Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> Exploring Paso Robles Part III

Exploring Paso Robles Part III
A Visit to "Tablas Creek and Midnight Cellars"
By, Doug and Linda Pendleton

Far and away, our most educational stop on this trip was our visit to Tablas Creek Vineyard. Founded in 1989 as a partnership between the Haas Family, owner of  importer Vineyard Brand and the Perrin Family, owner of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. One of the most famous estates in the Rhône, Châteu Beaucastel has been producing wine since the 1600s and been owned by the Perrin's for five generations. The Haas and Perrin families, after an extensive search, settled on the west side of Paso Robles as the best place in California to cultivate Rhône varietals. And that they did, importing and cultivating cuttings from Châteauneuf over the past 34 years until they now grow all 14 of the permitted Châteaunuef grape varietals. After establishing a nursery, they not only planted the Rhône grapes in their own vineyards, but also become Paso's largest supplier of grafted Rhône vines to other growers.

They are one of the very few wineries in California that are certified Organic and Biodynamic, demanding and expensive methods for producing wine. One of the first things our host, Darren Delmore, the winery sales manager, pointed out as we toured the vineyards is that lovely, well-manicured rows of grapes that you so often see in wine country are far from the healthiest environment to produce great grapes. Being Biodynamic means that shaggy cover crops fill the rows between the grapevines, where they are eaten by flocks of sheep to control the growth and return them as a natural fertilizer.

Of course, having 200 sheep is an undertaking unto itself since the sheep breeding must be controlled and the sheep protected from predators. In fact, when we noticed a donkey among the sheep, we learned that he is there to protect them from coyotes (with a vicious kick). Then we noticed a dog the size of a small pony and learned that Spanish Mastiffs had been brought in to also protect the sheep after a number of them had been taken by mountain lions, and to quote Darren, "They scare the S--- out of the cougars." They also maintain owl boxes to control rodents, nurture their own bee hives, and plant flowering plants and fruit trees to add to the biodiversity of the vineyard. As I said, Biodynamics is demanding, and it may not be pretty, but the wines it produces speak for themselves.

The location of the vineyards also benefits from the shallow, rocky limestone soils and calcareous clay in the area, as well as the proximity to the ocean that provides diurnal shifts that produce warm days and cool nights. The vineyards are dry-farmed and tended, and harvested entirely by hand.

The winery is state-of-the art, and the tasting room and grounds are beautiful and certainly worth a visit. Over lunch with Darren, we tasted through some amazing wines, including a Roussanne, an intense Rhône white, a classic Grenache Noir, and a Provencal-style Rosé, all of which were excellent. However, the hit of the day were their flagship wines, the Esprit de Tablas Blanc and Noir. These California expressions of Châteauneuf-du-Pape could easily stand side-by-side with the best that the French Rhône has to offer. In addition to their estate wines, they offer the more affordable Patelin de Tablas Blanc and Rouge, made from grapes sourced from growers who have planted their cuttings.









If Tablas was our most educational visit, Midnight Cellars certainly was our most nostalgic. Linda and I visited Midnight Cellars for the first time in 2008 and met owner Rich Hartenberger not long after when his wines were finally distributed in Indiana. In recent years, we've seen Rich almost every May since he has been making regular pilgrimages to see the Indy 500.

Midnight Cellars became a reality based on a casual comment, likely wine-fueled, Rich made in 1993 on a family wine trip to Napa when he suggested that his father start a winery and he'd run it. So when his father retired and did just that in 1995, Rich and his wife left the corporate world in Chicago, moved to Paso, and proceeded to plant 30 acres of grapes in the Willow Creek AVA, building a small winery on Anderson Road. And for the last 28 years, to quote Rich, "they've been living the dream." One thing I have to love about Rich is his honesty...that dream was and is a helluva lot of work. And when you realize that Constellation probably isn't going to swoop in and pay you $10 million for your winery, you do it because you love it. When we arrived in April, Rich was in a brace following back surgery, and we tasted on the veranda behind the tasting room, where Rich told us a little about the business.

After visiting the Daou's and Booker's, large wineries, with staff members for every task, Rich gave us some serious insight into what it's like to run a small family winery. You're the vineyard manager, winemaker, sales manager, HR director, and promotion director, all wrapped into one. Luckily, he has great staff, but to make things work at his scale, you have to have an active wine club, good distribution, and engage in constant promotion to keep people coming back. They have a Saturday evening concert series and events planned at the winery throughout the year. Rich even has one event called "Rib Night," where he brings in ribs from Carson's in Chicago for his customers.

Rich's wines are all made in a classic Paso Robles style from a wide range of grapes with an emphasis on Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet and Merlot but with interesting diversions like Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Grenache, Malbec, and even some Tannat. All are made in relatively small batches, totaling about 8,000 cases produced per year.  And I have to say they are one of those rare producers where I can say I have never tasted a wine they made that I didn't like! We generally carry a relatively large selection of the wines.