The Regenerative GM: My Q&A with Tablas Creek’s Chief Terroir Officer Jason Haas

Jason Haas close up with vineyard backdrop

Earth Day is Thursday, April 22 and I can’t think of a better wine standard bearer, vineyard bon-vivant, herd-boss and planetary steward than Jason Haas (not to be confused with Adelita the Spanish Mastiff – the real herd-boss).

You met Jason, the General Manager and Partner at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles in my last blog post. He’s a bit of a rock-star and media darling in the wine press these days because of his visionary leadership in organic and biodynamic viticulture, piloting the exciting new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) in wine. Not only has the Tablas Creek team pioneered the Rhone wine movement across the U.S., but they’re consistently proving healthy, biodiverse vineyards produce better-tasting wines.

Jason and his team have also figured out how to put “the social” in social media. Their #farmliketheworlddependsonit communication strategy is inclusive, instructive and brings a boatload of joy to the wine and nature loving Tablas Creek community.  I’ve probably learned more about cover-cropping, pruning, ram DNA and sheep dung microbiology from the (U of) Tablas Creek Instagram page, than I have in all my wine production courses!

Below is a gently edited summary of my conversation with Jason. It’s true, I initially reached out to him to talk chalk, limestone and soil pits. But I quickly learned the Tablas Creek story runs much deeper.

As consumers evolve, I think our definition of wine terroir and fine wine is evolving with them, led in part by environmental champions like Tablas Creek.

Vineyards with brown barren soils – no matter how celebrated the wine – are remnants of an industrial age of farming.

Farming 2.0 must include regenerative agricultural practices like carbon capture, biodiversity, soil health, animal welfare, employee fairness, water management, the elimination of chemical inputs and soil tillage. For more information call the Regenerative GM, or better yet, follow the Tablas Creek Instagram for lessons in how to farm like the world depends on it.

Maybe it’s time we assign wine producers a Positive Environmental Impact score.

Let’s start here: Tablas Creek: Positive Environmental Impact score –  10/10!!

Donkey and sheep in vineyard
This is terroir: Fiona the donkey and friends. The sheep replace tractors, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help create healthy soils with the microorganisms from their cover-crop rich manure. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

white limestone wall of rock
Calcareous limestone is all its splendour. Porous, absorbent, fossil rich. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek bottle of wine and glass of wine
Côtes de Tablas: Grenache, Syrah, Counoise, Mouvèdre blend….on/from limestone. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

@amustread Interview with Jason Haas, GM and Partner at Tablas Creek Vineyard

Can you explain the value of digging soil pits?

Sure. Yea, we’ve done it a couple of times at different stages of development of the Tablas Creek vineyard.

The first time, we were at the point at which we were trying to wean the vines we initially planted off of irrigation so we could dry-farm. We wanted to know essentially how far down there was moisture in our rocks in late summer, because that’s really the essential thing…. determining if there’s moisture in a zone where the root can get to. For that, we dug a handful of different soil pits.

Paso Robles gets all its rain between November and April. Between May and October it just doesn’t rain here. So the goal is to train the roots of the vine to go down 10 – 15 feet where there’s moisture year-round.

If you travel to Paso the surface looks like it’s dry everywhere but we wanted to know is it dry in the top 3 feet, 6 feet, 9 feet? Does it vary by where you are in the vineyard? We know there’s an area in front of our tasting room at the bottom of a hill, if you go down two feet in Sept there’s still moisture flowing down that hill underground.

But, there’s other parts of the vineyard at the top of the hills where you have to go down 6 or 8 feet before you find moisture because it’s not being replenished, it’s just the residual moisture from the winter’s rain.

The other thing was before we started laying out a new vineyard block on the parcel that we bought in 2011, we actually worked with a Cal Poly professor to do a class project where they mapped the soil and 55 acres. At that point we were trying to understand what the soil types were and how much variation there was underground. Then we used that mapping to decide what grapes we wanted to put where.

Man holding a grapevine with very long roots
Viticulturist Jordon Lonburg pulls out a Counoise vine with 6-8 ft roots. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

What were the great insights?

One of the insights that was actionable for us was that there is moisture at the top of the hills, even when you get down 8 feet!!  And that tells us how long we should have to expect to train the newly planted vines before we can expect them to sail off on their own. We know roughly how fast they grow on this soil and how fast roots will get down in a year. Those soil pits helped us understand our time horizon for transitioning a newly planted block to be dry farmed.

And then the soil map on the new parcel they identified was on a fairly steep amphitheatre bowl. We learned there had been a landslide in that area several hundred years ago but there was a tongue of terrain at the bottom of the bowl that had a different soil type than the soils on the hillsides because it had slid down from a higher point. So there was much deeper soil there before you got down to the limestone or the calcareous bedrock.

Did that learning change your viticulture practices?

Those plantings are still a work in progress but it gave us confidence… and more data to work with.

The first set of soil pits gave us confidence to expand our dry farming to the hill-side blocks. Before that we were limiting dry farming to our valley floors which we know has deeper soils and more moisture because that’s where the moisture is draining.

I read dry farming was always your goal, recognizing water is such a valuable resource in California. So do you dry farm all of your vineyards?

The answer is somewhere between no and sort of…..

So there’s about 35 acres that we’ve planted with no irrigation infrastructure at all. Those are planted wider spaced so less vine density and with those we only gave them a little water in the first couple of years….we figure that reducing vine density from 1800 vines an acre to roughly 500 vines an acre that we have on these hillside blocks, that it’s going to give them enough ability to find what they need in the soil that’s accessible to them.

The other 70ish acres that we have that we planted earlier with 1800 vines an acres, in rows on trellises with irrigation lines, there, we’ve gotten to the point with the established blocks that are 10 or more years old, if we get normal rain in the winter, we don’t turn on the water at all during the year, unless there’s a huge heat spike and we’re super worried that the vines are really going to suffer late in the summer just before harvest….we retain the ability to intervene if we need to help out a block that’s under super high stress continuing to ripen.

And then if we have a drought year we can also help make up for the difference by irrigating in the late spring.

group shot of Tablas Creek vineyard owners
Tablas Creek owners the Perrin family from Château de Beaucastel (Cesar and Francois) and the Tablas Creek family Robert Haas, Jason Haas with winemaker Neil Collins. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

Is it Calcareous limestone in most of your vineyards? I know the largest vein of limestone in California runs through your backyard ….

Yup, west Paso and west Templeton have the largest vein of this type of soil in California. It’s between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south. The western and southern pieces of the Paso Robles AVA, on the eastern slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains have the state’s largest exposed calcareous layers. It’s largely because of this that we bought the property here in 1989.

When my dad (Robert Haas) and the Perrin brothers of Château de Beaucastel were looking for a place to found the winery that would become Tablas Creek, calcareous soils were one of main criteria they were looking to satisfy. The others were sun, heat, cooling and rainfall.

So soil pits provide a segue to soil health which I’m excited to talk about. How long have you been practicing organic and biodynamic farming?

We’ve farmed organically since inception – so that’s 1989. Beaucastel has been organic since the 1950s so we sort of started with that as a bit of a baseline.

In terms of biodynamics, there are some biodynamic things that we’ve been doing since the beginning but we got more serious about it in 2010 when we decided to take a 20-acre slice of the western edge of the property and farm it entirely biodynamically for the whole year. We loved the results from the block so much that we expanded it every year until we were farming the whole vineyard biodynamically. We got our biodynamic certification from Demeter in 2016.

spring cover crow between the rows of vines
Spring cover crop mingles with early buds. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

And the move to Regenerative Organic farming in 2018?

That really grew out of the biodynamic work we were doing and our belief that ….

So, biodynamics is wonderful but there are some parts that make us a little uncomfortable.  There’s that whole mysticism and astrology part that I think is dubious scientifically but at the same time there are important pieces like focusing on the biodiversity and the microbiome and just creating an ecosystem that’s in balance that just makes so much sense. And it’s essentially the farming gold standard.

And the opportunity to be part of the Regenerative Organic Certification that takes that focus on soil health and removes it from the astrology component and then adds measurable metrics in some areas that neither organics nor biodynamics touches like animal welfare and farmworker fairness seemed to us to be the way forward. It really is what a really great farming certification should do.

Are you seeing other vineyards moving in that direction?

Yes, we’re seeing it from two sides. From those who are already farming organically and biodynamically who are looking at this and doing the same calculus that we were having ….this feels like the next step in this journey we’ve been on. 

But we’ve also seen – and this is more powerful – we’re seeing people who have formerly just been in Sustainability certifications who may not be willing to do the legwork required in organic and who don’t believe in biodynamics, seeing that this all of a sudden has the breadth of the sustainable certs but the rigour of organic and biodynamics.

If we can get people out of those sustainability certifications that still allow the use of Roundup and still allow the use of chemical fertilizers that are half measures, towards making people better farmers and better corporate citizens and better community members into this ROC certification that uses the organic standards as the baseline and then builds all this other stuff around it? I mean, that’s a huge win!

Alpaca and sheep in vineyard with setting sun
Grazing….. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

I’m fresh from a conference this morning that looks at “regenerative economics” and the “doughnut economy” that’s about meeting the needs of all people within the means of the planet. It frames “regenerative” as a forward-thinking approach to business as a whole…

Yes! – it really is about a more holistic approach.

In Italy, there was a news story about a vineyard that was organic – and maybe even biodynamic – can’t remember, but they got in trouble for exploiting their workers. The idea that you can have a certification that is both rigorous and broad, that can be a proxy and gold standard for a business acting responsibly – not just environmentally but also socially – I think that’s something that there’s real demand for. And one of the things for us is I think this will become the gold standard for responsible farming.

Having a chance to be a part of that at the outset, having a chance to make sure the standards for the wine industry are crafted in the right way…. it’s such a huge honour to be asked, and it does feel like it has the potential to be really, really big.

Is organic top-of-mind for your wine consumers? Do consumers care enough that it’s factoring into their purchase decisions? I’m wondering where you think we are on that continuum?

Good question. Our wine consumers are a heterogenous group….they stretch in age and interest and where they come from. Some come to Tablas Creek because they’re Rhône lovers, or lovers of Paso Robles, or they know Beaucastel, or they read a review in Wine Spectator or saw a friend’s review on our Instagram. It’s super-hard to generalize.

But what I will say is people care and engage with the way we farm and the way that we do business.

That’s different from caring that we having an organic seal on our label. One of the real frustrations for me is the way the National Organic Standards were written really marginalizes organic farming for wineries in America and that’s a function of them saying if you use sulphites in your wine-making process you can’t use the National Organics winemaking seal and you are relegated to using “Made with Organic Grapes” which is the same phrasing used by other products that are less that 50% /75% organic.

And the implication is, ok – made with organic grapes and what other stuff!!???

The net impact has been the wines that have borne the organic seal in America have been made for an organic market and not a fine wine market and most of them, quite honestly, haven’t been very good. Which is why we’ve never used the organic seal. The Regenerative Organic Certification feels different to me – it feels like it’s in an entirely different class.

So that organic seal is coming?

Well, it’s all still so new that we’ve been going back and forth with the Regenerative Organic Alliance who then have been going back and forth with the National Organic Program and with the TTB that approves wine labels.

We’re still not at a point where we have been able to develop standards around what you’re able to do to put the ROC seal on a wine label. It will come, but it’s a process. We aren’t at the point where we can put the logo on our label. It feels early and the wines we’re selling are made from vintages before we got the certification. We didn’t get the certification until August 2020 and we’re currently selling 2017 and 2018…but it’s coming.

Sign pointing the way to Tablas Creek Vineyard and Domaine de Beaucastel
amustread and friends visit Tablas Creek in 2017
Bottles of red, white and rose wine on limestone rock
Rhone blends. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

Knowing the soils as you do, and recognizing the southern Rhone and Châteauneuf-du-Pape is blending country, is there a wine you make that truly captures Rhône Valley terroir? Part of your origin story with the Perrins and Château du Beaucastel was to find a location in California that did exactly that….

I don’t think it was just a grape or a couple of grapes. I think what we were looking for was “a place” that could do well across the breadth of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) grape portfolio. And CDP has a pretty sprawling collection of grapes. You’ve got things like Syrah that evolved in Northern Rhône and CDP is maybe too hot to make really great Syrah, but it’s right on the fringe. And then you’ve got things like Mourvédre and Grenache that evolved in Spain where CDP is as far north as you can reliably ripen them. So, at Beaucastel, you’re in this little sweet-spot where you can do all of them successfully. And that’s what we were looking for here. And I think we found it and I think that search was absolutely right.

The thing that we maybe didn’t realize was just how good this area would be for whites.

I think we thought it would be a little warmer than it turned out to be and we pick on average a week or ten days later than they do at Beaucastel – at the same sugars but with higher acids. So ….it’s cooler here. The grapevines will tell you it’s cooler here than it is at CDP and I don’t think we realized that at the beginning. I know when we first planted, it was a mix of 85% red and 15% white and the first change we made to that was to plant 20 more acres of white because we’ve discovered these Rhone whites are really, really good.

So, I think we were able to successfully find a place that would do well with the core Grenache, Syrah, Mourvédre components of a CDP blend. But I feel because of how cold the nights are here, and because of how long the growing season is, we actually have a wider selection of varietals that do well here than they do at Châteauneuf, and that’s been a pleasant surprise…a pleasant revelation for us and it’s what drove us to bring in all the rest of those “super-obscure” CDP varieties in the last decade.

We were surprised at how good Grenache Blanc was, and how good Counoise was, so that suggested we should really try all of them….maybe Clairette Blanche or Vaccarèse will also be amazing here ….we just don’t know because nobody has ever done it . Even in France these grapes are barely planted and tend to be thrown in as two percent of a blend so they’re not really being explored in the same way.

So there’s no specific grape I would point to …. I think Syrah’s been really good here. I think Mourvédre’s been really good here….but we expected that. Really, we were looking to find a space where that would work but I really think the whites have been a surprise.

Is it the calcareous soils, the diurnal a little of both?

Yea, I think it’s both. Given the calcareous soils are also what they’ve got in CDP and it’s why we’re here and not the Sierra Foothills or Sonoma or someplace else that has a good climate.

But there are distinct surface differences. There’s less topsoil here than in CDP….you go down 6 inches and you’re into that calcareous shale whereas in CDP you have to go around those galets and those rounded river stones that sit at the surface, and then 6 feet of soil and then that calcareous seabed.

So I think the signature of the calcareous soil is a little stronger here. But I think the cold nights is probably the biggest difference between here and CDP and the thing that we didn’t pay as much attention to at the beginning, because you’re not awake at 4 in the morning if you’re prospecting for vineyard land! You’re out during the day when it’s 95 degrees…

Team of men who work in vineyard at Tablas Creek
Tablas Creek Viticulture team. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard
Vines in vineyard and view across hills
Dry farmed, head trained Grenache vines. Photo credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

I want to get back to soil health and carbon capture which is a critical difference in this ROC certification

Yea. It’s really the piece that ties the whole regenerative organic piece together…

One of the things that we had to do differently to get the Regenerative Organic Certification is that we actually had to measure the carbon content of our soil b/c one of the things that regenerative organics is trying to do is foster practices that will pull carbon out of the atmosphere and fix it into the soil.

The idea is agriculture, if done right, can be part of the solution to climate change. So we could tell because we could see how healthy the cover crops were, we could tell because of vine health, we knew we were doing things that were good for the soil but we weren’t measuring it in that concrete of a way. And we had to start keeping records and measuring in the same blocks on a regular basis to make sure that the cover crops and animals we had grazing around and the other things we were doing like composting and biochar were actually building the carbon content of the soil.

It was really wonderful to do that and to actually see that it was. Even in this environment where it doesn’t rain for six months of the year and makes the whole process so much more difficult. But it was rewarding to see the carbon was increasing year after year and that the carbon content of the soil was comparable to what you’d find in wonderful, healthy organic fields in places like Virginia and New York where they have a much friendlier climate for this kind of work.

We were doing all those things…. getting the sheep in the rows, laying down biochar, planting cover crops, but not hard measuring their impact except to say those vines look healthy this year. To actually measure and see the progress? It’s just so rewarding.

Feature Photo: Photo Credit: Tablas Creek Vineyard

ORDER TABLAS CREEK IN CANADA: Canadians can contact Charton Hobbs for private orders of Tablas Creek wine.

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