One of the first lessons I learned about wine is one I’ve never forgotten: “If it’s a good vintage, experiment: Try wine varieties you may not have liked in the past, and try wines made by new producers. But when it’s an off vintage, stick with the wineries you know you like,” explained Norman S. Roby, co-author of The New Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wines and wine instructor/student counselor at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. This down-to-earth wine expert was among my favorite teachers when I attended the academy from 1986 through 1988. That lesson will serve anyone who loves wine like I do.
- PHOTOS COURTESY OF TABLAS CREEK
- THROUGH GOOD TIMES AND BAD : Tablas Creek Winery provides consistently good wines, even during difficult years.
Many Europeans believe that California is consistent from year to year, but no California winemaker I know would agree. In Roby’s book, an invaluable tool for oenophiles, he and co-author Charles E. Olken point out that there’s always vintage variation: “Thus over the last 20 years, no two vintages have yet to be carbon copies in our experience. Producers and winemakers have to prove themselves in each and every year.”
I certainly learned through judging wines over the past 25 years that not all producers consistently produce very high quality wines each vintage. For instance, a Pinot Noir or Rhone blend I loved from the 2009 vintage may not impress me from the 2010 vintage, or vice versa. But I can still go to that producer and find something I’m sure to like, as I know I always can from the stellar Tablas Creek in Paso Robles.
Recently, I eagerly accepted an invitation from Jason Hass, partner and general manager of Tablas Creek, to come see their remodeled tasting room and try their new releases. It was no surprise that I found all of their wines quite impressive overall, despite difficult growing seasons in 2010 and 2011.
It had been a while since I visited Tablas Creek’s tasting room, which originally opened in 2002, but I knew it had been completely renovated. I loved the new concept, which is a brilliant idea every large tasting room should follow to better accommodate the many daily visitors. Tablas Creek’s consumer-friendly room has many tasting bars, so guests don’t have to line up behind people who don’t move away to allow others to get a pour. It’s especially convenient for large parties that come in via limousine or wine country tour specialists like Breakaway Tours or the Wine Wrangler.
Tablas Creek was founded in 1989 by the Haas and Perrin families, the latter family owner of the renowned Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Their original plans for Tablas Creek, named for the small creek on the estate, didn’t include a tasting room.
“When we started, we didn’t dream all these people would come all the way out here,” partner and general manager Jason Haas said candidly. “We had 30,000 people visit the tasting room last year.”
That number steadily rises annually, which is to be expected considering the quality of the wines winemaker Neil Collins and his team have made over the years.
Haas provided a facility tour, showing us the way the winery and tasting room were redesigned.
“We wanted to show guests what we’re all about, and not just a demo vineyard,” Haas said. “We moved the tasting room to the other side where people see the solar panels and vineyard as they entered.”
On the patio, we passed by potted grapevines that were the original “mother” vines imported from Beaucastel to plant the vineyard at Tablas. We also saw the donkeys and sheep that work on the estate. This comprehensive tour is available to guests daily at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., and it’s recommended that you make advance reservations by calling 237-1231 or e-mailing email@example.com.
Haas was enthused about showing us the new 150-acre parcel they’ve purchased on the south side of Tablas Creek. Previously a walnut orchard that laid fallow two years, it will provide another 65 to 75 acres of vineyards.
“We’ll start planting cover crops, but we won’t start planting a lot of vines at once,” he explained. “We plan to plant 12 acres a year over the next 12 years.”
The addition of Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc grapes will help them expand the Patelin label they launched in 2010. The Grenache Blanc-based Patelin de Tablas Blanc and Syrah-based Patelin de Tablas are made from both Tablas-grown grapes and purchased fruit from other top Rhone vineyards in Paso (listed on the back label). It was created to offer visitors a brand of exceptional value.
In the tasting room, the huge floor-to-ceiling windows allow guests to see the large French oak foudres (1,200-gallon casks) where they ferment their wines. Haas noted they started out using only one foudre for white wine, the Roussanne. It soon became the favorite in the cellar.
“It happened again with the Grenache Blanc,” he remembered, “and now the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc comes back to the foudres to age.”
The Perrins were so impressed by the quality, they changed their winemaking regimen at Beaucastel and started fermenting in foudres.
“We can also age in casks, so they’re useful year round,” Haas said.
A changeable board in the tasting room explains what’s going on the wine cellars year round to further the educational experience.
While tasting through the lineup of Tablas Creek white and red varieties and blends, and the Patelin wines, I found all of them distinctive and delicious despite two atypical vintages. But it was much more interesting tasting with the vintner who noted how each variety contributes to the final blend. One of the many benefits of wine appreciation is visiting a winery’s tasting room, where you’ll always learn something new—particularly so at Tablas Creek, where the staff is knowledgeable and friendly. By keeping your mind open to such lessons, you’ll find wine appreciation a fascinating pastime throughout your life.
Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.