Tablas Creek: Bringing a Rhône Revolution to California's Central Coast

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch
Tablas Creek is a 120-acre vineyard situated just twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean, on the westside of Paso Robles, California (just Paso to the locals). The vineyard focuses on Rhône-based blends common to the centuries-old Châteauneuf du Pape appellation. They also dry-farm their grapes, use native yeasts and are organically certified; they create wine with an overwhelming sense of place, better known as terroir.
The vineyard is a partnership between the Perrin family, proprietors of Château de Beaucastel (organic since the 60s), and wine-connoisseur Robert Hass. And it is of no surprise that Beaucastel is best known for its Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. The appellation is the most renowned in Southern France's Rhône region. Hass, a Yale graduate, has been helping Americans drink fine wine since 1950, when he joined his father's Manhattan store that sold wine and spirits.

In 1973, Hass started his own business importing fine estate wines where he eventually became the exclusive American importer for Beaucastel, and good friends with the Perrin family. In 1985 they decided to bring Beaucastel to the New World. Well, at least the California-shaped part of the New World.

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

It took them four years to find a piece of land worthy of being a sister property for three requirements that had to be met: the climate had to be Mediterranean-like, there must be enough rainfall to dry-farm, and the soil had to be similar in composition to Beaucastel.

It had to be hot and sunny, but not too hot. There's only a two-month difference between when the first Rhône variety is picked and the last--Viognier is picked first and Mourvèdre last. Other varieties grown by Tablas Creek include Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, and Grenache Blanc. Paso can afford such diversity due to its late rainy season and because nighttime temperatures dip thanks to the nearby Pacific Ocean.

In France, they cannot grow all of those varieties in the same place (neener neener!).

Who'll Start the Rain

Secondly, there must be enough rainfall to dry-farm. However, the infrastructure for irrigating is in place. Paso has its dry years. When extra water is required, vineyards are only irrigated once or twice at the beginning of the summer. In contrast, conventional farming in California irrigates every two weeks.

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

"We're basically trying to mimic the natural patters as much as possible," explains Jason Hass, Robert Hass' son and Tablas Creek's General Manager.

It encourages the same root system as dry-farming. Vines are forced to work hard, pushing their roots deep into the bedrock where you'll get the most character out of the grapes. Over-watered vines only root within the topsoil, creating grapes with a higher sugar content and subsequently a higher alcohol content. Higher alcohol means lower acidity and much less interesting wine. That is, unless you're just looking to get tanked.

Lastly, they wanted a rocky limestone soil like that of Beaucastel, something that is quite rare in California. The marine sediment acts as a sponge, which is important for dry-farming. Paso is home to the largest exposed band of limestone in California.

It was some time before Tablas Creek began selling wine. They cloned their vines from the French estate. The first vines were imported in January of 1990, where they underwent a USDA-mandated three-year quarantine. It then took another two years to ready them for planting and three more years for the first yield.

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

The vineyard has been organic since day one but Tablas Creek received its official certification in January of 2003.

Biodynamic Curious

Cover crops are used as insectaries throughout the vineyard, they also help prevent soil erosion and add nutrients. A mixture of sweet peas, oats, vetch and clover is used. Vetch is an aggressive ground cover that helps keep erosion down during the area's rainy season. In the spring, when the crop is plowed, sweet peas fix nitrogen back into the soil. The clover is basically an insect safe-house. It attracts beneficials like ladybugs and lacewings.

Compost made from vine cuttings, leaves, stems, grape skins and seeds, is returned to the field as either fertilizer or compost tea. The tea is sprayed directly onto the leaves and grapes to help combat mildew.

"Compost tea out-competes the mildew spores. If you already have mildew you cannot do anything [with compost tea] but if you apply it regularly, it stops mildew from showing up," explains Jason.

Last winter, Tablas Creek began farming 20 of its 120 acres biodynamically, just as an experiment. In addition to their regular organic methods, they now prune based on the lunar calendar. Biodynamic preparations are also used which are either compost-based, mineral-based or manure-based.

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

Currently, half of the vineyard's power comes from solar. They hope to be 100% solar-powered by next summer when the new tasting room is finished. When the vineyard was built, a tasting room wasn't initially part of the plan as Tablas considered that to be hospitality. They're focus was wine, just wine--a sensibility that is very, very French. Unfortunately, the vineyard is located in California. Freedom wine!

Wetlands were added to the vineyard back in 2007. While dry-farming cuts down water usage in the field, wineries still have to wash everything several times. Waste water from washing ends up in the ponds where it is then clean and filtered.

Red, Red Wine

To truly understand the magic of Tablas Creek, named after the creek that runs through the vineyard, you just have to taste the wine. While they do a few single varieties, it's their blends that are pure witchcraft.

One of my favorites is the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel. It's sexy, a temptress swirling with grilled figs, plum and spice. With just one kiss sip, you'll be spellbound. I'm convinced Neil Diamond had this wine in mind when he sang Red, Red Wine. In contrast, the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is heavenly and lambent, as if it's a shoulder angle to the '06's more wicked ways. It's dripping with honey and just enough floral notes to add texture without getting perfumey. Halo aside, this wine is no pushover. Lemon zest and slight tropical notes keep it fresh and lively.

Jason unveiled a bit about the winemaking process with respect to their 2006 Syrah: "We blend Grenache and Syrah. They are yin and yang for each other, each has something that the other one needs. Grenache has the acidity that Syrah needs. It's like squeezing a lemon onto your food, you don't necessarily taste the lemon but it enhances the flavors. It [the flavors] becomes more apparent because the acid is raised just a little bit. Grenache can taste sweet whereas Syrah can cut that sweetness."

A bottle will set you back somewhere between $20 and $50, depending on the wine. You can buy them online at tablascreek.com. It's worth mentioning that they just shifted to a lightweight wine bottle that uses a pound less of glass per bottle resulting in 60,000 fewer pounds of glass used every year.

"We were thinking it [the bigger bottle] was a luxury sports car but really it's just a hummer," he joked. The older, bloated bottle is pictured below on the left.

Use less glass, fine, just as long as they don't skimp on the wine!

Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch

Visit TreeHugger's Green Wine Guide for more green wineries, recipes and virtual tours.

Follow the @GreenWineGuide or @JerryJamesStone on Twitter or fan us on Facebook.

Tablas Creek Wine Pairing Recipes
Grilled Portabella Melt with Pepper Jack Cheese
Grilled Salad of Frisée, Grapes and Chèvre
More Recipes from the Green Wine Guide
Homemade Pizza with Cherry Tomatoes, Red Onion and Gorgonzola
Baked Apple Stuffed with Candied Ginger and Almonds
Indian-Spiced Tomato Soup
Seared Brussels Sprouts with a Smoked Gouda Sauce and Freshly Grated Horseradish
Chèvre-Stuffed Dates with Pomegranate Molasses and Chili Oil
More from the Green Wine Guide
Frog's Leap Winery: Saves 10 Million Gallons of Water a Year with Dry-Farming
Benziger: '60s Pot Farm Becomes Sonoma's First Certified Biodynamic Winery
Medlock Ames: An Organic Vineyard with Mini Cows and a Century-Old Biker Bar

Tags: Agriculture | California | Farming | Green Wine Guide | Organic Agriculture | Photo Galleries | Planet Green | Recipes | Wine

2014 Gift Guide

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK