When I called Jason Haas, the spirited, (staggeringly!) prolific General Manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California it was ostensibly to talk chalk.
If you’ve driven the dry, winding, oak-strewn roads of the western Adelaida wine district of Paso Robles (I worked harvest there in 2017) you know there’s a white, dusty cloud of calcium carbonate that follows you everywhere. The chalky, mineral-rich, limestone soil responsible for this dust is actually ‘the X factor’ in some of the world’s finest wines (think: Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne).
Remarkably, there’s a rare band of this calcareous limestone seabed on the eastern slope of the Central Coast range of California, and it just happens to run smack dab through the rolling hills of Tablas Creek Vineyard.
But talk to Jason, read his wine blog, follow his Instagram page or listen to his IGTV interviews and you quickly realize the incredible success of Tablas Creek’s delicious, Rhone-inspired wines is as much due to the thriving above-ground ecosystem as it is the famed calcareous rocks below the surface.
According to Jason, you can “chalk” it up to two things: carbon farming and soil fertility. Harness the carbon genius of nature (plant photosynthesis) and you increase the nutrient and water holding capacity of vineyard soils. Increase the water storage capacity and nutrient-dense, microbial life of the soil and you increase plant growth and resiliency of the vines. Healthy, resilient vines – built from the top down – better express the all-important ‘sense of place’ and ‘terroir’ of the vineyard.
Which is kinda the high bar for wine, n’est ce pas?
It naturally follows, if you get that healthy soil balance right, you can absolutely ‘dry-farm’ (no-low irrigation) vineyards in high-stress, low water resource environments like Paso Robles. And sure as the sun rises in the east (ish), stressed vines will always dig deep through soil and bedrock cracks and fissures in search of minerals, nutrients and moisture.
With no rain for six months of the year, the balancing act for Tablas Creek is to carefully manage vine stress while maximizing beneficial microorganisms and harnessing the unique potential of these subterranean limestone soils. What’s best? At Tablas Creek they do all this regeneratively and organically, without the terroir-destroying, chemical ‘treadmill’ of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Regenerative Agriculture – #farmliketheworlddependsonit
Hang out in the Tablas Creek Instagram community and you are struck with an abiding sense of hope.
Lush green vineyards abound, there are ridiculously cute sheep, alpacas and herd dogs everywhere, wine club members (7,000+ strong) gush about the wines, and Jason is always smiling. Surely, this is wine terroir at its best.
The farming practices adopted at Tablas Creek are part of a new standard called regenerative organic agriculture. Jason and the viticulture team began piloting this exciting new organic framework in 2018. Two years later, in August, 2020 they became the first winery in the world to secure the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) title.
Is this a big deal?… asked my husband when I did my own gushing about the regenerative GM (see my next blog post for our Q&A). “Yea, I think it is,” I replied. “There’s more industry leadership and accountability here. It’s top down. And it feels like a movement.”
The Circle of Life
In a nutshell, regenerative agriculture is about carbon farming and doing right by the planet. It’s about forging a brighter future through better more responsible farming. It’s estimated agriculture – including viticulture – contributes 10% of U.S. greenhouse gases (GHG) and use 80 % of ground and surface water!
Regenerative practices flip the model to make farming part of the solution.
Regenerative agriculture sees the vineyard as part of a healthy ecosystem. It encompasses soil health, animal welfare and farmworker fairness, dialing up ‘social responsibility’ well beyond current USDA organic certification guidelines. It’s an evolving practice that looks to rebuild and restore carbon, generate organic nutrient matter, preserve living soil networks (mycorrhizal fungi, nematodes, bacteria, protozoa, arthropods, etc), increase soil moisture, reduce erosion and protect watersheds by minimizing disturbance of the land.
(Forget your soil biology? Here’s a fun grade 3 primer!)
At Tablas Creek, specific regenerative practices include composting and growing winter cover crops in the vineyard for 6 months of the year. The goal of the winter cover-crop is to maximize moisture in the soil, encourage photosynthesis and ‘drawdown’ carbon energy from the atmosphere so it’s locked in plant roots, soil and bedrock (called carbon sequestration, carbon farming, carbon sink). They use an organic mix of legumes and grasses to convert nitrogen into plant food (“fix” nitrogen), replenish the soil’s microorganisms and ensure crop diversity.
Tablas Creek also invites sheep into the vineyard to graze this cover crop. The sheep, in turn, fertilize the soils and recycle carbon back into ground. You’ve heard of no-till? The sheep replace tractors in a no-till vineyard so carbon remains in the soil and doesn’t get released into the atmosphere (C02). And they respect, reward and welcome all farmworkers into the viticultural, well-being economy that is Tablas Creek.
Spearheaded by the Regenerative Organic Alliance and some of the most environmentally progressive and ethical companies in the world (Rodale Institute, Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s), these regenerative practices are equal parts fresh thinking and climate-positive strategies. Companies whose products fall under the food, fiber and personal care ROC umbrella can apply to adopt this standard. What’s exciting, is Tablas Creek was one of the many progressive companies in the Pilot and were joined by Nature’s Path (Saskatchewan), Apricot Lane Farms (Biggest Little Farm!!!), Sol Simple (Nicaraugua), Grain Place Foods and many more.
For the regenerative leadership team at Tablas, it’s clearly a next-generation winemaking philosophy that’s about future-proofing the planet and the industry.
Who wouldn’t want to buy these wines!!!
American Rhone winemakers and wine enthusiasts have Jason’s father, Robert Haas to thank for the incredible diversity of Rhone varietals in the US market. This group of Rhone champions, known as the Rhone Rangers, includes celebrated Central Coast producers like Paul Draper (Ridge), Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon), Bob Lindquist (Qupé/Verdad/Linquist Family) and Gary Eberle (Eberle Winery)….to name a few.
Robert Haas died in 2018, but when he was asked about his legacy in a Rhone Rangers tribute video, he said this: “Everyone here – Jason, our winemaker Neil, me – we’re all clear on the direction we want Tablas Creek to take: to create wines of elegance, grace and tradition and [to ensure] stewardship of the land with a view toward the future.
It’s clearly a mission statement that guides wine production and environmental ethics at Tablas Creek every day of the year.
“Tablas Creek has been committed to stewardship and organic viticulture from the get-go,” confirms Jason. “That was the baseline for us. Our partners, the Perrin Family have been farming organically since 1964 and we thought we’d like to dry farm like them, give it a go, and then adjust moving forward.”
The Perrin Family is of course the Perrin Family of Château de Beaucastel fame in the Rhone Valley. Jason’s father, American wine importer Robert Haas, began importing Beaucastel Rhone wines into the U.S. in 1967. Eventually, the two families agreed to try planting a Rhone Valley vineyard in California to riff on the Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) blend. According to Jason, his dad and the Perrin Family were looking for the right combination of climate, rainfall, ocean influence and of course, limestone soil.
In 1989, after a four-year search, the business partners discovered the 120-acre alfalfa farm and cattle ranch on the coveted vein of limestone in West Paso Robles by Las Tablas Creek. Importing French vines from Beaucastel, the U.S. quarantine process, and propagating high-quality clonal material took four years. In 1994 Tablas Creek had enough high-quality vine material to plant their first batch of eight southern Rhone varietals, a mix of CDP and Côtes du Rhone grapes (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Marsanne).
Today, 32 years later, they’re up to 24 varietals – all 13 of the CDP grapes and an eclectic mix of obscure and under-appreciated southern Rhone varietals.
In the early years, Tablas Creek started a nursery business on the side, selling Rhone grapevine cuttings to more than 600 wineries around the west coast of the United States. “We thought a rising tide would raise all boats,” said Robert Haas. “We didn’t want to keep this exclusively to ourselves.”
ROC = Return on Terroir
Over the years, Jason’s storytelling mission has been to explain the character and provenance of Tablas Creek’s Rhone Valley wines and to celebrate the joy and practices associated with stewardship of the land.
(Wine geek warning: the TC IG Live series is full-on addictive…)
Jason believes regenerative organic farming, including dry farming, gives them the best chance of expressing the character of their beloved Rhone varietals and Tablas Creek’s sense of place.
“Our commitment to organic led to biodynamic farming with its commitment to creating a holistic, complete farm unit. We didn’t need to bring in things from outside. But if you don’t bring in things from outside how do you handle soil fertility?”
According to Jason, one of the things that’s lacking in most farm ecosystems and in viticulture specifically, is animals. So, in 2012 Tablas Creek brought in a dozen sheep. “That was successful and kind of fun and we built up that flock and now we’ve got about 200 sheep, some alpacas, a donkey, a llama and a bunch of dogs.”
The sheep graze the cover crop in the winter, fertilize with their manure and the Tablas Creek shepherd, Nathan Stuart, keeps them moving around (Meet TC shepherd and herd-boss Nathan Stuart here https://www.instagram.com/tv/B_DD8nyJTv4/ )
Eighty percent of the carbon in the grass is returned through the sheep manure to the soil where it builds up over time. And the sheep’s hooves aerate the soil, avoiding compaction so the viticulture teams can avoid tractor runs.
“The impact is dramatic, “says Jason. “200 sheep drop around 800 pounds of manure a day. If you you think about the cumulative impact of putting all that fertility, nutrition and carbon back in the soil every day….and the more you increase the carbon content of your soil the better the water-holding capacity which is a really critical thing for Paso Robles where it’s dry for 6 months of the year.”
And now they’re doing this at Beaucastel in Gigondas. “It’s pretty cool to see.”
Changemaker: Someone who wants to make a positive impact
The term changemaker is thrown around in the wine world a lot. But if we can agree a changemaker is someone, something, some place that’s making the world a little more hopeful, then I think the descriptor fits.
For Jason and the team at Tablas Creek, regenerative, organic and biodynamic farming methods are redefining what real terroir is, one Rhone varietal at a time. It’s fair to say wine – and the environment – are better for it.
NOTE: you can read my full Q&A with Jason on Earth Day, April 22.
Feature Photo: Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard
ORDER TABLAS CREEK IN CANADA: Canadians can contact Charton Hobbs for private orders of Tablas Creek wine.