What do the Rhone region of France and the western edges of Paso Robles have in common?
Quite a lot, it turns out.
Winery: Tablas Creek Vineyard
Wine AVA: Paso Robles
Varietals: Rhone (Reds: Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, and Counoise. Whites: Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Picpoul.)
When I called John Morris, Tablas Creek Tasting Room Manager, the day before to inquire about a tour and the possibility to ask some questions on behalf of our Great Flavors community, he was the epitome of helpful.
“If you can arrive at 10:00, we’ll have time to talk before the tour at 10:30, and after the tour, you can have a wine tasting.”
As we drove up the 101 on an early November Saturday morning, we expected to be the only people ready for a wine tasting so early in the morning.
The restful and appealing tasting room, with polished wood and a glass wall looking into the aging room, is surprisingly busy.
The Terroir of Tablas Creek
John introduces us to Lauren Phelps, Marketing Coordinator. As we sit down in the office off the tasting room, I share that I learned about Tablas Creek from my friends Essie and Bob, who know a lot about wine and California winemaking, especially in the Napa and Sonoma areas. Not only that, but I had noticed that, of the hundreds of wineries in the Central Coast, The World Atlas of Wine (7th edition, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson) chose to include Tablas Creek in its very small list for the Paso Robles AVA.
She smiles. “Tablas Creek definitely appeals to those who are starting to appreciate the nuances of wine and those with sommelier leanings.” So what is it about the wines that makes them different from some others?
“Tablas Creek is about maintaining and invigorating the sense of terroir – the sense of place – of this special property,” she said. Named after Tablas Creek that runs through the property, the 120 planted acres are dry-farmed and the vineyard has its organic certification. Not only that, but the vineyard has set a goal of attaining 100% biodynamic certification, a process that is much more difficult to earn than organic certification.
We believe strongly in wines of terroir — the French term best translated as “somewhereness” — and choose our vineyard and winemaking practices to maximize our chances of expressing our terroir in our wines.
Our goal is to produce wines with a true reflection of their varietal character, of the place where they were grown, and of the vintage that they came from.
Some of the aspects of biodynamic farming are using alpaca, sheep, and donkeys to graze the cover crops, controls weeds, add natural fertilizer, and till the soil with their hooves.
“We use only what is found on the land to produce our wines, just as our sister winery Chateau de Beaucastel does in France,” she says. That extends from the dry-farming practices to fermenting the grapes only with native yeasts that occur naturally, rather than adding yeast to assist the fermentation.
Rhone Roots and Paso Robles’ Welcome
While Tablas Creek was founded in 1989, its roots go much deeper and extend all the way to the Rhone region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It’s there, in the 1960s, that Tablas Creek founder Robert Haas met the Perrin family (six generations deep as top winemakers) and began a long relationship of importing their wines long before he thought of importing their vineyard stock.
For four years in the mid 1980s, the Haas and Perrin families searched for the right soil, climate, and terrain that would allow the Rhone varietals to prosper in the US. They found it at Tablas Creek: limestone soils that can hold 40% of their weight in water, hot summer days and cool nights, a long growing season, and rugged terrain that challenges the grapevines to grow deep roots.
“The land was a nursery before it was a vineyard,” says Phelps. Before the first grapevines were planted at Tablas Creek, the plants were imported from Chateau de Beaucastel and waited in quarantine for three years. Once they made it to Tablas Creek, the vines were grafted and planted in 1994, eventually producing fruit for its first vintage in 1997.
It’s time for our 10:30 tour, and as we wrap up our conversation, Lauren transitions to the wines themselves. “It’s easy for everyone to find a wine they like at Tablas Creek,” she said, “because there are so many to choose from.”
She added, “Our wines are low oak, have lower alcohol levels, and are less jammy – more like European wines. Some can be laid down 20 or 30 years, while others are made to be drinkable much sooner.”
Touring Tablas Creek
Lauren introduces us to Laurel, who will be our tour guide and then tasting assistant. We head first past the stone sheep barn and natural pond (integral to the biodynamic cycle) to the grafting shed. Using the splicing tool, Laurel cuts a perfect edge on a twig.
“We used to graft all our stock here in the grafting shed,” shares Laurel, who’s a student at Cal Poly, “but the job is now done offsite.”
Our small tour group – just the Flavor Team and a couple visiting from the Sacramento area – walk through the vines and we can see by the scarcity of grapes that harvest is complete.
“We hand pick each block, and go back two or three times to pick the ripe grapes and leave the rest to continue to ripen,” she says. It takes longer, but the result is better quality and increased yield from drought-stressed vines.
From there, we see the sorting and crushing machines, and then enter the cool fermentation rooms. We’re dwarfed by the 1,200-gallon French oak foudres used for aging the wines for a year, while Laurel describes her “celler rat” job of cleaning the fermenters.
Back to the Tasting Room
After the tour, our group heads to the tasting room. Laurel pours six wines — two whites and four reds — starting with Grenache Blanc 2015 and finishing with Espirit de Tablas 2014, and offers a few off the list.
Someone asks why Tablas Creek primarily makes blended wines, rather than using a single varietal. This approach follows the Chateauneuf-du-Pape tradition of blending chosen varietals to produce wines that are more complex and elegant, better balanced, and richer than single varietal wines.
Laurel also shares her best advice for making a day of wine tasting. “Bring a cooler, stop at the Trader Joe’s right off the 101, load up on cheese, crackers, fruit, snacks, and waters, and you have a picnic ready to go at every winery you visit.”
Good advice. Next time we head to the Paso Robles AVA for another tasting at Tablas Creek and other great wineries, we’ll do just that.
Have you been to Tablas Creek? What did you think? Do you like Rhone wines? Let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information:
Tablas Creek Vineyard
Read more in our Winemaker Focus and Winery Spotlight series:
Winemaker Focus: Stephen Ross Dooley | Stephen Ross Wine Cellars
Winemaker Focus: Mary Bradley (ila and Gra Wines)
Winery Spotlight: Talley Vineyards