards at Kukkula Winery in west Paso Robles
Evening light on the vineyards at Kukkula Winery in west Paso Robles

Getting my feet wet

As I work my way through some preliminary and background posts in my Year in the Life of Wine project, this early work is as much for my own edification as it is my audience’s–and it’s got some fun photographic challenges.

I wanted to do some light coverage of this year’s harvest to feature in these preliminary posts, and that would mean shooting when they harvest at Tablas Creek.  They harvest at night.  And that is a tough thing to shoot–action shots in almost total darkness?  Hey, I’m always up for improving my skill set–and will need to if I’m going to shoot this intensively next fall.  First, thank goodness for cameras that perform well in low light.  That helps a great deal.  As for the rest?  Jump in the deep end of that figurative pool and get to work.

Macro bins full of Mourvèdre as day breaks at Tablas Creek
Macro bins full of Mourvèdre as day breaks at Tablas Creek

The payoff is that it gave me a much-needed handle on how to approach this kind of vineyard photography, and got the creative wheels turning as I think about interesting ways to photograph things next fall now that I have a feel for the technical requirements.

I may have nibbled a few Mourvèdre grapes (Counoise, too), and discovered that grape juice mud is a thing in dusty vineyards.  And it’s sticky stuff.  I was impressed again with the hard work and skill of the harvest crew (all of whom were so incredibly lovely to hang out with as they worked and I shot).

And, most of all, I’m excited to taste the wines that are made from these grapes I followed over the course of a night and morning.  I’m already a fan of Mourvèdre generally, and Tablas Creek’s is one of the best I’ve had.

So.  Never been present for a night harvest?  Go take a look right here, in that case.  Later this week: back at the winery with the fruit from the night’s harvest.

 

So I have this little project. It involves wine.

A few months before I started this blog, I was working away on a proposal for a new documentary project.  (If you’ve not read the “about” page here, you may not know that I’m a nature photographer!)  In fact, that proposal is what led me to create the wine-stained lens blog as an ancillary pursuit.

My previous documentary project, the Owens Lake Project, concluded for the most part after six-plus years.  While there will be some ongoing work for years to come, the major work on the project is finished.  Since I like to have a personal photography project going at all times, I wanted to jump right into something new as soon as possible.

The idea I’d kicked around for a few years–and what I finally decided upon–was an in-depth, year-long look at the winemaking process from grape to bottle.  A year in the life of wine, if you will.

logoThis project will be a slight shift away from prior work (conservation photography) in that it will involve writing as much as it would photography–but photography is still the primary focus.

Centered completely at the estate of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, home to some of the most stunning Chateauneuf-du-Pape style wines produced in the new world, The Life of Wine will take an up-close, in-depth look at a year in the life of the vineyard.  Follow along now with the introductory posts, setting the stage for the “new year” in the vineyard, which for our purposes will begin following this fall’s harvest as the vines go into dormancy.  We will go from dormancy to bud break to the end of next year’s harvest, with a parallel look at what’s going on in the winery lab and barrel room as the current harvest begins its next phase of life.

Tablas Creek Vineyard
Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek is a pretty special place, and I’m honored they’re allowing me to tell this story through their vines and wines.  I’m excited about showing you this life, and hope you’ll follow along over the next year.

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